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Solving Wicked Problems: Using Systems Thinking in Design

Before designing a solution to a "wicked problem" like climate change or healthcare, it's helpful to map out the whole system.


My classmates and I are in the Design for Social Innovation program because we identified problems in our communities, companies, or cultures and are keen to figure them out. But before talking about any solution or outcome, we’ve learned that you must first frame the problem—by thoughtfully examining the system it’s part of to understand where and how to get involved.
For me, this was a refreshing approach to design after spending several years in NYC healthcare advertising agencies where we rarely considered the social context of our work. We delivered a churn of logos using a straightforward process our clients loved, but it didn’t feel relevant to the world in which we all lived. If we’d been more conscious of the interconnected system of pharma, healthcare policy, and real communities, our design would have likely made a bigger impact and we would have certainly been more proud of it.
Learning to use systems thinking, a holistic approach to problem solving that emphasizes contextual understanding, has helped me with team management, project planning, creative work, and even relationships. And for wicked problems like healthcare that confront business, nature, and society, it’s proving to be imperative.
In 1973, social scientists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined wicked problems as those incomprehensibly complex and messy issues we have trouble defining, let alone attempting to solve. Climate change has proven one of the most wicked, as have healthcare, corruption, and the prison system. Such problems are inherently systemic, with unavoidable social complications that require flexibility and patience.
Let’s use Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban as an example. It’s an issue tied to obesity and diabetes, NYC’s urban plan, the beverage industry, and cultural norms. Where to even begin? “We have to invent boundaries for clarity and sanity,” advises systems thinking pioneer Donella Meadows. Sometimes a simple infographic like this one works to tell the story (it shows the history, culture, and science of sugar consumption, but doesn’t overextend into policy or planning, which might dilute its message). Designing visual maps and models helps us immediately find connections and describe relationships. I’ve always been a fan of writing outlines to frame an argument or plan a project; creating models now helps me see the big picture and my place within it.


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In our classes last semester, we visualized the evolution of Wikipedia articles and the narratives of New Yorker articles by creating stakeholder maps instead of writing outlines. We designed infographics to show how Tom’s Shoes and Bolsa Familia, a Brazilian social welfare program, operate in social context. Using systems thinking to map a problem in context is now my go-to approach for framing project plans or brainstorming thesis ideas.
It’s worth trying on a seemingly intractable problem of your own. Start by mapping the systems your issue is connected to, which might mean your company, family relationships, social community, or physical neighborhood. See if any patterns or relationships are revealed when you tell the story visually, and perhaps even a cause of the problem will emerge. As Rittel and Webber said 40 years ago, formulating the problem by tracing it to its sources is the first step in solving a wicked problem.
Images courtesy of Tanya Bhandari and Sebastian Barrera.\n
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