The technical term ‘wicked problem’ is a useful description of the most urgent and serious global challenges – from poverty and inequality to climate change.
Deeming a problem as ‘wicked’ is not a matter of good vs. evil, but is a concept used by social scientists to identify problems that lack a single definable solution and are considered impossible, or at least difficult, to solve.
Take, for example, the climate crisis, which is not just a scientific challenge, but also a political challenge, an economic challenge, and, fundamentally, an ethical challenge. The contribution of multiple fields leads to complexity and competing priorities, making the problem difficult to break down.
At the same time, wicked problems are also human problems, exacerbated by human conflicts that often emerge from uncertainty and inequality.
Difficult or impossible?
Wicked problems can often appear overwhelming and immovable. However, at the Boris Mints Institute, while we recognise that wicked problems may be difficult and enduring, with the right focus, resolve and expertise, many are, in fact, possible to solve.
Our Institute’s researchers are working to create solutions to those persistent problems for good. Poverty and inequality have plagued human history, but that has not dissuaded our Social Inequality Lab, overseen by two brilliant minds, our Institute Head Prof. Itai Sened and Dr. Nechumi Yaffe, from seeking to address their root causes, with a particular focus on enhancing access to higher education.
Addressing collaboration ‘blockers’
Whatever the problem, it is also vital to tackle human behaviours that restrict collective problem solving. People with different values, cultures and ideologies can struggle to collaborate when working on simple tasks. The ability to build consensus becomes even more difficult when faced with a complex, multifaceted problem.
That is why the Boris Mints Institute’s Conflict Resolution Lab is prioritising research into key ‘blockers’ to collaboration. Institute Fellow Gal Factor is investigating the role of ‘meta-perceptions’ – how one group thinks that another out-group is perceiving them – on breakdowns in relationships between groups, and how to break that cycle. Meanwhile, Institute Fellow Petr Pesov has articulated a universal typology of armed conflict, which emphasises the role of polarising narratives between rival groups in driving conflict. This is practical work, applicable to the contemporary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and in unpacking the complexity of other long-running conflicts, such as the Armenia-Azerbaijan and Kashmir conflicts.
No room for small dreams
Any organisation, academic or otherwise, that seeks to address these wicked problems might be accused of utopian thinking. Against this charge, the setting of our Institute in the heart of Tel Aviv provides a powerful riposte. Israel is a country built on imagination and innovation, which as Shimon Peres put it, left “no room for small dreams”. At the Institute, we want to take advantage of the opportunity to get stuck into these wicked problems and set the best minds to work on finding global solutions.