30: Sledgehammers for wicked problems

There are many definitions of ‘wicked problems’ – first characterised by Rittel and Webber in the 1970s – try googling to explore. However, essentially, they are problems that are well known, difficult and that governments of all colours have attempted to solve. My own list, relating to cities in the UK, would be something like:

  • social
    • social disparities
    • welfare – unemployment, pensions,……
    • housing
  • services
    • health services – elements of post-code lottery, poor performance, resources
    • education – a long tail of poor performance – for individuals and schools
    • prisons – high levels of recidivism
  • economics
    • productivity outside the Greater South East
    • ‘poor’ towns – seaside towns for example
  • global, with local impacts – sustainability
    • responding to the globalisation of the economy
    • responding to climate change
    • food security
    • energy security
    • indeed security in general

There are lots of ways of doing this and much more detail could be added. See for example the book edited by Charles Clarke titled The too difficult box.

Even at this broad level of presentation, the issues all connect and this is one of the arguments, continually put, for joined-up government. It is almost certainly the case, for example, that the social list has to be tackled through the education system. Stating this, however, is insufficient. Children from deprived families arrive at school relatively ill-prepared – in terms of vocabulary for example and so start – it has been estimated – two years ‘behind’ and in a conventional system, there is a good chance that they never catch up. There are extremes of this. Children who have been in care for example rarely progress to higher education; and it then turns out that quite a high percentage of the prison population have at some stage in their lives been in care. Something fundamental is wrong there.

We can conjecture that there is another chain of causal links associated with housing issues. Consider not the overall numbers issue – that as a country we build 100,000 houses a year when the ‘need’ is estimated at 200,000 or more – but the fact that there are areas of very poor housing, usually associated with deprived families. I would argue that this is not a housing problem but an income problem – not enough resource for the families to maintain the housing. It is an income problem because it is an employment problem. It is an employment problem because it is a skills problem. It is a skills problem because it is an education problem. Hence the root, as implied earlier, lies in education. So a first step in seeking to tackle the issues on the list of to identify the causal chain and to begin with the roots.

What, then, is the ‘sledgehammer’ argument? If the problem can be articulated and analysed, then it should be possible to see ‘what can be done about it’. The investigation of feasibility then kicks in of course: solutions are usually expensive. However, we don’t usually manage to do the cost-benefit analysis at a broad scale. If we could be more effective in providing education for children in care, and for the rehabilitation of prisoners, expensive schemes could be paid for by savings in the welfare and prison budgets: invest to save.

Let’s start with education. There are some successful schools in potentially deprived areas – so examples are available. (This may not pick up the child care issues but we return to that later.) There are many studies that say that the critical factor in education is the quality of the teachers – so enhancing the status of the teaching profession and building on schemes such as Teach First will be very important. Much is being done, not quite enough. Above all, there must be a way of not accepting ‘failure’ in any individual cases. With contemporary technology, tracking is surely feasible, though the follow-up might involve lots of 1-1 work and that is expensive. Finally, there is a legacy issue: those from earlier cohorts who have been failed by the system will be part of the current welfare and unemployment challenge, and so again some kind of tracking, some joining up of social services, employment services and education, should provide strong incentives to engage in life-long learning programmes – serious catch up. The tracking and joining up part of this programme should also deal with children in care as a special case, and a component of the legacy programme should come to grips with the prison education and rehabilitation agenda. There is then an important add-on: it may be necessary for the state to provide employment in some cases. Consider people released from prison as one case. They are potentially unattractive to employers (though some are creative in this respect) and so employment through let’s say a Remploy type of scheme – maybe as a licence condition of (early?) release becomes a partial solution. This might help to take the UK back down the league table of prison population per capita. This could all in principle be done and paid for out of savings – though there may be an element of no pain ‘no gain’ at the start. There are examples where it is being done: let’s see how they could be scaled up.

Similar analyses could be brought to bear on other issues. Housing is at the moment driven by builders’ and developers’ business models; and as with teacher supply, there is a capacity issue. As we have noted, in part it needs to be driven by education, employment and welfare reforms as a contribution to affordability challenges. And it needs to be driven by planners who can switch from a development control agenda to a place-making one.

The rest of the list, for now, is, very unfairly, left as an exercise for the reader!! In all cases, radical thinking is required, but realistic solutions are available!! We can offer a Michael Barber check list for tackling problems – from his book How to run a government so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy – very delivery-focused, as is his wont. For a problem:

  • What are you trying to do?
  • How are you going to do it?
  • How do you know you will be on track?
  • if not on track, what will you do?

All good advice!

Alan Wilson

29: Universities in the not-too-distant future

Will universities look different in 25 or 50 years’ time? I think at least some will, perhaps all. There will be new imperatives for successful countries and regions, and universities can play a crucial role. It is commonplace to say that future societies and economies will be knowledge-based. The Swedish economist, Ake Andersson, used to argue that a successful region needed three Cs for success: creative, cognitive and communications capabilities. Universities are the heart of this provision. Continue reading “29: Universities in the not-too-distant future”

28: The brain as a model

An important part of my intellectual toolkit has been Stafford Beer’s book Brain of the firm, published in 1972. Stafford Beer was a larger than life character who was a major figure in operational research, cybernetics, general systems theory and management science. I have a soft spot for him because of his book and work more widely and because, though I never met him, he wrote to me in 1970 after the publication of my Entropy book saying that it was the best description of ‘entropy’ he had ever read. Continue reading “28: The brain as a model”

25: Spinning Out 2

Why spin out? There are a number of possible motivations ranging from money – supplementing income, for self and/or department – to the more altruistic – offering people or organisations outside the university something valuable to them. Possibly both. This means that you have something to offer of value and that someone else recognises this. There is a complicated interaction to be worked through at the outset – connecting some research or expertise to an external need or potential demand. Continue reading “25: Spinning Out 2”

24: Spinning Out 1

I estimate that once every two years for the last 20 or 30 years, there has been a report of an inquiry into the transfer of university research into the economy – for commercial or public benefits. The fact that the sequence continues demonstrates that this remains a challenge. One mechanism is the spinning out of companies from universities and this piece is in two parts – the first describing my own experience and the second seeking to draw some broader conclusions. Either part might offer some clues for budding entrepreneurs. Continue reading “24: Spinning Out 1”

13: ‘Research on’ versus ‘research for’

Let us begin by asserting that any piece of research is concerned with a ‘system of interest’ – henceforth ‘the system’ (cf. Systems thinking). We can then make a distinction between the ‘science of the system’ and the ‘applied science relating to the system’. In the second case, the implication is that the system offers challenges and problems that the science (of that system or possibly also with ‘associated’ systems) might help with. In research terms, this distinction can be roughly classified as ‘research on’ the system and ‘research for’ the system. This might be physics on the one hand, and engineering on the other; or biological sciences and medicine. Continue reading “13: ‘Research on’ versus ‘research for’”

12: Excellence

I was Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council for 6 years up to December 2013. Like the other research councils, and like most universities, we always said that we funded research that is ‘excellent’ and ‘world class’. However, I was always troubled about how actually we defined and understood ‘excellence’ – both pre- and post-award – and justified our claims. In terms of citations of published papers, we could always say that we were second to the United States and that was some justification. Continue reading “12: Excellence”