Complex Wicked Problems

Updated: Aug 19

Systems innovation is designed to try and tackle what we call wicked problems, which are highly complex and difficult issues, examples might include; global cybersecurity, inequality, the question of global governance, issues associated with the financialization of our economies, as well as international crime, terrorism, urban renewal projects or many of the forms of environmental degradation that we face. The defining feature of these issues is that they are not isolated problems but they are in a sense emergent features of the complex systems that make up our world.[1]

We increasingly find that our economies and social organizations are no longer confined to these closed systems that fit nicely inside of the nation-state but instead if we look we will see that our food, our clothes, our media, our cars, our money are part of this very complex global network that now spans around the planet; unfortunately our science and much of our thinking has left us in a situation where we are far from understanding these complex systems and the new set of issues they present.

Peter Senge puts it well when he says[2] “whether you talk about energy, food or water, we live in this web all of us we don’t know where our food comes from and the consequence of the systems that produce and distribute it, we don’t know where our energy comes from and we don’t know the consequences of our use of it. We don’t know much about anything that affects our daily living because we live in an extraordinary web of systemic interdependence, it is, in my opinion, the defining feature of this age… and we are totally unprepared for it, we don’t know how to see it, we don’t know how to think about it.”

These very complex networks that we have created and now run our global economy not only deliver all the good things that we want but they also create dysfunctionalities; it is these dysfunctionalities within complex networks that may be called wicked problems.


Wicked problems are systemic and emergent, in that it is the very way that the parts interact locally that creates the emergent outcome of the problem. As a consequence wicked problems cannot be isolated and tackled through the traditional linear approach. The patterns that characterize them form through self-organization within an almost infinite number of individual interactions. An overall structure emerges that incentivizes individuals to act in a particular way due to local incentives that perpetually create the same emergent overall behavior. Because the overall pattern emerges through endless interactions across dense networks, their many cause-effect relations can never be fully mapped out in real time.[3]

As an example, we can think of the issue of bribery within a society. If individuals across a network exchange bribes and corruption take hold as a systemic pattern, it will create the incentives for even more individuals to adopt similar behaviors, while limiting those who might still wish to not engage. As more individuals accept this corruption as part of normal behavior, it will gain traction. This pattern is not a fixed structure with a single identifiable cause, it is rather a dynamic outcome of a multiplicity of distributed interactions. The pattern is continuously created on a daily basis through a network of interactions.[3]


As the famous American writer H.L. Mencken, once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”[4] With these complex problems, there is no simple solution and there is no one solution, you have to affect the system at multiple points. This adds to the challenge because it reduces the focus of our effort. Our experience, which has been developed from exposure to simple systems, leads us to look close to the manifestation of the issue for a cause and solution. Most initiatives in the world are focused on a specific solution because this enables them to focus and concentrate their capabilities and resources and thereby exert a large enough influence to try and solve the given issue. This looks good, it may get you elected and it may even work if the problem is relatively simple, but if it is truly complex all that will happen is that you move the problem to another place in the system or push it out into the future; while one person claims their successes and blames others when it reoccurs, we really just go round in circles.

Complex problems quite simply require multiple interventions by multiple different actors, which is counter to our traditional approach. When we have a problem our traditional approach is to centralize power. If there is a problem with housing in a country, what will we do? We will create a high commission or head of housing and concentrate authority and capital in that position, expecting them to create a strategy and use their authority and resources to move people and things around to solve the problem, when it doesn’t work we just blame the person we put in charge. This is a very seductive approach because people like to have power, people like to have a feeling that someone is in charge and can get things done and we like to have someone to blame when it does not work. This creates a comforting feedback loop as we stay pushing the problem around in circles, but it does not work to solve the problem.


Complex systems are multidimensional and multi-layered and multi-scaled. You have to look at it from all of these dimensions and develop a solution on the different levels and across the different dimensions, solving for one dimension or one problem will not be sufficed. This is why we talk about systems innovation and system change because with a complex problem you actually have to change the whole system by affecting multiple different areas. This is the idea of multi-solving, which says maybe all these issues aren’t separate where we have to pit them against each other and see the issues as separate creating a new working group to go and tackle each one, we can instead step back and look at the whole system, how the parts are interrelated and a change in one will affect another domain; looking for synergistic solutions that will solve for many factors.[5]

Take for example the water-food-energy nexus. This nexus perspective increases the understanding of the interdependencies across the water, energy and food sectors and looks at how they may affect climate change and biodiversity. A nexus-based approach tries to reduce trade-offs and build synergies across sectors recognizing that it may not be possible to solve a problem within one domain without solving an interrelated one in another domain. Thus it aims to increase opportunities for mutually beneficial responses and enhancing the potential for cooperation between and among all sectors. As with all interdisciplinary approaches it recognizes that interdependencies lead to the need for a collaborative approach, the need to develop multi-stakeholder platforms.[5]

The general idea is that as issues go from being relatively simple to being relatively complex they go from being closed and independent to becoming open and interdependent. As a consequence, our approach has to shift from the traditional closed organization focusing resources on a single issue to creating open platforms that work with the relations between the parts which form the whole emergent outcome; this is a systems approach.

1. (PDF) Systemic innovation labs: a lab for wicked problems. (2020). Retrieved 19 August 2020, from

2. YouTube. (2018). Ten Years Hence Speaker Series – Peter Senge. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jul. 2018].

3. Social Acupuncture. (2018). 1. Social Acupuncture – An Introduction. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Jul. 2018].

4. A quote by H.L. Mencken. (2020). Retrieved 19 August 2020, from

5. What Is Multisolving? - Climate Interactive. (2020). Retrieved 19 August 2020, from

Systems Innovation

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