Beyond Flint, Wicked Problems & System Failures

Beyond Flint, Wicked Problems & System Failures

We’ve all heard the horrible news about Flint. Most of us probably haven’t heard of the same problem with water in St Joseph, La. I’m not here to heap blame or talk about the politics of these situations. I’m here to talk about the wicked problem that is pollution of public water, the systemic nature of the failures (water and water infrastructure being one of the macro systems) and what needs to happen to better prepare us for and prevent more Flints and St Josephs.

First a quick summary of the Flint situation

  • 2 years ago Flint city officials chose to stop paying Detroit for water from Lake Huron
  • Instead they chose to get water from filthy Lake Flint
  • The water was corrosive and iron seeped from the pipes into the water, turning it brown
  • This went on for 2 years and officials told residents it was fine
  • Dr Mona Hanna-Atisha, a pediatrician, tested and found twice and even sometimes thrice the recommended lead levels in the kids
  • Officials switched the water back to Lake Huron but they kept denying the damage done.

So why won’t this happen again in other parts of the country? Or the question should be, when will this happen in other parts of the US?

Wicked Problems

What we have in Flint, and with all the impending water infrastructure issues across the US, is a Wicked Problem (pdf) with 3 fundamental systems at play. Wicked problems (as defined by Rittel and Webber in 1973) are issues that are ill-defined (how many people have been affected and how badly?), rely upon elusive political judgement for resolution (does firing Flint leadership help or harm the resolution or restore faith?), there is no stopping rule or ultimate test of success here (when can we say a health disaster like this is solved?) and is a symptom of another set of problems (what issue should we focus on immediately? Should we focus on the health problems, policy modifications or infrastructure upgrades).

As I mentioned, there are 3 systems at play here and, without losing sight of or diminishing the lives and futures affected by this tragic but avoidable set of events, we can better assess the situation by better understanding these systems. They are

  1. Social systems
  2. Ecological systems and
  3. Economic systems

and by understanding the drivers we can better define resolutions (never solutions) that will prevent a repeat of these events. These systems are all interconnected and will all have to be addressed to get even close to resolving this tragedy (and any inevitable ones considering the state of water infrastructure).

The Three Systems In Play

  1. Social systems: There are varying layers to the type of water use, from privately owned to the public companies and these were at play in Flint, with claims of preferential treatment of corporations. There are also varying possible providers of water; from people drilling a well on their farm/home and running their own water well to some states with water boards that manage the extraction at the very local level and charge customers to utilize the water. Some variation of the latter is the case in Flint. The social dynamics, relationships between residents and that between residents and their political officials, play a bigger than evident part in how this system operates. Trust is lost and, as we know in our personal lives, it is going to be hard to regain the trust/social bonds in this ravaged city. Those affected kids will grow up not trusting the society that should be protecting them…
  2. Ecological Systems: A large part of the providers ability to deliver water to it’s customers, whether as a public utility or as an investor owned utility is the dependence on water; where the water comes from, how it is cleaned and transported to customers. These all depend on rainfall. In particular the amount and timing of rainfall. In Flint the ecological situation is one that, like a lot of places with rotting infrastructure across the country, is one that needs rectification. Actions to rectify systems, feedback loops, can only affect future states of the system. The signal will not be fast enough to rectify the situation in a time frame satisfactory to anyone involved in this situation; replacing the lead eroded pipes in Flint cannot happen fast enough for any impact to be felt for the next few years.
  3. Economic Systems: Apart from the local situation in Flint (where it is claimed that corporations got tax breaks and got access to clean water for their operations) there is a well publicized national infrastructure funding situation that we will all have to deal with sooner or later.
    • According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency there are 52,000 community water systems and 21,400 not-for-profit non-community water systems
    • According to the CBO, public expenditure on infrastructure for water utilities in 2014 was $109Bn
    • Even though public expenditure for water infrastructure has grown since 2003, with a slight decrease seen in 2014 and projected in 2015, the increase is due to increasing costs of raw materials and not increasing rate of build.

All these point to a situation that can be rectified by moving water utilities out of the ‘social good/civic right’ structure that most public water infrastructure is run as; it’s time for all water utilities to be run by private companies that are able to bear the short term losses for the long term gains in the form of rent for providing good clean water to all citizens at a fair price.

What to do? There are no simple solutions to Wicked Problems, it is only after the situation has unfolded that we can start to develop solutions using a Systems Thinking approach. Wicked problems can only truly be resolved by breaking down the silos of information flow between all parties working towards solving the problems. The most relevant systems thinking maxim here – honor, respect and distribute information – speaks to the trust that will be required by all involved to move away from the blame game that is currently playing out as this situation worsens (with Legionnaires disease being reported in some parts of Flint).  Information flow ,which can only come from empathetically engaging with the victims of this situation (and the lesser victims include the government officials who probably thought they were making the correct financial decisions at some point), is required. In a situation like this the social system is the dominant one and should be prioritized; using the information flow from the social system as inputs into the ecological and economic systems will yield the most effective results both for the short and the long term.

The children of Flint, and St Joseph and name a city, need us to think and act like system thinkers who understand the interconnectedness of things to deal with these social situations that are wicked problems.


originally published here.

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