Why can’t we solve complex problems?

When the world started tackling Malaria, a disease that was killing millions of people, the World Health Organisation rallied to solve the problem. One of the big solutions was mosquito nets. In truth, it was a great idea. Mosquitos were transmitting Malaria to humans. If you can stop mosquitos biting human beings, you can prevent the transmission of Malaria.

Guess what happened next? After rolling out about 450 million nets, we discovered that people started using them for fishing. It turns out the mosquito nets were great at catching fish — they barely let anything through! This is an excellent example of trying to tackle complex problems. You don’t always know how the system, and people, will react.

Practically all of the significant challenges facing us are complex — whether it’s climate change, malnutrition or sanitation. What do these challenges have in common?

  • They are difficult to define. Different people will have different opinions about the cause, nature and extent of the problem.
  • The problem is hard to tackle because cause and effect relationships are not repeatable. It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future.
  • The only way to learn is to experiment — there is no ‘one way’ to solve the problem.
  • It requires the cooperation of multiple people and organisations.
  • Complex problems are notoriously tricky, so your experiments will likely fail.

​So what the hell can we do? This is where systems thinking can help.

In the next lesson, we will explore how systems thinking might help. The three lessons after that will provide you with tangible ways to understand and tackle complex problems. The last lesson is a summary you can refer to as a cheatsheet.

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Abram El-Sabagh

Abram El-Sabagh

Human-centred designer. ThinkPlace. Designing for positive outcomes.