It’s a Process, Right?

A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of differing perspectives, economic burdens, incomplete knowledge and the changing nature of a problem. That is the definition of a wicked problem. In all honesty, when I signed up for this class, I just thought they were describing sustainability problems with the adjective wicked. Never did it cross my mind that wicked problems were a real thing. These problems are more than just a definition though, they provoke our minds, emotions and even bodies. People can spend their time obsessing over wicked problems, but the reality is there is not one concluding solution.

In my journey of understanding wicked problems, I have come to know that wicked problems are about more than the facts of the situation. True it is helpful to have knowledge in the area of a problem so you can create a solution, but it’s not that simple of a transaction. There is a problem, someone comes up with a solution. Not in the case of a wicked problem. And the problem with not being able to come up with a solution isn’t always necessarily that there is no possible solution, but rather our humanity gets in the way of creating one, singular, concluding solution. You see, each person has their own set of beliefs, morals, and emotions that can be influenced by culture, religion, and even societal norms. It is only reasonable to accept that as a society, we will never agree upon one thing. The best way to explain this would be to give an example of a wicked problem. In light of our recent project, consider sweatshops. Sweatshops use cheap labor to produce products quickly, and at little expense. Although, their labor source is mainly vulnerable immigrants, or people from underdeveloped countries that are stripped of their human rights, and work long hours, in dangerous environments, with little pay. The easy solution to this would be to eradicate sweatshops because they are inhumane, right? Well, in the perspective of the manufacturing companies, getting rid of sweatshops would decrease their profits because it increased the labor costs, and then if the labor cost were to rise they would have to charge more for their products. Which then brings us to the consumers perspective, of they would have to pay more for products that used to be cheap. And there is also the problem of the sweatshops workers being out of a job, going from little income to none. So you see, everyone has their own opinions and emotions about every subject, so it is impossible to agree on one solution. 

Part of what plays into wicked problems is mindfulness, the ability to be fully present and aware of what effect we are having on the world. People a lot of times don’t even realize the effect they are having on other people, let alone the environment. I am guilty of this as well. I would have never thought about where my clothes actually go after I donate them, or sell them somewhere. It’s pretty much universal knowledge these days to know that we are slowly killing the planet, but do people know exactly how they are contributing to that? Would they continue their cycle of unsustainability if they did? Now that I am using mindfulness practices everyday in the form of meditating on the bible and praying, I feel more aware of what I say to people, how I treat them, and how each of my choices are affecting others. This has shown me the importance of mindfulness, and the role it plays in sustainability because you cannot solve a wicked problem without first knowing that it exists, and that your actions may be a part of it.

When we respond to wicked problems, I think a lot of the time we think we can create an end-all solution. I tend to think this way a lot. But in part of my journey of understanding wicked problems I’ve found that the undeniable truth is that we can’t create one end-all solution. That’s where humility, and compassion comes into play. It takes a humble person to be able to admit that there is no solution, that we as society cannot create a solution that could solve a wicked problem. Another part of that is being compassionate toward yourself and others. Saying that it’s okay to not know all the answers. For me, a specific example of showing humility and compassion would be when I first started my mindfulness practices. We started using mindfulness practices as a way to gain awareness so we could approach wicked sustainability problems. When I first began I would get distracted a lot, and I would have to restart what I was doing a lot. I had to use compassion to not get frustrated with myself, but to just keep trying, which was also a humbling process because I couldn’t be prideful in something I wasn’t good at. Another example would be in the fashion industry, when a designer is making a product that will one day end up as waste, being mindful of that, and approaching that problem, humbly, recognizing that their product will not always be liked, or popular, so they only need to make what people need, not how much they want to sell. I am personally working toward understanding that there is a humble and compassionate way to approach a problem because I didn’t understand that concept at first. In fact, my first thought was what do solving wicked problems and humility have to do with each other. But, now I realize that you can’t create solutions toward a wicked problem without first recognizing that you cannot solve the problem completely. That brings a whole different attitude to approaching wicked problems.

All in all, my journey in understanding wicked problems is still going, but I have a much better idea of what they are and how to approach them now than I did before. Wicked problems encompass the whole of our being; body, mind and emotions. And the best way to approach a wicked problem is in humility and compassion.

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