Why we need a 'Wicked Problems Agency'

Why we need a 'Wicked Problems Agency'

The first five months of 2020 sent a parade of “wicked problems” around the globe, including a plague of locusts in Asia and Africa, bushfires in Australia and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Wicked problems can be defined as problems that no one knows how to solve without creating further problems. We struggle to mitigate them because they transcend borders and generations. 

During and after World War II, policymakers also confronted significant problems, such as how to keep the peace, encourage recovery and prevent starvation. They tackled these problems by creating collaborative institutions and rules, and by providing generous aid and technical assistance. However, today’s wicked problems will require a different approach — one that incentivizes researchers, firms and governments to share data from diverse sources (machines and humans) and then encourages them to utilize that data to analyze and mitigate systemic problems.  

The current parade of wicked problems occurs at the same time that many nations are creating an economy built on the analysis of various types of data. By combining vast data sets from different sources, and utilizing analytical techniques such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and crowdsourced analysis, researchers are learning new insights about how people and systems behave. A “Wicked Problems Agency” — a new take on the acronym WPA — could build on these developments by providing the means to share data, training researchers in how to use new analytic techniques, and then applying these techniques.    

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However, before researchers can collaborate to mitigate such problems, they must overcome many obstacles. First, not all nations have the training and skills to collect and verify data and apply these analytical techniques. These nations may not be supportive of such an endeavor. Second, policymakers in many nations don’t yet see data as an asset or know how to govern data.  Third, although many nations have national rules governing various types of data, there are no internationally accepted rules to govern how data is collected, utilized, protected and shared. As a result, some governments may be less willing to share data across sectors and among nations.

Fourth, many firms have large troves of personal data, which they safeguard because it allows them to create or improve products and services. Yet, many of these firms do provide AI for good programs and, by sharing data, they could multiply the benefits of their efforts. 

Given these considerable obstacles, an innovative and flexible Wicked Problems Agency could encourage individuals, firms and governments to share data and use that data to solve complex problems. In doing so, the WPA would show how data-based research can mitigate complex problems and encourage economic growth, innovation and improved well-being. 

The WPA would be different from many other international institutions. It would have no headquarters; instead it would be based in the cloud, staffed by visiting researchers and a small secretariat, and built on shared open data. It would be funded by contributions from individuals, governments and firms who could provide both real money and in-kind contributions of infrastructure and staff. 

The agency could begin by asking its constituents — researchers, firms and governments — to verify and then provide data from a wide range of sources and make it available to anyone who wanted to do research on wicked problems. It also could perform a data certification function, working with its stakeholders to ensure that the data used to analyze problems is diverse, accurate, effectively anonymized when necessary, and collected and analyzed under best practices. It could train policymakers in these practices and techniques. In so doing, the WPA could help countries learn the value of data and how to govern it. Moreover, it would complement the United Nations’s new roadmap for the use of data to meet U.N. goals.

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In recent years, we have seen that data can be disruptive, bringing down governments and firms and encouraging the spread of disinformation. We’ve also seen analytical techniques such as AI used in a discriminatory and unethical manner. To address these issues, the WPA would be dedicated to enhancing human rights, building both on internationally accepted principles for data governance  and the innovative work of Canada to assess and mitigate the risks associated with deploying an automated decision system. In so doing, it would model how data can be shared and utilized.

History judges us by how we assess and respond to challenging problems. Wicked problems offer the world an opportunity to forge new ways of collaboration in the digital age. 

Susan Ariel Aaronson is a professor and director of the Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub at George Washington University, as well as a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Follow her on Twitter @AaronsonSusan.