Episode 8: Navigating complex problems. There are no easy answers to humanity's wicked problems. Looking through a multifaceted lens with humility and an open mind can shine some light on potential solutions.

Episode 8: Navigating complex problems

Ryan D Thompson Complexity, Skills


There are no easy answers to humanity’s wicked problems. Looking through a multifaceted lens with humility and an open mind can shine some light on potential solutions.

We’re faced with some of the most complex challenges in human history. In other words, we need your leadership and creativity more than ever. My name is Ryan Thompson, and this is the Changemakers’ Field Guide. This podcast explores the best of ancient wisdom and modern knowledge to help leaders tackle humanity’s wickedest problems. Each episode looks at practices, perspectives, or tools that help people live better lives and make a positive impact.

We live in remarkable times, with a large percentage of humanity living with conveniences, comforts, and security, unlike anything prior civilizations could even dream. We’ve achieved mind-bending technological advancements, things that seemed farfetched even when I was a kid.

But despite our astonishing advancements, we still haven’t cracked some of the hardest nuts. Over a billion people live in extreme poverty. Millions of children go to bed hungry every night. Racism and other forms of oppression still destroy lives and tear apart communities. Tribal politics fuels tensions and conflict between individuals, groups, and nations. 

And many of these problems are exacerbated by the very force driving our advancements: our reliance on fossil fuels. Without these cheap forms of energy, our economic growth would never have been possible. But that carbon-fueled growth has produced the existential threat of climate change.

These are complex problems unlike anything humans have faced before. We have faced threats, no doubt. Our ancestors have survived tremendous hardship. Probably most of humanity before the past century or so lived in what we would call extreme poverty. We’ve always had wars, famine, droughts, and tribal conflict.

But the interconnections between these threats have never been so pronounced.

Never before in human history have the choices of one group of people had such power to affect people on the other side of the globe. For example, one country’s real estate lending practices lead to economic collapse not just in that country but in every country. Likewise, the clearing and burning of rainforests in the Tropics to produce beef to sell to North America and Europe contributes to rising sea levels on island nations halfway across the world. And, of course, human contact with wildlife in remote locations can transmit viruses that replicate at astonishing rates, cross borders, and cause a global pandemic.

These are all problems that resist easy solutions. Part of the difficulty in addressing these kinds of complex issues, I suspect, is that we’re still using brains that were wired for survival on the savanna. Subconsciously, our brain’s default mode is binary thinking. Is this helpful or harmful? Approach or avoid? Friend or foe? Good or bad?

Unfortunately, many problems don’t fit this binary perspective. 

For example, I read a story the other day about acaí, the dark purple berry from Brazil described as a superfood. I have to say, I do love an acaí smoothie. Turns out, like many products, especially agricultural products, there is a hidden impact. Acaí grows on super tall trees deep in the rainforest, and harvesting the fruits requires climbing up to 60 feet to the canopy. Something that small and agile bodies are much better at. So in many cases, children as young as 10 years old climb these trees all day to support their families. It’s extremely dangerous work, with many harvesters (both young and old) falling, suffering grave injuries or death. Nevertheless, Acaí is the best hope for earning a subsistence living in these regions. They rely on it to survive, but they get meager prices for their harvests, despite the high prices it sells for in American smoothie shops and cafes.

Now, knowing that child labor is embedded within that acaí smoothie, what do we do? Our brains will likely produce some quick reactions: some form of binary “this” or “that” response. We should boycott acaí! Or employ a certification program to ensure child labor is eliminated from farms. Or we should apply pressure to the Brazilian government to enforce child labor laws. Or we might simply say, “not my problem, we can’t help everyone!” None of these approaches will likely solve the problem. And in many cases, they’ll have unintended consequences. Boycotting could reduce the only income stream these regions have. Certification in remote smallholder settlements is notoriously hard to enforce or monitor. And applying pressure on a government clearly has... complications. 

There simply isn’t a straightforward solution to these kinds of issues.

We live in a world of vast and incomprehensible complexity — which is only increasing every day. It seems that we need to learn to play 3D chess, but currently, we’re playing tic tac toe. Solving these kinds of problems can’t come from a knee-jerk reaction or one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, we need a careful, multifaceted exploration incorporating multiple viewpoints. This takes time, effort, and flexibility.

With these challenges in mind, this episode kicks off a series on how to navigate complex problems.

Knowing there are no easy answers, I’ll explore some thinking from across time and around the world on how to approach the complex nature of our existence. I’ll look at some ideas from Buddhism and Taoism from the ancient world. From modern times, I’ll look at some research from psychology, ecology, and the field of big history.

I don’t necessarily expect to find any magic formulas. But I hope that this multifaceted exploration will shed some light on some mindsets or perspectives that can help us solve big problems. We have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom at our fingertips. And in learning the best of what others have discovered, we can hopefully trigger new waves of creative and innovative thinking. We can build on and adapt what’s come before us, to empower us for the challenges ahead. We can stand on the shoulders of giants to see a path forward!

Feel free to subscribe to this podcast to join me on this journey. And please share with a friend if you think this will be useful to someone. Until the next time, be well!



Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License