New Mindsets

New problems and challenges require new solutions.

Debates about sustainability and the environment do not usually lead to definite conclusions. Indeed they are likely to be ambiguous, contradictory and ill-defined. This has led to new theoretical perspectives which reflect the messiness of the real world.

The importance of networks and feedback mechanisms is now widely recognised both in science and social policy. In a business context, complexity theory has alerted managers to the way organisations operate as living systems. Such approaches have the potential to reveal layers of meaning which tend to be excluded from binary and linear perspectives.

One notion that has proved particularly illuminating is the idea of ‘wicked problems’. Whereas ‘tame problems’ tend to be stable, ‘wicked problems’ are ill-defined and ambiguous. They are characterised by unexpected feedback and complex connections and are often associated with strong moral, political or professional purposes.

A further dimension to ‘wicked problems’ is that they have no clear edges or boundaries. As solutions emerge, they themselves change the nature of the problem. This makes it extremely difficult to compare different strategies or to verifying particular lines of thought. Many sustainability issues appear to have these features (figure 1).


New Mindsets Figure 1

Figure 1 - Different examples of how creativity (shown by the bold arrows) can promote new thinking.

After Sternberg (2003) The Development of Creativity as a Decision-Making Process in Sawyer et al (Eds) Creativity and Development Oxford: Oxford University Press

1) Discuss how the different types of thinking shown in Figure 1 above might help to resolve the problems shown in this cartoon below.



2) Now watch this video about wicked problems. Is there anything in the video which has changed the way you think about sustainability?


3) Find out how levels of public policy is based on different levels of certainty and agreement

"I leave (the workshop) with more questions than answers but with increased confidence in asking the questions and a developing framework from which to formulate a response."

Tutor in Geographical and Life Sciences

"Don't imagine there are magic solutions. Go for co-operation and value diversity."

Tutor in Media, Art and Design

"Thinking critically around experiences both in university and healthcare practice lends itself to considering the complex 'wicked problems' that affect society. Through this process students are encouraged to consider perspectives beyond their own life-worlds."

Tutor in Nursing and Applied Clinical Studies

a) What are the questions you think we should be asking about sustainability?

b) Can you think of any examples where you have developed new thinking about an issue or problem?

Lent, L. (2017) The Patterning Instinct, New York: Prometheus Books

Parkin, S. (2010) The Positive Deviant, Abingdon: Earthscan

Rittel, W. J. and Webber, M. M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences 4 155-169

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Last edited: 20/11/2019 09:31:00