Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see, e.g.
This said, let’s get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world’s food supply. I’ll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one’s hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.
First of all, should we say that the world’s food supply is a "problem"? Yes, if you note that about half of the world’s human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases – they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world’s population is going to suffer from diabetes.
So, if we have a problem, is it really "wicked"? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors……
Once you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system – as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference – then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to "solve the problem". The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.
Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won’t change as a consequence. It is the "look, it is simple" approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, "look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved". What is meant with "this" varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry "let’s go GMOs!" (genetically modified organisms).
Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system – to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food’s nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.
There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the "’look, it is simple" strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another "look, it is simple" approach is ‘if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone’. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy "green food" in their supermarkets has little impact
A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the "look, it is simple" mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene
The same is true for climate change: I didn’t see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet’s subsystems (e.g.
So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the level of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is "overshoot". That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food – measured in calories – for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.
But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics
In the end, what is the solution to the "food supply problem"? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: "in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation." As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can’t solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.
Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.
H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome
* Once you tackle the food problem, you can’t ignore the "third world" situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, "linearizing" complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the "circular" approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don’t have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.
** In the food system, the idea that "look, it is simple: just let’s get rid of waste" is exactly parallel to the "zero waste" approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the "zero waste" idea simply can’t work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn’t mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can’t build up a "zero waste" industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the "participatory management" approach, (see, e.g., the work of Prof.
Photo: Unemployed men queued outside a depression soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone (1933). U.S. Information Agency via Wikimedia Commons.