Is EDI (Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) a Wicked Problem?
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
In today’s world there are endless references to what are known as wicked problems, or problems with no objective and definitive answers and solutions. Climate change, poverty, homelessness and food security are some examples. The concept was created in 1973 by Rittel and Webber, and since its inception in planning studies, it has now become a widely used term in environmental sciences, business, design, social sciences, education, engineering and many other disciplines and fields. Last year, the journal Policy and Society published an issue specifically focused on a theoretical reassessment of wicked problems.
If we think about the current state of EDI in Canada and other countries, it’s evident we have a highly complex and urgent problem that demands immediate answers and solutions. It’s also evident the problem is not new (it’s actually very old).
For EDI practitioners, it's no surprise that multiple businesses and organizations have struggled to adequately respond to the moment. Multiple CEOs and public service leaders have exhibited their ignorance, defensiveness and lack of understanding of the issues at stake. Many others, have nothing to show despite having allocated resources to an EDI business plan or a Chief Diversity Officer for years. Could it be that we have a wicked problem at hand?
Let’s see how the main elements of Rittel and Webber’s wicked problems look like when we talk about EDI.
· Wicked problems are poorly defined.
When we implement EDI programs and initiatives, what are the problems that we are trying to solve? Are we uselessly trying to eliminate unconscious bias? Is it about achieving proportional representation? Are we aiming to eliminate disparities and disproportionalities? Do we want to achieve equitable outcomes for different populations in specific sectors? Do we want to interrupt white supremacy? Is it about the ultimate goal of dismantling systemic and institutional racism?
· Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
If there’s no clarity on the problem we are trying to solve, how will we know when we have solved it? The reality is that we are far from tangible solutions to address the fact that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) systematically experience inequitable outcomes in life, that irrefutable disparities and disproportionalities exist in multiple sectors, that spaces and leadership positions are not even close to being proportionally representative and…that systemic and institutional racism ought to be eradicated.
· The solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, only good or bad.
It’s true that many business and organizations have had EDI initiatives in the works for years. Is this good enough? No, it’s not! Has there been any progress? Not so much. Some of these initiatives have even had detrimental effects and have aggravated the same problems they were trying to address in the first place. Only accountability to those impacted by these initiatives and reliable data, can confirm if interventions have had a positive or a negative effect.
· Wicked problems have no ultimate test for solutions.
Think about how many interventions would be needed to achieve equitable outcomes for BIPOC in education, housing, health, labour market, children welfare, criminal justice system, etc. What would the ultimate test look like to you?
· Wicked problems have no clear solution. There’s no end to the number of solutions.
I often hear people refer to equity, diversity, inclusion, unconscious bias, anti-racism, anti-oppression, and intercultural competence as if all these terms had the same meaning and could be used interchangeably. They are not the same, and they certainly have different frameworks and limitations. I like to think of each of these approaches as tools in a toolbox that are more or less suitable depending on the specificities of the problem at hand and its ecosystem.
· Wicked problems are essentially unique.
EDI programs and initiatives need to be tailored to the particular characteristics and needs of every business, organization and community. EDI problems are likely to share certain patterns, but each problem and its ecosystem are unique; an effective solution to tackle them should be as well.
· Wicked problems are often the symptom of another problem and have multiple explanations.
There is no way to sugar-coat the fact that “typical” EDI problems are the reflection of bigger problems like systemic racism, white supremacy and historical legacies (slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, etc.)
So, do you think EDI is a wicked problem? I think as it stands today it is, but it doesn’t have to be.
Back in 1973, Rittel and Webber were clear about the lack of immunity when trying to solve wicked problems. In their view, planners didn’t have the right to be wrong and not be liable for the consequences of their actions. How does this translate into the EDI world?
People and communities are not easily deceived. They see through cosmetic and performative actions and are rightfully demanding accountability from institutions, businesses and community organizations. Wicked problems seem overwhelming, but it's not an option to continue waiting for the magic trick that we all know does not exist. We need to be accountable for our actions and inactions.
If we strive to actually see some progress in this field, it’s imperative to start with a clear focus and locate specific EDI programs and initiatives in what Noordegraf (2019) calls situational wickedness. In other words, situations that basically contain all the wickedness ingredients and are experienced as wicked by the actors involved.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of approach. We need to start from particular situations and specific problems and ecosystems to (re) design EDI initiatives, and most importantly…we need to get it right! There’s too much at stake and no immunity if we fail. I’ll leave that reflection for a different post.
 Rittel, H.W., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169  Noordegraaf, M., Douglas, S., & Geuijen, K., & van der Steen, M. (2019). Weaknesses of wickedness: A critical perspective on wickedness theory. Policy and Society.