Black swans and wicked problems

Black swans and wicked problems

April 5, 2020 2 By Rick

What is a black swan?
We’ve been living in a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) world for many years now. The pandemic the world is currently experiencing has brought this close to home. During this time, new terms have popped up right and left. Two of the terms that seem to appear most often are Black Swan and Wicked Problems. A black swan event is an event in human history that had never happened before and was completely unexpected when it happened. The current pandemic is not a black swan by definition because pandemics have happened before, and scientist have been warning us that this would occur. Once a black swan event has happened, many people conclude that this was bound to happen at some point. We get the term from the general belief that all swans are white because that’s all that had been observed in the West. This belief was dispelled when a Dutch explorer observed black swans in western Australia in 1697. Since this was an unexpected event when it happened, events of this nature are called black swans. But the term didn’t become popular in the mainstream until much, much later.

The term becomes popular
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a finance professor, writer and former Wall Street trader, is generally credited with coining the term in 2007. He argued that because it’s impossible to predict black swan events because they are so rare and they are usually catastrophic in nature, we should always assume that one could occur and plan for it. The 2008 financial crisis provided a perfect example. Taleb was convinced that allowing a broken system to fail will strengthen it against future black swan events. However, propping up a broken system and insulating it from risk, he opined, will make the system more vulnerable to future black swan events. According to Taleb “a black swan as an event that 1) is beyond normal expectations that is so rare that even the possibility that it might occur is unknown, 2) has a catastrophic impact when it does occur, and 3) is explained in hindsight as if it were actually predictable.”

Wicked problems
So, let’s look at the second term I want to explore.  A wicked problem is defined as “a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” In other words, this is an idea or problem that cannot be fixed or solved. But what do we mean by wicked? One definition denotes “a problem that is resistant to resolution – not inherently evil,” while another definition calls it “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point.” Wicked problems are extremely complex and difficult to tackle. And what’s more, trying to solve a wicked problem can often create other problems. Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, minted their own definition as far back as 1973. A wicked problem, according to them, “has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer.” Sound familiar? Examples of wicked problems aren’t hard to find.

First of all, they must be social or cultural problems, according to many researchers. Not every hard-to-solve problem is wicked, only those with “an indeterminate scope and scale,” according to Rittel. “Consequently, problems such as inequality, political instability, death, disease or famine – are wicked,” Rittel stresses. “They can’t be solved in a finite time period using standard techniques. Further compounding the problem are the following characteristics. Wicked problems have no template to follow. People trying to solve a wicked problem must make things up as they go along. Wicked problems are interconnected and bleed into one another. There are no established borders. Every wicked problem is unique, and there is always more than one explanation.

“Managing” wicked problems
Interdisciplinary research provides a means for dealing with complex wicked problems. By enabling different academic disciplines, we can create an environment that produces innovative thinking. But even this type of collaboration isn’t enough. To make the type of headway required, researchers will need to get out of their labs and talk with decision-makes, legislators, local communities and industries. If we’re going to make wicked problems less wicked, we’ve got to work across disciplines to create a shared understanding of the problem and commit to finding possible ways of solving it. Obviously, not everyone will agree on what the problem is. However, everyone must understand each other’s positions well enough to discuss different views of a wicked problem and work together to tackle it.