Eutrophication seen as ‘wicked’: a fresh approach to analysing an old problem

17 December 2013

Finding solutions to eutrophication requires their evaluation as 'wicked', not tame problems (Photo: Bill Harding)

Finding solutions to eutrophication requires their evaluation as ‘wicked’, rather than ‘tame’ problems (Photo: Bill Harding)

Published today in the journal of the International Lake Environment Committee (ILEC), Lakes and Reservoirs: Research and Management (Volume 18) (Wiley Science) is a refreshing new approach to eutrophication (= nutrient enrichment) assessment. The paper considers eutrophication as a ‘wicked problem‘, i.e. a problem that evades simplistic interpretation and/or management by virtue of its multi-layered complexity.  All too often, frighteningly often in fact, attempts to manage eutrophication do not consider the multi-layered nature of aquatic ecosystems and, by focussing on single issues, achieve little and create more problems. It is believed that the application of wicked problem theory to eutrophication will unlock a new approach to and thinking about the problem that will demonstrably augment the formulation of eutrophication management approaches.

The international group of authors, including three from South Africa, summarised their work as follows:

Eutrophication, or the enrichment of lakes and reservoirs with plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, is an ongoing concern facing human societies around the world. Once thought to have been resolved using engineering approaches such as municipal wastewater treatment and storm water management, the problem of nutrient enrichment not only persists, but even continues to increase, being manifested in harmful algal blooms, limitations on access to safe drinking water supplies, and related concerns associated with fresh water in lakes and reservoirs. The continuing concern surrounding eutrophication fulfils the many attributes of a ‘wicked’ or complex problem facing society.  This report reviews seriatim the ten attributes of a wicked problem, and the implications of these attributes for lake and reservoir management are discussed. Recognition of eutrophication as a wicked problem requires site-specific approaches, based on specific knowledge of individual water bodies, as well as an ongoing commitment to lake and reservoir management to respond to new manifestations of the problems of nutrient enrichment as they continue to be revealed over time. 

The concept of wicked problems is common to various fields of analysis such as social policy planning.  Per the Austin Center for Design (ac4d), ‘A wicked problem is a form of social or cultural problem that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to bother with. Yet these are the problems that plague our world and our cities – poverty, sustainability, equality and health and wellness are issues that touch each and every one of us’.  The work by Thornton et al is a first in the field of lake management and, in particular, the burgeoning global problem of eutrophication.  Wicked problems have the following characteristics:

  • 1.            There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
  • 2.            Wicked problems have no stopping rule  (i.e. you can’t say, we have now solved the problem completely) .
  • 3.            Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  • 4.            There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • 5.            Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  • 6.            Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be      incorporated into the plan.
  • 7.            Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  • 8.            Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  • 9.            The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  • 10.          The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

By contrast, ‘tame problems’ are defined as:

  • having a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement.
  • having a definite stopping point, i.e. we know when a solution is reached.
  • having a solution which can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong.
  • belonging to a class of similar problems which can be solved in a similar manner.
  • having solutions which can be tried and abandoned.

The authors, together with colleagues from various countries, will now proceed to analyse and publish a set of case studies in order to demonstrate the relevance [to eutrophication] of wicked problems at a practical level.

Source:  Thornton, J. A., Harding, W. R., Dent, M., Hart, R. C., Lin, H., Rast, C. L., Rast, W., Ryding, S.-O. and Slawski, T. M. (2013), Eutrophication as a ‘wicked’ problem. Lakes & Reservoirs: Research & Management, 18: 298–316. doi: 10.1111/lre.12044.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *