Monday, July 02, 2018

After attending ReCity’s Roundtable discussion in June, I introduced the concept of Wicked or Complex Problems. So I thought I’d spend a little more time thinking about complex problems with regard to the nonprofit sector, particularly some of the social challenges communities experience. First simple problems are ones that have a clear cause and effect and are fairly easy to solve. For example, my car needs gas to run. If it doesn’t have gas it doesn’t run; easy problem to solve. Complicated problems add a layer of difficulty but are still predictable. Perhaps my car is not running for some other reason; one that I don’t understand because I don’t know the ins and outs of a car motor. However, a great technician will be able to solve the problem and fix it because s/he understands a car engine. We can solve many of complicated problems by taking things apart. Reducing them to unique pieces that we can examine and fix and will not impact the rest of the system.

Let’s think about a complex problem. Hunger. Hunger is not having enough food. The simple solution is to give those who are hungry food. However, if we dig deeper into what is causing the hunger we discover many different causes for hunger. Hunger for a child in a family may also be very different from hunger in a senior citizen who lives alone. Perhaps a family can’t afford food. Maybe the food being consumed is not nutritious. The food system map below begins to demonstrate of the many things that influence hunger in a community. 


This food system map shows a great example of a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems have three characteristics.

  1. First, there are numerous stakeholders or agents. Each stakeholder has a different perspective and a different agenda, sometimes conflicting agendas and at other times complimentary agendas.
  2. Interaction is the second characteristic. Notice in the food system map how the internal circles are connected to each other showing the interaction between different aspects of the issue. 
  3. Finally, behaviors, patterns, problems and solutions emerge. Because we are humans and because some things are beyond our control, the changes that occur in the system are not always predictable. One shift in the system, may have small effects, while another shift may result in huge changes somewhere else. 

So, what does this have to do with nonprofits? I have spent a few years thinking about hunger and I always thought that food banks were a great way to making sure that people in our community are not hungry. Food drives were a great way to engage volunteers and neighbors involved in solving the problem.. When looking at the complexity of the problem, I realize that this “solution” is limited and it only meets an immediate crisis-oriented need rather than being a sustaining solution.  What’s more, there are limitations in how systems can repurpose, store, and redistribute perishable food, making the supply less available for some people who may need it most. I wonder how does my can of beans really help someone who can’t afford meals over a period of several months or more? I had to start thinking about what other parts of the system need to be mobilized and resourced. How can we get more fresh produce and meat to people who need it? Is there a way to make the produce and other healthy foods cheaper? Well, not if the farmer needs to make a living wage from farming in order to provide the fresh produce. You see?

With complex problems, we need to think about ALL these pieces and the number of nonprofits, for profits, and government programs that might have an impact on the  system. In the food system, we need to think about every component of the system interacts and explore how they can align around the complex problem of hunger.

Perhaps there is a way to solve hunger that encourages the growth of small farms across the country (a solution to the decreasing number of small, family farms). . . .