Wrestling Down Wicked Problems with System Thinking

Updated: Aug 13

When the fifteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg recently addressed the U.N. plenary in Katowice, Poland, she had a bold message to communicate “if solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself.” Greta was speaking the new language of system change without even being aware of it, a new vocabulary that helps us to understand the complex challenges societies face today as “wicked” and in response calling for innovation on a systemic level.

In this post, I want to talk about this new vocabulary and how systems thinking provides much of the conceptual tools to tackle these wicked problems in the holistic fashion required for success.

With developed economies reaching the end of the process of industrialization we have witnessed the rise of new forms of highly complex challenges that have moved to the forefront of social concerns. We increasingly find that our economies and social organizations are no longer confined to closed systems that fit nicely inside of the nation-state but instead if we look we will see that our food, our clothes, our films, our cars, our money are part of this very complex global network that now spans around the planet. 

This globalized economy creates all the good things we like, but it also creates these highly complex issues such as climate change, inequality, environmental degradation, terrorism, global financial instability, multi-cultural integration or cybersecurity. The defining feature of these issues is that they are not isolated problems but they are in a sense emergent features of the very systems through which we organize ourselves today.

If we turn the clock back a hundred years or two hundred years we will see that the kind of challenges societies faced, although complicated were much simpler. The challenge of building and coordinating the railroads, of building the modern nation-state and the bureaucracy required to provide its public services effectively; we had the challenge of building skyscrapers for the first time, of flying around the world or landing someone on the moon. 

Today we can do all of these things relatively easily, we can manage complicated rail networks that span the entire European continent and we can build skyscrapers virtually anywhere in the world like we are cutting out cookies. Although these problems are certainly not simple, they are different from a problem like escalating inequality and it is these complex systemic challenges that are a central part of 21st Century reality.

It is interesting to note that in many ways these wicked problems can be understood to have derived from the standardized set of solutions we developed during the Industrial Age, the combustion of fossil fuels that served us so well for centuries being a classical example. As Einstein would say “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” These wicked problems today require a new skill set and more collaborative networked systems of organization to tackle.

The terms system innovation and systems change have arisen in parallel to the idea of wicked problems as a new language is now entering the public sphere, seeing problems as “interdependent”,  involving significant levels of “uncertainty” and most of all “complex”. In the face of a growing recognition to the systemic, interconnected, interdependent and ever-evolving nature of these challenges, the term system innovation has arisen as a systems-based approach to enabling systemic transformation and sustainable solutions. 

In a nutshell, I would say that systems innovation is about using systems thinking to understand and map out a complex system towards enabling transformative change. Let me go over each of these to illustrate what I mean and the importance of each.

Systems Thinking

The problem with Greta Thunberg’s call to change systems is that changing systems is not easy, they are inherently resistant to deep structural changes. Such changes can’t be achieved on a superficial level but require going back to the underlying structures, most notably the mental models that people are using which have created the system’s structure and created the boxes that people find themselves within. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking to see new solutions – this paradigm shift I would argue is systems thinking. 

The reductionist form of thinking that became so dominant in the modern era has enabled us to achieve many great things but it has also created all the silos and boxes that we now find are inhibiting us from collaborating and working together in a synergistic networked fashion around these wicked problems – breaking out of these silos requires a fresh perspective.

Systems thinking is a way of thinking characterized by a holistic view of the world, which means that we are always looking at things in relation to the whole that they form part of; when looking at a plant we try to understand it in the context of the whole ecosystem; looking at a car in the context of the whole transport system. Systems thinking is about looking at the world in terms of connections; patterns of organization and how the system behavior emerges out of those networks of interactions.

Systems thinking is a paradigm or method of reasoning that focuses upon the interconnections between things and their context within the integrated whole that they are a part of. It represents an alternative to our traditional scientific method of reasoning called analysis that functions through the breaking down of complex phenomena into smaller parts. Systems thinking instead uses the method of synthesis to reason upwards from the given subject matter to understand its function within the environment it is a part of. 

To illustrate this, we could take the example of designing a car. If a car manufacturing company employed us to design their next great model, we could take two different approaches to this problem, applying analytical thinking or systems thinking. If we approached the problem from a traditional perspective, we would start by analyzing the car and looking for ways to optimize it. We might come up with a design that minimizes the car’s drag by reducing its height by a few centimeters to increase its fuel efficiency.

If one was to apply systems thinking to this problem, we would start by identifying the car’s function within its environment, that is, personal transportation, and the system it is a part of, the transportation system. From this perspective, we might not even need to design a new car, but end up designing some service that connects pre-existing resources to provide the same desired functionality. From this example, we can see how systems thinking is often employed when the current paradigm or way of doing things has reached its limit and gives us a fresh perspective on things that is the source of “out of the box” thinking.

The key characteristics of systems thinking include; a focus on relations over components; divergent over convergent thinking, i.e. exploring the full space of possibility; holistic contextualization over analysis of individual properties; a focus on dynamics over a static view of the world; on open systems rather than closed. Changing the paradigm to one that is more holistic and networked puts us on the right track for success, however, it is of course just the starting condition. Beyond this, we need a more detailed set of models for understanding this new world of complexity, this new set of models we call complexity theory which helps us to gain traction on really understanding and mapping out the workings of these complex systems that we wish to influence.

Complexity Theory

Systems thinking is a paradigm, which is to say that it is the underlying assumptions and thought processes that shape our world view. We can see how system thinking is quite general and before we can do anything practical we are going to have to bring it down to earth somewhat. Complexity theory is more of a science which provides a number of concrete and specific models to help with this.

All of the large-scale systems we are interested in when talking about wicked problems are complex adaptive systems; food systems, energy systems, political systems, health systems, financial systems, etc. A complex system is typically a large-scale system composed of many interdependent diverse parts that are dynamically changing.

Wicked problems are complex which means we can not just go and tackle them in the traditional linear fashion, but instead we have to look at the structure of the system around the issue which is creating the underlying dynamics that result in that emergence outcome. There are several different insights and models from complexity theory that can help with this, top of the list is the notion of emergence.


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. 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.

As an example, we can think of the issue of bribery within a society. If individuals across a network exchange bribes and corruption takes 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 daily through a network of interactions.


This continuous creation is what we call self-organization. Self-organization is another area of complexity theory that deals with how global coordination within a system can result out of the local interactions between member parts. The theory of self-organization has grown out of many different areas from computer science to ecology and economics. Out of these areas has emerged a core set of concepts that are designed to apply to all self-organizing systems, from galaxies to living cells, to schools of fish. 

Centralized command and control forms of organization are limited in capacity when dealing with complex problems, what is needed are more open collaborative forms that engender various aspects of self-organization between a diversity of members. Here again, complexity theory provides a concrete set of models to understand the dynamics of self-organization that have huge relevance when trying to coordinate a dispersed set of members within a networked.

Game Theory

It is now widely recognized that many of these wicked problems take the form of a tragedy of the commons game dynamic. Climate change, overfishing, plastic pollution, traffic congestion, lack of international political cooperation, conflict over scarce resources, etc. can all be understood as tragedies of the commons. We often hear the call for more collaboration around these issues but rarely actually see forms that work. This is to a large extent due to the fact that we do not understand the real structure of incentives towards cooperation or competition in the system. It is here that game theory – another area of complexity theory – can be of great help as it offers many models and decades of research into the dynamics of cooperation and competition.

Network Thinking

All complex systems are highly interconnected and this gives them a networked architecture, the structure of this network of connections comes to be more important to the system state and behavior than any individual component. Here network theory provides models to start to reason about the structure of these networks. 

Complex systems are multidimensional and multi-layered and multi-scaled. You have to look at them from many 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 within the network. 

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 at once.

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.

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.

Systems Mapping

Before we can change any system it is critically important that we understand it not just on a theoretical level but also on a practical level. So often our interventions fail because we go in thinking we have a solution without actually taking the time to observe what is going on and the dynamics at play. 

As Donella Meadows says “before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. Starting with the behavior of the system forces you to focus on facts not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others. The system’s behavior directs one’s thoughts to dynamic, not static analysis — not only what is wrong? But also how did we get here? And where are we going to end up?”

To be successful in systems change we have to be able to in some way map out the dynamics and structures in the system that we wish to change and this is the job of systems mapping, a very practical and popular method. Systems innovation is about changing the context within which a problem exists or shifting the conditions of the system that creates the problem thus we need systems modeling to help look at and understand the structure of the interrelationship that creates the system’s behavior. 

As John Kania notes “we’re thinking about systems change not as an issue or a person that needs to be fixed… it’s the set of conditions that surround that individual. We need to work on shifting the conditions that hold the problem in place.”


These wicked problems that have arisen in the age of the Anthropocene are our own creation, whether we talk of cybercrime, financial instability or pollution these wicked problems were created by us, they are a function of our ways of thinking and organizing ourselves, this would imply that by thinking differently and organizing in new ways we have the capacity to affect and shape the outcomes towards more sustainable ends.

I believe the key to this is the combination of new ways of thinking, that hinge around systems thinking, combined with new ways of organizing through information networks. In the past decades, we have put powerful tools for computation in the hands of many and interconnected us all with telecommunications networks. I think it is this combination that offers the potential to innovate in virtually all spheres of human activity, to enable the true systems change that is required to respond efficiently to the wicked problems of the 21st century.


Introduction to Systems Innovation

Video course: http://bit.ly/2O8Y5Yc

eBook: http://bit.ly/2MD4wo4

Introduction to Complexity Theory

Video course: http://bit.ly/2J2GwZf

Free eBook http://bit.ly/2OA22oh

Introduction to Systems thinking

Video course: http://bit.ly/2VAE6EZ

eBook: http://bit.ly/2MJlp0B

Donella Meadows – Thinking in Systems(Audio book)


This post was first published on The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra’s website, please see here for original source: http://bit.ly/325xtgN

Systems Innovation

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