Wicked Problems

TRANSITION ENGINEERING is about achieving real change in real time. We know the targets, we know the consequences, we know who designed and built all the things that have to change, and we know that it is our job to prevent what is preventable through engineering change. To maintain a focus on practical initiatives for change, our workshops will work through the Transition Engineering process with the ultimate objective to develop an initial business case for a “shift project” that could be carried out by a specific organisation.  The workshops first work through the wicked problem and generate creative ideas for shift projects, then the teams will select a specific shift project ideas and develop a “strategic investment case” and 

Below are five wicked problem examples that are found around the world.

A Wicked Problem, by definition does not have a solution. If there was a solution then the change would be uptake, and it may be the uptake that is the wicked problem. The figure illustrates the mapping out process for wicked problems. One of the most challenging aspects of the workshop will be to “park” things that you might already think are “solutions”. Park your solutions and get ready for a wild ride on the wicked wheel. 


Wicked Problem: Visiting Family Overseas

Family is the essential heart of society, and spending time with family - especially for important events - is essential. Many people in New Zealand have family overseas. Visiting them by Air New Zealand is Wicked. It works great! No humans ever before 1960 could squeeze themselves into a thin aluminum tube and emerge 28 hours later 20,000 km away at the other end of the planet. Long haul jet travel is magic. It is also big business. In 2018 in the USA, 4 out of 5 trips were for leisure, and the number one purpose was to visit relatives. US residents logged 1.8 billion person-trips in the year, and spent $761.7 billion. But, it is easy to understand that all this leisure travel, even for the essential purpose of visiting family,  is not sustainable. Caution: don’t let your mind jump into your parking lot of sustainable solutions right now, keep going and admit that it is just unsustainable. The long-haul air travel satisfies needs of New Zealanders for visiting relatives in Europe. But it causes harm. The most direct harms are air pollution, noise, land use. The long-haul travel for leisure to visit relatives at the other end of the planet must change. But it can’t be changed right now. There is no way to change it, because it works great. 

Wicked Problem: Commuting

Going to work is necessary to earn a living, and to provide the goods and services of our labor for others. Travelling to work is essential. 79% of all commute trips in New Zealand were done in a car/van. The average work journey distance is 11.5 km, and takes 18.5 minutes. Clearly, driving to work works great, as most people are doing it. But, it is easy to understand that it is unsustainable. Yes, the fuel going in the tank is unsustainable, but consider also the time and land use and the materials use including the embodied energy in the vehicle. Driving a car to your job works, it satisfies the need to get to work on time. But vehicle traffic causes harm, particularly pollution and accidents, but also carving out at least 30% of the land in cities into human-free zones. The daily commute in a personal vehicle must be changed. But it can’t be changed right now. There is no way to change it because it works, and it is the only thing that commuters know for sure will work. Don’t forget - keep those solutions you already are thinking about  parked out of the way (e.g. electric cars, self driving cars, biofuels, hydrogen). 

Wicked Problem: The Premises 

Schools, banks, insurance companies, government offices and other office work is done in what are commonly called “Commercial Buildings”. Having a premises is essential for business and other operations. Look at the office buildings currently being built in Auckland and Wellington and rebuilt in Christchurch. They are well-engineered structures using modern steel and glass and concrete materials. Modern office buildings are built to the standard and HVAC systems that keep workers comfortable while they work at desks on computers. Modern buildings will likely be safe in a seismic event, and will be safely exited in case of a fire. So what is not sustainable about our premises? Firstly, can we continue using them for 100 or more years?  Secondly, can the energy they require continue to be provided? And finally, can we continue to build sky scrapers in the low-carbon world? This is a hard wicked problem! It doesn’t get any easier if you consider retail premises or educational facilities. And if you want to think about deep unsustainability, consider the fact that 79% of the workers in the premises drove 11.5 km there by personal petrol/diesel vehicle and left their vehicle on land denuded of life and covered over with bitumen. Commercial buildings consume at least â…“ of the electricity and heating fuel. And are responsible for 35% of greenhouse gas emissions.     

Wicked Problem: Dinner at Home

We have to eat. In the Kiwi culture, we have to eat an evening meal. Having a nutritious dinner with our Whanau in our home is essential, not just for sustenance, but also for social connection. So what is not sustainable about dinner?  Well, take your pick. The supermarket system with its disposable packaging, the peak power demand in winter months that must be supplied with gas peakers, or the use of gas to cook dinner. The way we do dinner is unsustainable. But it is easy and convenient to pick up the roasted chicken at the New World on the commute home, put on Game of Thrones and have a feed, then toss the plastic bag into the red bin and the bones into the green bin. What harm does our usual dinner cause? We will leave the primary production issues to the next wicked problem. Let’s talk about the obesity epidemic, and the peak power demand. The way we get our food for dinner, and the way we use power in the evenings in winter must change. But how could it possibly change when it is so convenient? 

Wicked Problem: Stuff

The average woman owns 30 outfits. In 1930 that figure was 9, and in 1900 it was 4. Women need clothing! Clothing is essential and has been since our naked species appeared on earth out of Eden. Our modern clothing, like puffy jackets, merino shirts, spandex yoga pants, and no-wrinkle viscose fabrics work great. We even enjoy cotton and microfibres and leather… But the way we currently consume stuff, and in particular, clothing is not sustainable. Our clothing satisfies a wide range of needs. But our clothing is causing harm. The average American throws away 30 kg of clothing per year. That mountain of waste is a problem, but the plastic microfibers from our modern clothes are causing pollution and harm in aquatic environments. The amount of water we need to wash clothes and the pollution from detergents are also causing harm. The clothing system we use also has built in and necessary inequity and harm to other people in other places. Our consumption of stuff, particularly clothing must change. But it can’t change. What would happen to all the malls, sales jobs, fashion industry, advertisers, and textile jobs? Because there is a huge economy in producing all this stuff. 

Wicked Problem: Getting Food

Primary production is the work of manipulating the processes of nature to greatly improve its production of the things we want. Primary production includes fishing, producing fibres, and producing food. Right now in New Zealand, one of our biggest wicked problems is production of milk powder. Protein is an essential nutrient, and of course we think about milk powder being used in infant formula. Some infants can’t be breast-fed, and so infant formula using cow milk can literally be the essential food for life. Now, what else is the milk powder used for? Much of it goes into processed foods, so this problem can be related to the Dinner problem. Some of the milk products from dairy operations can be considered essential, but not all of it. The rapidly degrading state of rivers and soils are serious harm being caused by the primary production system. It can’t go on. But it can’t change, the investments have already been made, and the system is already set up. 

Wicked Problem: The Supply Chain

Each year, 400,000 twenty foot equivalent containers are off-loaded from container ships at the Ports of Auckland. This is up 40% over 8 years ago. The government predicts that freight imports will grow by another 50% by 2040. Of course, this supply chain wicked problem is related to the stuff problem, and the dinner problem because that is what is in the containers being imported. The freight supply chain also moves the primary products to the ports for loading onto ships. 98% of those containers move to and from the port by diesel truck. This wicked problem is mostly about moving all of our stuff by truck. Of course it works great - it just works. How else would you even do it? But it is about half of the fuel used in New Zealand, about 25% of the total energy, to truck all that stuff around the country. Putting your goods in a truck and sending it off across the country with the driver is a reliable and secure way to get your stuff to customers. But, it definitely causes harm, from pollution to road wear and tear to accidents and road kill of wildlife. We actually can’t keep growing the number of trucks and the fuel use into the future. But we can’t change, because how would things change?