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COVID-19, Complex Problems, and ID

The London Interdisciplinary School
13 July 2020
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30 mins read

Complex problems
A big risk of talking about “problems” is that we leap to try to focus on “solutions” before we understand what the problems are and how they might be related. So what about exploring problems and recognising the limits of our individual perspectives? The image below features just some of the ways we might think about COVID-19 in relation to interdisciplinary approaches.



💡 At LIS we focus on complex, real-world problems. These are sometimes called “wicked problems.” Watch this short video for an introduction to wicked problems.

(If you’d like to watch this video with English subtitles then hover over the top right-hand corner of this video > click the ‘open in new tab’ button > you’ll now be on YouTube > click the settings gear in the bottom right-hand corner of the video > click ‘subtitles’ and then you can select ‘English’.)

Now you are thinking about complex and wicked problems, let’s introduce interdisciplinarity. (Note: ‘complex’ and ‘wicked’ problems are often used interchangeably.)

💡 Watch this video – Interdisciplinarity: What? and Why? (20 mins) (Top tip: listen at x1.25 to save time.)

Summary of video:
– What is interdisciplinarity (ID)? And why is ID needed to improve the tackling of complex and wicked problems? What problems is ID itself trying to solve?

– Problems of hyper-specialisation and the problem of the Einstellung effect – both related to the Expert Problem and both highlight difficulties in tackling wicked problems with conventional thinking.

– Popper’s dictum that we are students of problems, not disciplines. How this leads naturally to ID as ‘intellectual free play’. The challenges, therefore, of structuring ID for individuals and institutions.

📚 Take it further:
Walls (2018) Wicked problems and a ‘wicked’ solution This short article proposes that we do in fact have a lot of the knowledge necessary to tackle wicked problems, but we lack the political will or power to co-ordinate action. Walls suggests that court rulings which require a country to change its laws – as recently happened in the Netherlands on the subject of climate change – can be a key way to force necessary action. Rittel & Horst (1973) Planning Problems are Wicked Problems The first article to describe wicked problems. This article came out of the field of “Planning” in the 1970s. Planning was then a major part of Public Policy (the study of how we tax and invest resources to create public infrastructure and services). Urban Planning is now typically only taught in Architecture schools, and relatively little of Public Policy focuses on infrastructure projects. We can think of Planning as Engineering (managing the technical and physical complexities of how to build things) + Policy (managing the social and political complexities of how to use public space). From this perspective, it’s not surprising that Planning was the field to come up with “wicked problems”! (This article may be accessible through your library or you may find it online)

Kothari et al. (2020) Coronavirus and the crisis of the Anthropocene This article opens up some ways in which COVID-19 might be an even more complex situation even if we think of it as an intervention in many of our established systems, norms and ideas.

A video from Systems Innovation, an online platform and set of teaching materials for researchers, teachers and organisations working with systems thinking and complexity theories. A useful place to know about!

In Forecasting The New Year, Better To Be A Fox Than A Hedgehog (Forbes, 2017) ​A short blog explaining more about the hedgehogs and foxes metaphor.

New Pathogen, Old Politics (De Waal, 2020) Here’s a nice historic example​ of Einstellung and the Expert Problem from a previous pandemic – the 19th century cholera outbreak in Hamburg, Germany.

Rigidity of Thought and Behaviour: 100 Year of Research (Schultz and Searlman, 2002) Short summary of Einstellung Effect (abstract only).

Doughnut Economics Kate Raworth’s website on new paradigms needed in Economics.

The Future of Mathematics (Wolfram, 2014)


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