A dirty dozen world-wide wicked problems related to the global sustainability crisis – and some solutions?


1 The global sustainability crisis

2 The dreaded big brother top-down imposed solution problem

3 The fox in the henhouse problem

4 The babylonic confusion problem

5 The problem of information overload in the unfinished global forum

6 The perplexing participation paradox

7 The problem of the missing link between discussion and decision

8 The neglected planning argument (‘weighing the pros & cons’) problem

9 The virtues to vices problem (the vicious cycle of virtue to vice)

10 The problem of the control of power

11 The problem of ensuring adherence to agreed-upon solutions: sanctions

12 The problem of nonperforming measures of performance

P R O B L E M   D E T A I L S

1 The global sustainability crisis

This is the problem that led UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to issue his call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ at the 2011 Wold Economic Forum in Davos: itself a nest of related problems:
– dwindling resources, food, water, energy
for a growing world population;
– climate change, environmental degradation
– hunger, poverty, inequality; human rights
– disasters
– corruption, government mismanagement

The following problems are a subset of problem facets related to the global sustainability crisis. The list is not an exhaustive account of all problems that make up the global crisis; they are selected because they are seen as key interconnected factors, and to show how some solution ideas can address this network of problems.

2   The dreaded ‘big brother’ top-down imposed solution problem

The intent or mere perception that such a ‘model for survival’ might be a one-size-fits all overall solution imposed top-down by some global authority, ignoring local, regional, cultural conditions — and therefore causing new problems, conflicts, and resistance. There are both social and logical reasons for the position that global solutions must instead emerge from a global discourse with wide and easily accessible participation. This is also true with respite to the next issue:

3    The ‘fox in the henhouse’ problem

The problem (reinforced by the very nature of the audience to which the Secretary General addressed his call) that the entities called upon and commanding the resources for developing and implementing any global solutions might be the very ones responsible
for generating many of the problems — and therefore being justly or unjustly suspected of pursuing their agenda more than the common good.

4    The babylonic confusion problem

There are already many impressive efforts underway to address these problems — mostly at the small and local level. But coordination and communication between these efforts is severely hampered by the differences not only between natural languages, but also between different cultural mindsets, ‘ways of talking’ about problems, approaches and solutions, between the specialized vocabulary of different disciplines (even between different schools of thought within the same fields) and their arcane acronyms.

5    The problem of information overload in the unfinished global forum

While it might seem that new information technology is in the process of vastly improving global communication, it can be argued that it has led to an almost insurmountable overload of disorganized information. This is making it difficult to keep adequate overview of developments even about very specific issues, establish and maintain a constructive discourse leading to meaningful agreements and decisions: The development of an adequate forum and platform for the global participatory discourse is still a very much unfinished project.

6   The perplexing participation paradox

In the face of the call for more participation in planning, policy-making, and political decisions is the evidence that public participation even in the form of voting in elections, let alone true constructive discourse and dialog, deplored as lacking: ‘voter apathy’. This is true even in societies where technological infrastructure, education and information would seem sufficiently advanced. Already Bertrand Russell (in his 1938 book on Power) observed that participation decreases as the social unit increases in size because in larger units, the impact of individual votes and contributions is perceived as so negligible as to render the individual vote or participation utterly insignificant and not worth the effort: participation is related to perceived possibility of ‘making a difference’.

7    The problem of the missing link between discussion and decision

Part of the participation problem is the fact that the decision-making method even in advanced ‘democratic’ systems, majority voting, has little or no perceptible (‘transparent’) connection between the value and merit of discussion contributions and the decision outcome. Phenomena such as ‘party discipline’ or the fact that filibusters can delay decisions but not influence them (because nobody is listening) are proof of this missing link: votes can entirely disregard or even go against the result of deliberative discourse.

8    The neglected planning argument (‘weighing the pros & cons’) problem

In spite of the tremendous amount of work done in logic and, increasingly, in ‘critical thinking’, the kinds of arguments we use in design, planning, policy-making — the ‘pros and cons’ for or against proposals — have not been given enough attention; coherent approaches for their systematic and transparent evaluation have not been developed.

9    The virtues to vices problem (the vicious cycle of virtue to vice)

Discussions about how to overcome the problems and crises are full of recriminations about human vices that are held to be responsible for the problems: greed, pursuit of power, the ‘win-lose’ attitudes in economic and political matters, the lack of empathy with ‘losing’ groups, the preoccupation with profit and growth. The result is an increasing polarization between groups that have achieved success with such attitudes, and their critics. The latter tend to forget or downplay the fact that these attitudes have often been taught to children as virtues. Now demonizing the people and groups who have learned these lessons well — as compliant learners, following societal concepts of virtue — can hardly be a successful strategy for a more cooperative, win-win- oriented, compassionate form of socio-economic society.

10    The problem of the control of power

Significant efforts have been made to establish reliable arrangements for the control of power in government. It is not clear whether these controls are inherently sufficient, and just have not been applied properly in the many instances in past and recent history where government powers have turned abusive and destructive. But it is evident that similar controls have not been developed and applied in the private sector. As a result, certain forces in the private sector have become so powerful that they have significant — and largely uncontrolled — influence over governments. This problem calls for increased attention, study and creative solutions.

The problem of control of power becomes critical at the level of global relationships: the issue of ‘world government’. The concern of a global, more powerful that any other entity is a serious concern if its power cannot be effectively controlled. This problem is related to the following ‘sanctions’ problem:

11    The problem of ensuring adherence to agreed-upon solutions: sanctions

Even if governance systems could be developed in which societal arrangements, laws, treaties etc. were negotiated and refined until they become acceptable to all affected parties (ideally: by consensus); the question remains of how to ensure adherence to the agreement s and laws: how to deal with instances of noncompliance or violation. Traditionally, compliance has been ‘enforced’ through the threat of imposing sanctions, penalties, by an enforcement agency that necessarily must be stronger, more powerful, than any potential violator. Inevitably, this raises the question of how to control such power: how to prevent that enforcement agency from violating the very laws it is supposed to enforce? The means of enforcement through sanctions of the same kind is logically impossible, if there is no ‘bigger’, more powerful agency. Again, this problem becomes critical at the global level: how can a ‘world enforcement agency’ more powerful than any other entity be effectively kept from abusing its power?

12     The problem of nonperforming measures of performance

Control and effective management of any complex process requires adequate measures of performance. Many social and economic problems are blamed on the use of measures of performance that are counterproductive to sustainability, social equity, fairness, and responsive stewardship of the environment; such as gross domestic product, profit, or growth. While this problem has been widely recognized and has led to calls for alternative measures, no convincing solutions have been proposed that are both widely acceptable and also can be smoothly introduced into economic systems operating on traditional principles: the transition problem to a system operating on different assumptions has not been adequately discussed nor solved.

Wicked problems of the global sustainability crisis

S O M E   P R O P O S A L S    T O   A D D R E S S   T H E S E  P RO B L E M S

These ideas are selected not because they solve all problem areas of the global sustainability crisis, but to highlight how solutions can aim at several issues.


a. A global framework for coordination of projects,  participatory discourse and negotiation,  research support,  education and information

b. The discourse framework based on the argumentative model of planning

c. Evaluation of planning arguments and discussion contributions

d. Rewards for discourse participation

e. The argumentative planning game

f. ‘Civic credit points’

g. Automatically triggered sanctions

h. Innovation zones in areas damaged by disasters

i. Quality of life measures based on the value of occasions (experiences) and image


a. A global framework for  coordination of projects,  participatory discourse and negotiation,  research support,  education and information

A global communication framework is needed for the coordination of many diverse, small local action projects and initiatives that should be encouraged and supported both as innovation laboratories for experiments with new approaches in all areas of societal organization and opportunities for people to pursue their visions, within a global framework of agreements for cooperation and conflict resolution. Its main components, besides the various action projects, are the coordination component, the discourse component, the research support component, and the education / information component.

b.    The discourse framework based on the argumentative model of planning

A key innovative feature of the proposal is the structure of the discourse component, which is based on the argumentative model of planning and policy-making (spearheaded by H. Rittel). The elements of the information support system for the discourse are issues (controversial questions) and the answers and argument to those issues.

c. Evaluation of planning arguments and discussion contributions

The argumentative model of the discourse component is enhanced by the provisions for systematic evaluation of the planning arguments (and other discussion contributions). The aim of this feature is to develop a measure of support for plan or policy proposals based on the merit of arguments: a measure of the merit of the discourse. The resulting measures can then provide the missing link between discourse merit and to decisions to be made — a link not adequately ensured by the current majority voting method.

d.    Rewards for discourse participation

The measures of merit of discourse contributions can be used to provide meaningful ‘rewards’ for participation, countering the problem of voter apathy even for large projects and constituencies.

e.   The argumentative planning game

To familiarize citizens with the tools of the argumentative discourse — faster than would be possible through the current system of public education — it is proposed to develop an ‘argumentative planning game (including the evaluation component discussed in items c and d above). The game aims at promoting (and rewarding) cooperation (rewarding win-win outcomes), critical thinking and evaluation; and should be developed both for ‘live’ applications and for wide participation in large planning discussions via videogame, cellphone and internet technology.

f.    ‘Civic credit points’

The measures of discussion contribution merit creates the possibility of establishing ‘civic credit point’ accounts for citizens, which provide legitimation / authorization for public decision-making (i.e. power) positions. Decisions require a ‘performance bond’ or ‘investment’ of credit points, used up with each decision, but with the possibility of earning further credit with successful decisions. This can provide a form of control of power: Power decisions can only be activated with adequate credit.

g.    Automatically triggered sanctions

Instead of traditional sanctions to ensure adherence to agreements and laws that have to be enforced by ‘enforcement’ agencies with greater power than any potential violator, forms of sanctions should be developed that are automatically triggered by the attempt at violation. Such provisions — perhaps involving the ‘civic credit points’ idea outlined in item f — would help solve the problem of controlling / constraining the power of global ‘enforcement’ entities.

h.    Innovation zones in areas damaged by disasters

Innovation efforts (and funding for these) are often resisted by existing structures that see these as competition and unwarranted ‘unfair’ expenditures. The proposal to encourage the establishment of ‘innovation zones’ for experiments with alternative organization of social and economic practices in areas damaged or destroyed by disasters sidesteps this problem. Emergency aid that will be spent in such areas might be devoted to innovative infrastructure and organization instead of mere re-construction of traditional structures. Successful experiments will encourage adjacent areas to adopt new practices and solutions; less successful efforts will gradually be replaced by improved traditional solutions — but will have produced valuable information about what works and what does not work.

i.    Quality of life measures based on value of occasions (human experiences) and image

While governments everywhere are beginning to follow the initiative of the kingdom of Bhutan in introducing quality of life or citizen happiness measures, to complement and perhaps eventually replace traditional economic measures such as growth or Gross Domestic Product, the indices adopted are usually quite general and therefore not very helpful in developing policies for improvement. An approach growing out of work to develop better measures of the value of built environment suggests an alternative set of measures of the quality of human experiences (‘occasions’) and the imagery evoked by the settings for these experiences. The resulting measures would be much more detailed, allow pinpointing the specific features of the environment or life conditions influencing citizens’ value assessments, and would therefore be more helpful in suggesting projects and policies for improvement.

Some solutions for the global sustainability problems


3 Responses to “A dirty dozen world-wide wicked problems related to the global sustainability crisis – and some solutions?”

  1. 1 Elizabeth Thomsen May 11, 2012 at 7:26 am

    I believe it would be beneficial to study further the practical possibilities for coexistance and how to find a different view on ‘competition’ 🙂 * * * * *

    • 2 abbeboulah May 14, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      Elizabeth, I agree that coexistence is one of the issues that need attention. To the extent it is accepted as an overall goal, I think most of the problems listed are obstacles to that goal: The problems related to communication are pertinent to coexistence with other humans (some of whom appear to be more interested in competition and non-coexistence, though — an added twist…). Coexistence with other species that we haven’t learned to communicate with, is a different aspect of the overall sustainability problem. Do you have any useful ideas for dealing with either one of these issues?

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