The case for humble activism: how wicked social problems are solved and outgrown
Can social problems be solved? Are they like problems in maths or engineering that just need to be analysed in the right way in order to point to a logical answer? Or are most social problems essentially insoluble, too wicked or complex to be grappled with?
In this piece I attempt some answers and suggest how we navigate the space between hubris and fatalism.
I start with a quote from Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ which brilliantly captured why we should be humble in the face of the complexity of the world around us. ‘The actions of Napoleon and Alexander’ he wrote ‘…were no more self-determined than the actions of any common soldier … in order for the will of Napoleon or Alexander (who appear to have dictated events) to prevail, it would have been necessary for a countless number of disparate circumstances to coincide, and without any one of them those events could never have occurred. It was necessary for those millions of men who wielded the real power - soldiers shooting or bringing up supplies and guns - to do what they were told by one or two feeble individuals, and to have been brought to this point by an infinite number of complex and disparate causes.’
The quote is timely at a time when a leader has launched a war that is turning out so unlike his expectations, reminding us of the many times wars achieved the opposite results to those intended by their initiators, like Napoleon helping Britain to dominate the 20th century; Hitler leaving communism far stronger than before; the Americans fuelling Islamic extremism in Iraq. The world is far more complex than our minds can grasp.
But what follows for social problem-solving? We can crudely compare two opposite answers. At one pole is what is sometimes parodied as ‘solutionism’: the idea that every problem is discrete and amenable to solution through logical analysis and the mobilization of evidence, often helped by the use of experiments and randomized control trials. Educational performance by girls in sub-Saharan Africa answered by programmes on nutrition; depression answered by CBT. Sometimes this is encouraged by US Foundations or Silicon Valley, with proposals for an app for X or an AI solution for Y.
At the opposite pole is the ‘theory of wicked problems’, set out in a famous article by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber half a century ago. This argued that there are many problems which lack any solution either because there was no chance of a consensus about what the societal good should be or because the nature of the problem makes it so difficult to experiment or test alternatives. It implies that many of the most important problems are essentially insoluble and that we should be profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of social progress or planning. It echoes what Albert Hirschmann called the ‘rhetorics of reaction’ which argue that reforms are likely to futile, to achieve perverse results or to jeopardise what’s good.
In my view both views are misleading. Solutionism treats everything as separate and ignores structural conditions – power and inequality – and so usually disappoints, since few problems can be solved completely in isolation.
But the ‘wicked problems’ lens is just as misleading. When the classic article on it was written the world’s most wicked problem was the population explosion which was the subject of innumerable books, commissions and articles. It was assumed to be very hard to solve and threatened everything from social cohesion to the world environment.
Against expectations, however, now our perspective is almost opposite. Birth rates are now far below replacement rates in China, Europe, north America and many other countries (in South Korea for example they are now at less than half the replacement rate which means that sharp population decline is now inevitable).
This shift was influenced by actions – like China’s One Child Policy – but much of the change was more about outgrowing the problem than solving it, as aspirations, better education for women, contraception and shifting values changed behaviour.
Another example is stagflation – inflation and unemployment together – which was also thought to be insoluble in the 1970s. But it too was ‘outgrown’ as multiple actions addressed both problems.
I’ve been involved in quite a few examples of apparently wicked problems being tackled, from cutting street homeless in the UK by 80%, cutting teenage pregnancy by 50% or cutting UK carbon emissions in half. In each case there were actions and solutions although no single solution did all the work.
Indeed, often the policy activism combined with wider shifts which were far beyond the power of government. Sometimes we underestimate the self-healing capacities of communities and individuals. A good example of this is PTSD. The US found thousands of soldiers returning from Afghanistan or Iraq with PTSD. At first they tried offering them all therapy and support. But later they discovered that the veterans got better results if they let people sort out their own PTSD and then only focused on the 4-5% who still needed help. In other words, the army needed to respect the self-healing capacities of soldiers rather than only seeing them as problems needing to be solved.
Attempts to reduce violence in general, and male violence in particular (which is most violence) are really good illustrations of this. A couple of decades ago quite prescriptive and formulaic solutions were popular, like the Duluth model. But more recent work showed that these were not very effective. Instead, some of the best programmes are ones that combine multiple elements together; that act on evidence but not in formulaic ways; that shape environments as well as acting on individual behaviour; and that create some space for self-healing to work without depending on it too much. Add all those things together and a lot can be achieved.
So, in each case, it wasn’t a simple matter of solving the problem but rather of combining multiple actions. Sometimes it was about outgrowing the problem as well as solving it head on, mobilising self-healing capacities as well as using power and money.
I like to think of this as a kind of ‘humble activsm’ by which I mean being humble in the face of the complexity of the world, but not shying away from activism, and doing your best to promote solutions rather than passive inaction (here I am echoing Demos Helsinki’s work on humble governance).
The simple moral is that we should always be hungry for answers – for evidence, ideas, experiments and innovations. But we should also be hungry to reflect on whether the questions need to be reframed as well, in the way that the nature of the population problem changed radically, or that homelessness needs to be seen as a lack of homes but also as a symptom of broader problems such as family breakdown or mental illness.
This is where we find a viable balance between hubris and fatalism, between extreme solutionism and its mirror pessimism.
This is also vital for our imagination. I have been working a lot on how to revive our shared social imagination which has been squeezed as people find it easier to imagine ecological disaster or technological futures than to imagine how their societies can be better a generation from now.
Here too what we need sits somewhere between the hubris of trying to impose a utopia or a rigid vision on the world, and the alternative of believing that there is nothing we can do to shape our world and solve its problems.
We nearly always risk overestimating how much can change short-term but underestimating how much can change in the longer run. So, for our imagination too, we need to keep both the questions and the answers in motion.
[This piece was delivered as a talk to Y-Saatio in Helsinki in March 2022]