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From wicked problems to wicked, awesome solutions: Introducing compound solutions

By Jena Webb, director of programmes, CoPEH-Canada

April 27, 2022


  • So much of life, it seems to me, is the framing and naming of things.
    • Eve Ensler, In the body of the World1


Since the term was introduced in the 1970s2, and particularly since the 1990s, researchers in numerous domains have been examining wicked problems from countless angles. Wicked problems are societal dilemmas that defy succinct definition and elude swift resolution because no trialed solutions are at hand, the system is in constant flux and solutions can trigger further problems2,3. Due to their nature, there remains much to be learned about wicked problems. Meanwhile, environmental conditions are worsening, and people have become impatient for solutions. One just has to look to the diversity of citizen-driven initiatives for change collected online to get a taste of the hunger for solutions that is out there[i].

In the same period, the term ‘solutions’ has gotten a bad reputation. Between cookie-cutter interventions applied write-large (such as ‘import substitution’4, impractical techno-fixes (such as carbon capture and storage5) and solutions which beget new problems (such as pesticides6) one can see why some people are wary of embracing the term.

The problem is, there is no adequate alternative. ‘Response’ is the most common substitute. But putting one’s head in the sand is a response to climate change; it just isn’t a very constructive one. In fact, it is quite harmful. Responses can be positive or negative; passive or active. Solutions are intended to be positive and active.

The Oxford dictionary defines a solution as ‘A means of solving a problem or dealing with a difficult situation.’

Unfortunately, the ‘science of solutions’ is considerably less well advanced than the techniques we use to diagnose wicked problems, which include ecosystem approaches to health, systems science, post-normal science, ecohealth, onehealth, discourse analysis and so on7–10. This piece provides novel nomenclature which can serve as common language to rally researchers, practitioners, citizen’s groups and politicians around positions and actions which aide in the present human endeavour to restore and improve the state of our environment and, concomitantly, our health, while maintaining productive livelihoods.

Compound solutions

There appear to be interventions - or wicked, awesome solutions - which respond to multiple complex problems simultaneously. To grasp how they manifest, one can imagine these ‘wicked, awesome solutions’ like the compound eyes of insects, the compound leaves of some tree species or the compound flowers of some plants in that the ramifications of the initiative are manifold. Each ‘compound solution’ is composed of its own unique set of complex issues which it inherently impacts. Compound leaves, such as those of an ash tree or a walnut tree, are in fact composed of many leaflets grouped together on a common stem (see Figure 1). If the entire compound leaf structure were considered to be a compound solution, then each individual leaflet could be seen as the wicked problems that this solution zeros in on. Compound solutions, like the wicked problems that they address, are multifactorial.

To give a few examples, first, urban agriculture (Figure 1) has the potential to alleviate issues related to several complex problems at the intersection of society, health and urban ecosystems, including: food insecurity, green house gas emissions, air pollution, access to nature, physical activity (obesity, diabetes, etc.), urban biodiversity, land degradation, heat islands, runoff and more11. To give another example, reducing food waste would allow us to attack some of the same wicked problems as urban agriculture and also improve waste management12

Agroforestry has the advantage of bringing in economic resilience through diversification of end products while insuring conservation, reduced erosion, regional-scale biodiversity, corridors and carbon sequestration13

Traditional foods address some of the same wicked problems as above, but in rural settings and have the added value of valorizing Indigenous culture and the health benefits for First Nations people that come along with that14,15

As another example, active transportation responds to multiple complex problems in urban settings by reducing air pollution, making cities safer, increasing physical activity and access to green spaces, decreasing greenhouse gases, noise pollution and stress related to traffic congestion, etc.16



Figure 1 compound leaf2

 Figure 1: Urban agriculture compound solution


By combining multiple compound solutions, each remedying its own set of wicked problem, we begin to see how this strategy could go a long way toward improving major social, health and environmental issues. As with ecosystems17  and economies4, the dynamic stability of the ‘system of solutions’ should increase with diversity. It is thus the diversity of compound solutions which becomes important. The greater the ‘diversity’ of wicked problems addressed in each compound solution or by a set of compound solutions working together in a locality, the further we get toward our goal of a sustainable future.

Two other factors, in addition to diversity, will broaden the scope of compound solutions: replication and scale. ‘Replication’ occurs when local-scale compound solutions are applied independently in multiple sites. The value added of this approach is more than simply the sum of the benefits of each compound solution. As with isolated communities of species evolving in separate environments, compound solutions should be adapted to the local reality, allowing for emergent properties. These emergent properties will allow the solution to respond to more of the wicked problems present in the area.

Concurrently, compound solutions of a different scale – a global scale – are necessary. These are solutions that require joint action by multiple players across regions. Bales18 has shown how modern slavery is contributing to ecocide. He estimates that if the nearly 30 million modern slaves and their owners constituted a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter in the world18. The elimination of modern slavery would be an example of a global compound solution. By eliminating modern slavery, we would address issues surrounding, justice, racism, poverty, malnutrition, climate change, biodiversity, global pollutant emissions such as mercury, and much more. So it takes a network of diverse local- and global-scale compound solutions to approximate a total solution.

Working further with the analogy of a compound leaf, if each compound solution applied locally is a compound leaf, then the set of compound solutions applied in a locality is a tree. Each locality has its own tree with the particular set of compound solutions that are being implemented there. The replication of compound solutions in different combinations across the territory makes up a ‘forest of solutions.’ The global-scale compound solutions traverse the forest as a stream or river might, with the smaller tributaries representing the wicked solutions being tackled. It is an interconnected system of diverse compound solutions that makes a healthy and dynamic ‘solution ecosystem.’


forest g3e6080389 1920

Figure 2: Forest and stream


Wicked, awesome solutions are just one class in a landscape of other ‘solution-types.’ There are also single-issue solutions, which are no less important for being focused on a single problem. Let’s call them boulders, or the bedrock in our task to improve the health and wellbeing of humans and ecosystems. An example would be finding an alternative to dumping waste water from oil exploration directly into an Amazonian river. This would be a crucial step to cleaning up said river19–21, but it does not address other issues in the region such as climate change, indigenous rights, poverty, deforestation, inequity, malnutrition, etc.

Yet another solution-type are the paradigm shifts that will need to occur to tackle root problems, or upstream drivers, as we roll out single-issue and compound solutions to wicked problems. These paradigm shifts have been referred to as ‘strategic solutions’ or ‘meta-solutions’22. Perhaps the analogy of a compound eye is best suited to illustrate the interaction of problem and solution-type (Figure 3). The given compound solution, in this case active transportation, works singlehandedly to alleviate some aspects of the wicked problems that constitute the photoreceptors of the compound eye. But the ‘photoreceptor-wicked problems’ all focus in on one or a few root problems, such as overconsumption, inequity, greed, individualism, etc. Meta-solutions, or paradigm shifts, would be required to neutralize the root problems.


Compound solution eye

Figure 3: Compound solutions, wicked problems and root problems


Several decades of research has led us to a pretty good understanding of many environmental issues and their impacts on our health. Some details have yet to be worked out, and some issues are probably as yet unidentified. But in the meantime, we need to be doing what we can to improve our situation. One of the characteristics of a wicked problem is that there is no ‘stopping rule’2. That is to say, there is no way to determine if a problem has indeed been ‘solved.’ Perhaps we need to shift our goalposts. Maybe it’s not whether a certain intervention solves a given wicked problem once and for all that we should be measuring, but how many wicked problems - the ‘problem denominator’ - a given compound solution can positively impact in one fell-swoop.

Critics of the schism between environmental movements and social movements have shown that there is really only one “bus”5,23. To overcome the perceived rift between the two, we should be looking to integrate multiple ‘solution-types’ as we work together in transdisciplinary teams. To summarise, this piece has introduced the idea of local and global compound solutions which inherently have the capacity to tackle multiple wicked problems, both environmental and social, simultaneously. These compound solutions can work along side single-issue solutions and meta-solutions, aimed at bringing about paradigm shifts, to address many of the environmental and societal problems facing us at this juncture in time. The hope is that this piece provides some common language for us to come together to work on common solutions to our wicked problems. The framing of interventions as compound solutions can also be useful in “selling” them to policy makers from across distinct departments for subsequent co-creation of best practices. There is great potential for transdisciplinary teams to coalesce around compound solutions and to support their implementation toward a common sustainable future.  



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21.      Webb, J., Coomes, O. T., Mergler, D. & Ross, N. A. Levels of 1-hydroxypyrene in urine of people living in an oil producing region of the Andean Amazon (Ecuador and Peru). Int. Arch. Occup. Environ. Health 91, 105–115 (2018).

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