Tom Higley, a friend, entrepreneur and founder of 10.10.10, asked me if water was a “wicked problem.” I assumed he was asking whether the "water crisis" (not a high-quality term but I will use it for simplicity's sake) was a difficult challenge to solve. What I didn’t realize was that “wicked problems” actually have a specific definition.
As I read the articles that Tom forwarded, I became even more convinced the water crisis could be framed as a “wicked problem.” For instance, here are the characteristics of a wicked problem as defined by the Australian Public Service Commission Report:
- Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define.
- Wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal.
- Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences.
- Wicked problems are often not stable.
- Wicked problems usually have no clear solution.
- Wicked problems are socially complex.
- Wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organization.
- Wicked problems involve changing behavior.
- Some wicked problems are characterized by chronic policy failure.
Many, if not all, of these characteristics fit the water crisis.
The reason I bring this up is that the solutions being put forward to address water scarcity and quality issues globally and in the United States (California is the latest) are too often unidimensional — such as calls to reduce domestic water use or to change our diets.
These tactical actions ignore the complexity of water as a resource with economic, environmental, ecological and social dimensions shared by a vast range of stakeholders. For example, the agricultural sector uses (withdrawal and consumption) about 70 percent of global water, a reality that makes the adoption of low-flow shower heads a drop in the bucket when addressing water conservation.
That is not to say we can afford to ignore water efficiency for domestic use. Instead let’s acknowledge where the big gains in water efficiency and reuse reside, and go after these and the adoption of water efficiency and reuse technologies for domestic use. While reducing beef consumption may be an increasingly popular personal choice in developed economies, it is not the trend in emerging markets where the rise of the middle class will continue to drive the consumption of higher forms of protein and, as a result, greater water use. How do we, as a planet, address that issue?
There will be no silver bullet to solve the water crisis. Solutions to address the realities of water will require that a wide range of stakeholders collaborate (collective action) while accelerated adoption of new technologies is fueled by innovative business models and funding mechanisms.
Let’s move beyond the belief that old thinking works for “wicked problems.” Wicked problems require wickedly smart solutions.
Here is a roundup of nine wickedly smart ideas to make the point:
- Systems thinking: solutions to the water, energy, food nexus/stress
- Conservation synergy: conservation programs between water and energy utilities
- Water utility of the future: reduced energy use, recycling of waste water and nutrient recovery
- Water as a service: ongoing system monitoring, reporting and management as a service to drive water efficiency and save money
- "One" water: Think water reuse and recycling instead of handling categories of water — such as potable water and grey water.
- Green infrastructure, such as constructed wetlands
- Decentralized water treatment: treatment systems at the home or neighborhood scale
- Water utility operational analytics: real-time data on system operations to reduce system losses and expedite repairs and maintenance
- Consumer engagement: providing consumers with water use data to drive conservation
These are just a few innovations in technologies, engagement thinking and business models to address water as a wicked problem.
Wickedly smart solutions for a wicked problem — the opportunities in innovative thinking and technologies are abundant.
To continue reading on this topic refer to: “Tacking Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective” from the Australian Public Service Commission, and “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” by Horst, Rittle and Webber in Policy Sciences. Top image of flood by FeyginFoto via Shutterstock