Join us in tracking the evolving landscape of social innovation.
Wicked problems are being recast as wicked opportunities By Anna Muoio / April 2015 / 2 Comments

I want to talk to you about “wickedness”–but not the kind of wickedness you’re thinking. Since the 1960s, we’ve had a term to describe public health crises like malaria—and also rising crime, climate change, joblessness, and other persistent ills. They are “wicked problems.” Wickedness isn’t a degree of sheer difficulty. It means the problem springs from many diverse sources, is emergent and shifting, and will never have one right answer.

In a new feature article I co-authored with William Eggers in the 2015 Deloitte Business Trends report we make the case for seeing wicked problems as wicked opportunities. 

We’re seeing a trend by which many kinds of “wicked problems”—complex, dynamic, and seemingly intractable social challenges—are being reframed and attacked with renewed vigor through solution ecosystems. Unprecedented networks of  nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, health professionals, governments, and international development institutions—and yes, businesses—are coalescing around them, and recasting them as wicked opportunities.

To support our case we examine a variety of deep-seated problems, ranging from malaria to obesity to water stewardship and outline a framework for building the problem solving ecosystems necessary to turn these kinds of wicked problems into wicked opportunities.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the article and would also encourage you to explore some of the other thought provoking pieces in the report which explore the multiple dimensions of solution ecosystems.


Anna Muoio

2 Comments to Wicked problems are being recast as wicked opportunities

Vic Desotelle
April 30, 2015

Regarding your articles:
Article 1: A focus on water as eco-centering point:
Article 2: Correlating business ecosystem concept:

You’re right about focusing on water. I praise you and your team for focusing on water because of all the other topics and categories of social development, water touches everything and everyone in the larger eco-system. It is the messenger for all life. It carries its seeds, enables it to grow, and nourishes it throughout all life’s ‘life’ cycles. It will even become society’s primary energy source in the future.

If you’re going to build an eco-system of knowledge, you’ll have to be open all sides of the topics, with the goal of determining the truth, not false representation, which is now overwhelming prevalent in all first world societies.

There are touch points in your water-centered ecosystem map that belong at another level of transparency which need to be a part of your map, showing their tentacles of influence. To see this means you will need to add a third dimension that helps to visualize the drops that overrule all decisions and actions that happen within all other drops on your map.

* Do you know which drops they are? There are two primary. Which are they?
* Three others (call them secondary) are also on your map. Do you know which three they are?
* Of your remaining drops, the primary and secondary five influence all other drops.

Within your ecosystem, there is an underlying agenda of ongoing activities are not showing up on your map, which is about ‘who is in charge’ of each rain drop, where they come from, and what their unspoken agenda is. On a side-note, it’s ironic that the U.S. Home Security program is pointed at the people and not the leadership. If it were, we would have rooted out thousands of moles hidden within your ecosystem map that are in charge of what each raindrop does, who have negative hidden agendas.

These ‘moles’ are people in high level positions within each drop that support a ‘darker’ agenda. They are powerful enough and well networked, so at this stage they almost completely rule the roost in terms of what decisions are made, what actually gets done, and how the money flows to accomplish activities.

To solve this level of wicked problem, you will have to address these ‘wicked’ ones within your problem/solution map. It means addressing elitist agendas, weeding out those that are part of it, and replacing those in controlling positions with sincere, honest, high-integrity individuals whose agenda is about truth and ‘for the people’.

A good starting place is to research what I am talking about is to address the false representation by multi-nationals. Don’t be so naive to only look at the good things large corporations are doing. For example, it is in open view that Coca-Cola has plans to do whatever it takes to steal community waters in South America (and world-wide), while at same time covering up this effort with fancy do-for-good programs that hide what is really going on. You will find the same is true regarding vaccinations from Pharma corporations, the food industry, and even our government. At the very top of all leading systems, there is a different agenda. to change the world with our great ideas, unfortunately we must also address the false truths that reside in each raindrop, including key subject matters like how vaccines work, what’s in them, and why more people’s health are ‘not’ helped when taking them. Why efficient fuel transportation systems have not yet been put on the market, even when we have the technology to do so. And so on.

What’s behind the agenda of those inhibiting efforts like water? Well. If you own the water, you own the planet, and you own the people. You now become the decision-maker for everything else. Those that don’t agree with your direction or method, gets their tapped turned off. The idea of a master/slave relationship has never been so prominent as it is right now today. In the end, it’s about power and control, with those in the seats of authority caring less about the populous.

The questions that need to be asked across your entire map are:
* Who is at the top of the decision-making totem pole in each raindrop?
* What is their background?
* And who are they aligned with, both personally and in business?

What you will find is how your map is slowly being broken down. Disabled from functioning in any heathy ecologically collaborative way.

Another point to make is that we can no longer separate ‘international NGO’s’ from ‘multi-national corporations’, as they are one in the same, with leadership of both having the same agenda. And its not to solve wicked problems, and are only interested in creating enough ‘wicked solutions’ to pacify the larger population, otherwise known as ‘we the people’.

Finally, these crises are not as ‘sprawling and complex’ as you suggest.

Certainly, there is a lot of work to do to implement them, but it’s all doable. There are already made applications for most all the problems we face today and we know how to fix most of ‘wicked problems’ – THE SOLUTIONS ALREADY EXIST.

And to support the fix-it effort, there are countless numbers of people who want to help, but are under the thumb of a money system that does not allow that support to happen. Thus very very few can afford to jump into your eco-system. Not at the level to actually help to catalyze the changes that need to happen. If they could, I estimate another 2/3rd’s of us would be surging from all walks of life to participate in helping the needed changes to happen. This means that MONEY must be the primary system for enabling the ‘wicked solution’ systems you want to see happen.

There’s much more, but I’ll leave you with a suggestion.

Build a map of the money for each of your raindrops. Create vaults for where the money is and how much, while creating lines of flows of that money to/from those vaults for each raindrop. You will see a very different picture. One that will begin to reveal an underlying pattern that is not evident in your present description.

I look forward to evolving the conversation around this incredible work that you and your team are endeavoring to bring into the world.

My thoughts,

Christopher Swan
April 30, 2015

Monitor Institute
Anna Muoio,

A friend of mine, Vic Desotelle, forwarded the piece you’d sent regarding business ecosystems and wicked problems. I thought you and your colleagues would find the work I do of interest, especially in light of California’s infrastructure and water problems. Feel free to circulate the attached.

As a writer, designer and entrepreneur I’ve envisioned business as ecosystems for over 35 years. More recently I discovered Horst Rittel’s concept of “wicked problems” and realized the truth in that concept. Currently, as chairman of a company I founded, we will soon launch a business program centered around a solar-powered rail system designed for California and western Nevada. The plan, which is based on extensive research and the input of several professionals in the freight railroad, transit and engineering industries, is conceived to offer commute, business and recreation oriented service, ultimately throughout the state.

For many years I’ve been profoundly concerned with the state’s water problem. I have been seeking a source of funding for an essay on the subject, with illustrations depicting the issues, and potential solutions. The vision, as sketched in the attached Sacramento Bee article of many years ago (1986), represents a large-scale vision of what ecological business systems mean in terms of quality of life, economic opportunity and sheer beauty.

In the course of studying the problems relative to water and all other infrastructure I’ve come to the conclusion, as suggested by Buckminster Fuller in a lecture he gave in Cambridge decades ago, that the core of the problem is excessive specialization of all society. The result has been the fractionalization into “tribes” who literally cannot see the forest for the bark of the tree. This extends to publishing, where I have found it very difficult to get anything published that does not fit the categories. In relation to my most recent book, Electric Water (New Society Publishers, 2007), I was able to get the book published, but in marketing articles I found no interest because editors seek pieces on water, or energy, or land use, but not writing that links such subjects.

In conceiving a new essay on water in California it has become apparent that a variety of trends already well established portend radical and positive shifts in policy and action, but few know of these trends and so most institutions tend to default to standard practice. Corporate farming interests, for example, lobby to raise dams, failing to recognize how dams don’t “make” water they lose it by evaporation. Similarly few recognize that the wild can often be more productive than the domestic, as proven by studies of wild animals in Africa and the economics of bison on the Great Plains.

In closing, I would appreciate your thoughts on whether the Monitor Institute, or another organization you may know, would be interested in such an essay. I have no doubt the essay will draw considerable attention, in large part because it represents a whole new vision of life, land and our future.

Christopher Swan

San Francisco

2 attached pdf articles at:

Leave a comment, question, or resource