Grand challenges are usually defined as “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solutions” (Branscomb, 2009). The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) focus on those grand challenges faced by individuals around the world. Many grand challenge scholars consider technology to be the answer to many of these complex problems. My project focuses on Goal 16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions”, and while it may not initially seem to be a problem with a technological solution, my project will argue otherwise. When I first heard of the idea of “Grand Challenges” I immediately connected it to the idea of “wicked problems”. I thought when we first covered them in class and I still think now that noting similarities between grand challenges and wicked problems equip an individual better to solve either.
An overly simple definition of a wicked problem is some issue that resists a definitive solution because any policy applied to the problem does harm as well as good. Instead, wicked problems must be addressed through incremental policies that improve the status quo by doing more harm than good. Horst Rittel was one of the first scholars to formalize a general theory of wicked problems and his definition focuses on several characteristics of these social issues. First, wicked problems have no one cause. For example, the problem of poverty in an Iranian city is simultaneously similar and fundamentally different from poverty in the Chinese countryside. Second, wicked problems can be only comparatively good or bad, not objectively successful. There is no ideal end to reach, and so approaches to wicked problems should be clear ways to improve a situation rather than solve it. We can make the world more just, but we cannot solve injustice. Countries around the world have different perspectives on the death penalty and for some, its continued us is unjust. For others, its use is necessary for true justice.
Rittel lists inequality and political instability explicitly as examples of wicked problems. International and domestic policy makers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and the SDGs have promise for positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions. We all have to keep in mind however that no solution in any of these projects are easy, quick, or individually sufficient.