A wicked problem

02 October 2017
Maramatanga Niki Harre
Niki Harré, Associate Dean Sustainability, Faculty of Science

Sustainability – the promotion of human and ecological flourishing – is sometimes referred to as a ‘wicked’ or ‘messy’ problem.

We do not all agree on the solution, let alone how to achieve it.

Wicked problems are not like simple or even complicated problems – experts, technological advances and the right KPIs cannot solve them. Instead, they require attention from multiple perspectives, and for indefinite periods.

In other words, as a wicked problem, working towards sustainability is an ongoing human enterprise.

Once you accept that sustainability is a wicked problem, it becomes obvious that the best way to tackle it is to enable and encourage as many people as possible to get involved.

This is not about micro-managing people’s efforts or insisting that everyone gets behind a single collective goal.

Instead, it is about inspiring people to join with others and create solutions that suit their circumstances.

These tailored made, local solutions also help build a vibrant sustainability culture – a thriving community of caring, innovation, respect and enthusiasm that motivates people to contribute to our common good.

Here at the University of Auckland, I facilitate a Sustainability Network in the Faculty of Science that is based on the philosophy just outlined.

We are a group of staff who care about ‘flourishing people and thriving ecosystems’ and the role our faculty and the university can play in creating these.

Our values are shared, but our approaches and projects are diverse. Some of our members are professional staff with roles in IT; group, student or academic services; communications or technical management.

Others are academic staff with interests in specific biological systems – such as the oceans or New Zealand’s native forests, or in social systems, people, computational issues, chemistry or physics. We meet regularly (over a vegetarian lunch served on crockery plates!).

Members are invited to contribute their ideas, expertise and frustrations, and where appropriate to work with and support others.

Any staff member in the faculty is welcome to join and suggest projects.

If the project resonates with our values, and the instigator can find others who are also keen (or can go it alone), then it happens.

We currently have a wide variety of projects underway.

Our Sustainable Laboratories project has technical managers from every school and department in the faculty working towards practices that save water, energy and other resources.

Participating laboratories have signs on their doors that indicate their progress towards sustainability.  

We have compost bins in all the kitchens in the Science Centre, managed by a group comprised of both professional and academic staff.

We have an interdisciplinary teaching unit on the global clothing industry that operates across courses in Psychology, Chemistry and Sociology; and awards are available to students who are doing research projects related to promoting sustainability at the university or beyond.

Twice a year we have a public seminar on a sustainability issue – previous topics have included Waste, Water and Transport – that feature Faculty of Science speakers as well as a guest speaker from the community.

And we have bought a number of indoor plants that bring a little nature into our work places.

We also give feedback on university policy and plans, in the hope of getting preferred suppliers with a demonstrated history of care for environmental and social issues, better facilities for cyclists and the like.

Our network has made progress, but we have much further to go. We’d like to develop a partnership with students and help open up democratic processes that facilitate student involvement in the creation of a more sustainable university.

There is some great work being done by the central Sustainability and Environment office along these lines.

They provide opportunities for students to assist in reducing the university’s resource use, and help link students with ideas to key decision makers.

In keeping with the wicked-problem approach, it would be wonderful to also have forums that encourage students to air their policy suggestions; and communication channels that ensure these suggestions reach university committees, where they are seriously considered.

There are many clubs such as Fossil Free UoA, Generation Zero, Engineers Without Borders, Plastic Diet and The Sustainability Network, that are full of students eager to be the critic and conscience of society – and where better for young people to cut their teeth but with us?

We are also interested in working with staff in other faculties and service units who may wish to set up their own networks. So, please, if the network model appeals to you, get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.


Niki Harré is the Associate Dean Sustainability in the Faculty of Science. Watch a short video on the Sustainability Network below.
(This story was first published in UniNews October 2017)

Additional information: The Faculty of Science Sustainability Network