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Oct 2020 | September-October Issue

Tyler Sutton, Editor-in-Chief




The concept of the wicked problem, first introduced in the 1970s by theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity among those looking to explain the state of the world. A wicked problem is one in which the complexities of the problem make it difficult to articulate, let alone solve. These social problems have multiple contributing factors and because of their real-world nature, testing solutions to the problem is challenging. Unlike a math problem, wicked problems lack a clear “end solution” – how do we know when systemic racism has been completely rooted out or climate change has been halted? 
Google Trends reveals that interest levels in the search term “wicked problem” have been increasing over the course of 2020, peaking during the week of August 30th. The search term “wicked problem” is most popular in Australia, where one of the worst bush fires in the nation’s history was finally extinguished in March 2020, just as the global pandemic emerged. Rounding out the top six countries where the search term is most popular are New Zealand, Netherlands, Canada, UK and the US. 
As we seek to grapple with the seemingly insurmountable challenges that face our communities, countries, and the world itself, it is difficult to know where to begin. How do we press forward with our global efforts to combat climate change when a pandemic is disrupting every facet of society? How can we address the mounting infrastructure deficit when unprecedented public dollars must go towards curbing the spread of COVID-19 and supporting those impacted by its effects? 
This issue of the Public Sector Digest demonstrates that because wicked problems are so complex and interconnected, one policy solution may help address several wicked problems simultaneously. In Public Transit in the COVID-19 Era: How Local Governments are Responding, the competing issues of sustainability, health and safety, equity, and funding are explored in the context of our strained public transit systems. Good urban planning and strategic investment in active infrastructure can have the twin benefits of providing a safe alternative to overcrowded public transit systems during a pandemic and encouraging more outdoor activity. This was seen in Minnesota’s Twin Cities with a reported 51 percent increase in biking and walking in the first five weeks of the lockdown. As a true wicked problem, however, policy makers must understand the unique and unequal impacts of the pandemic on low-income public transit users – those least likely to have switched to an alternative form of transportation. 
When it comes to climate change, local governments are starting to marry solutions to this all-consuming wicked problem with policy responses to other issues, like the renewal of failing infrastructure. In Reflections from a Canadian Asset Management Tour, Dustin Carey of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) describes lessons learned from delivering climate adaptation and asset management workshops across the country. In applying for the Federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund (DMAF), Surrey, BC made the business case for a series of coastal resilience improvements, including a bridge replacement, pump station and dyke upgrades, and wetland restoration. Combining asset management and climate adaptation goals, Surrey was successful in securing funding for the project, demonstrating a benefit-to-cost ratio of 126:1 and an estimated $23.5 billion in damages avoided over the lifecycle of the assets.
Finally, this issue highlights how technology can help facilitate or amplify the effectiveness of policy solutions to our most wicked problems. David De Abreu of Cisco Canada explains that in the first week of March, their firm saw a 700 percent increase in the adoption of Cisco’s Webex video conferencing solution. For the Township of Springwater, Ontario, implementing web-based maintenance management software during the pandemic has eliminated paper-based service requests and work orders and saved the municipality 360 staff hours since January. Advanced technology can come with its own set of wicked problems, but in these two use cases, software has helped overcome some of the most disruptive effects of COVID-19. 
When it comes to addressing our world’s wicked problems, it appears that flexible, adaptive, and multifaceted solutions are required. There is no silver bullet, but rather a package of policy responses that may need to be repackaged frequently as our problems evolve. Some have referred to this as “modular solutions” – a step-by-step building block approach to problem solving. As often stated in this publication, our municipalities may be best suited to this form of problem solving as our most agile level of government. They will, however, require support and resources to execute these modular solutions. 

Tyler Sutton, Editor-in-Chief
Public Sector Digest