Problem ecosystems: A perspective on understanding and addressing complex social system challenges

In a recent post, I asked what design thinking can do better to create more impact and value in complex systemic-level problems of the kind found in health and social care, the built and natural environment, education, global development and in many markets and industries. I argued that despite best efforts, many design thinking-led solutions are adding only limited value in such contexts. They suffer from low take-up, do not scale and are not deployed on a sustained basis. 

In this follow-up, I offer some perspectives and prescriptions for addressing the limitations of design thinking in the context of complex system problems. I do so by exploring three questions:

  1. Reality - What is the reality of complex system problems?
  2. Limitations - How does this reality help identify the limitations of design thinking, and also systems thinking?
  3. Synthesis - How is it possible to forge a practical synthesis of design with systems thinking to achieve sustained positive and scale impact of interventions?

Idea in brief

Using principles from ecology, complex social system problems are viewed as "problem ecosystems". Each consists of four distinct yet overlapping fields of social practices that differ in the nature of their purpose, power or influence, complexity and dynamics, as well as the characteristics of the actors and resources (including technologies and capabilities) that constitute and perform them. When overlaying some strategic purpose or intent to address a problem ecosystem, such as to sustainably prevent, eliminate, reduce or avoid the problem, this perspective makes it more possible to structure, see and capture much deeper understanding of the root causes of the problem, together with the current constraints on, and opportunities for realising that intent. 

Using a problem ecosystem lens, and the four fields model and guidelines contained in the article, actors who share an intent to address the problem can better discover and design novel possibilities or frames to guide intervention, prototypes, solutions and action. In short, a problem ecosystem perspective helps to address the current limitations of scale and sustained impact characterised by existing efforts to address complex social system problems. It also provides opportunities for forging a new methodological synthesis between a complexity or design thinking orientation focused on abductive novelty and imagination, and that of complicated or system thinking focused on deductive analysis, insight and prediction.

The Reality of Complex System Problems

First, let us remind ourselves of the dominant worldview in respect of complex or if you prefer, "wicked" system problems. Most complexity / design thinkers will say the problems they wish to address:

  1. Are open, overlapping and adjacent to one another
  2. Consist of many sub-problems, where addressing one can lead to unintended consequences for another, or create new problems
  3. Contain a high diversity of actors and resources, and interactions between them
  4. Are dynamic in the sense they are always adapting, emerging and resolving at different rates; 
  5. Contain non-linear connections, both direct and indirect
  6. Have multiple indirect feedback loops
  7. Are neither measurable nor predictable

Informed by this problem worldview, complexity / design thinking promotes action over analysis, safe-to-fail experimentation over planning, and learning-by-doing over prediction. It argues that as complex system problems can never be fully understood, are deeply interconnected and also lack clear definition or boundaries, interventions cannot be planned or predicted in advance. Rather, it is better to capture sufficient empathic problem understanding to guide collaborative idea-generation, prototype design and intervention, and then learn and adapt from ongoing feedback arising from direct action and engagement with the problem.

Introducing Problem Ecosystems

I do not hold the view that complex social system problems hold all the above complexity characteristics universally and consistently. Whilst the problem presents as complex, in fact not everything inside the problem is complex. Rather, I suggest that every complex social system problem is made up of four identifiable, distinct yet overlapping fields of similar socio-technical practices that can be distinguished by their broad purpose, role or meaning within the problem ecosystem, their degree of power or influence on the other fields, their relative complexity and dynamics, their material and technological elements, and the characteristics of the actors that constitute and perform them.