Friday, 29 April 2016

Curiosity and the wicked problems of international development

Access to clean water in communities can often be a wicked problem.  Photo: courtesy of

Finding solutions to big problems can be crippling. Kent Goldsworthy compels development professionals to embrace their curiosity and let it guide their contribution in the world.   

Even if we don’t immediately recognise wicked problems, we do actually come across them all the time, and we more or less successfully negotiate them as we make our way through daily life. 

Sometimes in our efforts to do something as grand as make the world a better place, when we are challenged by wicked problems we risk becoming paralysed, throwing-up our hands and giving-up.

“A trait of a wicked problem is particularly confronting - that in solving one problem, it’s very likely that another problem created, or an existing one exacerbated. 

When it comes to development problems, very often our experience reveals that an issue like extreme poverty, maternal health, access to education, environmental degradation, gender equality, cultural justice, or workers’ rights are very, very wicked problems indeed. 

People who are attracted to engage with these issues often do so with an accompanying search for ‘the solution’ to the world’s ‘problems’.

I’ve been no different. For students, this often means undertaking programs or courses to hear and learn something that resembles the answer to questions like ‘how can we (I) end extreme poverty?’ 

Should we who have the social, political, cultural and economic resources to ‘help’, do so with equal or differential attention to, for example, the causes of poverty or the consequences of it? 

And how can we stay committed to righting the world, but not be repeatedly discouraged by constant reminders that there is almost certainly no magic bullet answer to the problems we want to solve? 

We need a strategy to navigate wicked problems. 

In thinking about an approach that might provide some kind of answer I take my lead from a claim attributed to novelist, essayist, and short story writer E.M. Forster who proposed four key characteristics of the humanist: curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race. 

Are you finding this article interesting? Find out how you can channel your curiosity to make an impact in the world with RMIT’s Master of International Development

Whilst all four seem to be useful values to hold by in addressing wicked problems in International Development, I will now just focus briefly on curiosity. 

I like to think of a pro-active, energetic type of curiosity, and not an ‘idle curiosity’ which might flit into and out of our consciousness. 

If we’re curious in this more profound way, and use that curiosity as motivation in intervening in the problems of magnitude we perceive in the world, we may then see the ‘wicked’ as an invitation to an important challenge, not as a wicked ‘evil’ to avoid. 

True curiosity doesn’t assume there will be an answer, at least not a perfect one. Curiosity makes the pursuit of solutions a reward in itself. Perhaps because wicked problems have no perfect solution, curiosity in the face of a wicked problem will never be satiated.

If it’s true that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know, then curiosity can lead us to a wiser attitude towards wicked problems. 

It should be ok to not be in possession or even in pursuit of the solution. It can lead us to ask not ‘What is the solution?’, but perhaps instead, ‘What will my contribution be?’

Written by Kent Goldsworthy

Kent Goldsworthy is an international development lecturer and volunteer tourism expert. Kent teaches in the Master of International Development and is currently completing his PhD at RMIT.  


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