2018 Prof Talks: Wicked Policy Problems

By Lawrence Zhang

Since World War II, humanity has been afflicted with intractable policy problems that extend far beyond the traditional scope of public policy. These are problems that stretch beyond the jurisdiction of one single country, that are too grave in consequence to take a trial-and-error approach to, and have too many competing perspectives to resolve in a satisfactory way. From global climate change, to nuclear arms races, to the threat of a robot uprising , these problems, or wicked policy problems, as they have come to be defined, increasingly beset society from every side.

On November 12th, Dr. Steven Bernstein, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Political Science Department and co-director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy’s Environmental Governance Lab, and Nathan Alexander Sears, the winner of the 2018 Global Affairs Canada International Policy Ideas Challenge, PhD student at the university’s Department of Political Science, and Trudeau Centre Fellow in Peace, Conflict, and Justice at the Munk School, gave a presentation about the concept of wicked policy problems hosted by the Masters of Public Policy Student Association at the Munk School. Together, they presented what constituted a wicked policy problem and pressed the importance of recognizing these problems for what they are.

Dr. Steven Bernstein and Nathan Alexander Sears                                                                                

To kick off the lecture, Dr. Bernstein set the stage by introducing the concept of wicked policy problems and what he, in a 2012 Policy Sciences article co-published with several other authors, called “super wicked problems”. He noted that wicked policy problems possess several key characteristics, namely that they have:

  1. No definable and simple set of policy solutions.
  2. No opportunities for trial and error, as the consequences of any action will be grave.
  3. No immediate or ultimate method of testing whether the solution was effective.
  4. Solutions that are not right or wrong, but merely better or worse.
    Additionally, “super wicked problems”, like climate change, have four additional defining characteristics:
  5. Time is running out and the problem is irreversible.
  6. There is no central authority on this issue.
  7. The parties seeking to end the problem are also the ones causing it.
  8. Policies are irrational in the sense that they value the present far more than the future.

Bernstein went on to note that there are different kinds of responses to these problems, but his recommendation was one of progressive incrementalism. This approach stresses the impact of creating small changes in the present that will lead to large effects in the future, born from the reverse engineering of path dependency, where small triggers lead to large and permanent consequences. In practice, this would mean trying to use “forward reasoning” to determine potential solutions with global impacts in the future. He then turned to the topic on everyone’s mind – given that we now know that climate change is a super wicked problem, what do we do about it? The answer, he said, lies in framing the issue differently to create new norms and bring opposing interests into new coalitions and alliances. Reframing the climate change issue as the politics of decarbonization, he said, would focus the analysis on disrupting carbon lock-in instead of debating how emissions ought to be distributed amongst developed and developing nations, a debate which has long hamstrung progress.

Following this, Sears presented a modified version of the presentation that won him the 2018 Global Affairs Canada International Policy Ideas Challenge, on global catastrophic risk. He noted that there have long been existential threats to humanity – from natural threats like asteroids to anthropogenic threats like nuclear war or climate change. With arguments like the Fermi Paradox and the probabilistic Doomsday Argument, Sears challenged attendees to recognize humanity’s place in the universe is but a blip in the grander consideration of space and time throughout the cosmos. Certainly, he noted, there are reasons to be skeptical of the doom-and-gloom attitude, as Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard has noted, but it is important for policy makers to go further and approach the skepticism with skepticism. In recent decades we have seen a proliferation of global catastrophic risks –immense, terrible, and non-negligible problems with a low probability but a high impact. The constraints to solving them lay in their immense complexity and the negative outcomes which flow from our global system where states act in self-interest rather than global interest. Sears ultimately presents the argument that policy makers around the world must recognize the consequences of inaction surrounding global catastrophic risks and wicked policy problems.

But where do we go from here? Both Bernstein and Sears had a number of thoughts on the implications of wicked policy problems. To conclude his portion, Bernstein noted that interventions will always face opposition and action must be taken despite opposition, justice and equity must always be considered when addressing large structural issues such as these, and that policy makers need to think forward and monitor feedback. Sears approached this issue with a different focus – single governments unilaterally creating policy solutions to the complex international problems within their borders may not ultimately fix these problems by themselves, but they always stand to gain from these solutions. One country alone may not fix the issue of climate change, for instance, but they certainly benefit from addressing pollution problems within their borders, even if another country chooses not to reduce emissions.

The talk ended with the two answering questions from the audience, ranging from whether the lens of wicked policy problems could be applied to further international geostrategic problems to how policy makers ought to reconcile the roles of evidence and ideology in addressing policy problems of such magnitude. Yet one questions remains – what actions will decision-makers around the world take to address the growing list of wicked policy problems?


Lawrence Zhang is currently a first year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.  He is interested in immigration policy, infrastructure policy, and big questions around how we will future-proof the economy.  He previously worked in politics and is doing his best to adjust to the life of a student again. 

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