By Maaike de Hon

A bunch of personal items forms a circle in front of the participants of the Wicked Problem Plaza (WPP)-session. To make sure they would show up as open minded as possible the organisation asked them not to prepare themselves too much, but instead bring something that for them symbolises the topic of the session, ‘living wage’.

In front of Erica lies her mobile phone, showing a picture of a small child sleeping on top of a pile of fresh cut jeans. ‘I took this picture recently in one of the many small garment factories I visited in Bangladesh,’ Erica explains. ‘If people around the world would pay decently for their products, children like this wouldn’t have to work, because their parents would earn enough money to send their children to school.’

 The introduction is part of the first stage in the sequence of four a WPP-session consists off. The different stages are symbolised by successively hands, heart, head and partnership. The hands refer to the interest space where, besides shaking hands the different interests become clear.

In a WPP-group all the sectors involved in the problem have to be represented. Rianne van Asperen from the Partnerships Resource Centre (Erasmus University) explains however that to avoid preoccupations the participants only mention their names, not the organisation or branch they work in. ‘Otherwise people immediately tend to divide them in good and bad guys. By only mentioning their name and what they think about the subject we create a congenial feeling.’

In the heart-space, it is all about dreams and dilemmas. Questions such as ‘what would the world look like if the wicked problem was solved’ create a first vision of what a solution could look like. Investigations of what everyone wants to contribute and why the problem hasn’t been solved until now, reveal the complexity of the problem. ‘Here people answer for instance that they work at an organisation that does not want to spend money on the subject,’ Rianne says. ‘People often feel unable to change anything on their own account or don’t know where to start.’

 In the following ‘head-phase’ people analyse why the problem still exists and start brainstorming about solutions. It is here that the full ‘wickedness’ of the problem occurs and a sense of frustration is often felt. Erica – her last name is Van Doorn; we can reveal that now – certainly experienced this, ‘I think it was a widely supported feeling that we missed the right persons to solve the living wage-issue. We would at least need top bankers to be able to make a difference.’

Although Erica thought that perhaps the method showed some weakness here, because the high energy of the morning sessions leaked away during the second half, she wasn’t surprised by the frustration. ‘The living wage-issue is very complicated. We were in fact trying to solve the negative consequences of a globalised world – that is far from easy.’ Being the director of the Fair Wear Foundation Erica would on the contrary be astonished when they would have found the ultimate solution.

That of course is true: if there were a primrose path to solving these kind of problems, they would not be so wicked after all. One of the main purposes of the WPP-sessions is to expose all the things that contribute to the problem. ‘In the end a problem can only really be solved if you first face it in all its facets,’ Rianne explains. ‘What we hope to accomplish during the sessions is that people stop pointing at each other. Wicked problems are always more complicated than that.’

And when all the cards are on the table even a wicked problem can be solved if the right people get involved. ‘We are therefore really looking forward to the Bee Collective festival (on November 20),’ Rianne says. ‘We hope that bringing in more people with diverse backgrounds, knowledge and influence will open the way to positive outcomes.’  

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