The Maturation of Discourse around Social Entrepreneurship and Wicked Problems

Social entrepreneurship is a new concept; as I experienced in our readings for theory class, there are still arguments being had about what defines social entrepreneurship. That should give you an idea of how new social entrepreneurship is today.

Today, I’m going to talk about the maturation of the discussion around social entrepreneurship and how it applies to the understanding of what a wicked problem is and how it functions. My hypothesis is such:

The more we understand social entrepreneurship and its effects on the world, the better discourse we can have about the appropriate actions to take around wicked problems.

When I talk about “wicked problems,” I am referencing first and foremost Rittel and Webber’s article Dilemmas in a General Theory of PlanningTo understand this argument better, I suggest you read it—it’s a great working definition and one of the first definitions around wicked problems.

The main three definitions around wicked problems that I will be using are that wicked problems are systemic, are fundamentally changed through any action upon them, and require that the problem-solver take accountability for the consequences of his or her actions.

When I talk about maturity of an argument, I will be using a metaphor around bees and their growth. First, the bee is deposited as an egg in a honeycomb (which represents the acknowledgment but not full understanding of a wicked problem), and then grows into a larvae (which represents testing hypotheses and gathering information). Then the larvae turns into a pupae (representing a deeper understanding of the wicked problem and its many facets), then growing into an adult bee (which are actions that fundamentally change the wicked problem).

Each author can be defined in one of these spaces—in this argument, I exclude all of the authors from falling into the “Actions that affect and fundamentally change the system” camp, because while the discourse around social entrepreneurship has matured greatly, it has yet to reach a defined process to tackling wicked problems.

Karnani represents the hypothesizing and testing phase of the argument around social entrepreneurship. Karnani’s argument that “The only way to help the poor and alleviate poverty is to raise the real income of the poor,” is straightforward and prescriptive, but according to Rittel and Webber, is not a complete answer in and of itself. According to Rittel and Webber,

“Does poverty mean low income? Yes, in part. But what are the determinants of low income? Is it deficiency of the national and regional economies, or is it deficiencies of cognitive and occupational skills within the labor force? If the latter, the problem statement and the problem “solution” must encompass the educational processes. But, then, where within the educational system does the real problem lie?”

While Karnani’s hypothesis about simply increasing the poor’s income to alleviate poverty is true in some facet, it will not in and of itself alleviate poverty. There are many more facets to poverty that expand beyond income, and these must also be considered as solutions as well.

Wyatt represents the deeper understanding of the societal threads around social entrepreneurship; in her article, Design Thinking for Social Innovation, she talks of a woman who purposely does not buy water from a treatment plant, even though it is close to her village. Why? Because the water treatment plant requires her to fill a 5 gallon jug of water, which she cannot easily carry, from the plant to her house (roughly 3 miles). Other women who have other family members to help them can buy treated, healthier water, but she cannot due to the fact that her family members work out of the village. She urges for a more systemic view of the wicked problems social entrepreneurs are trying to solve and says, “Design thinking—inherently optimistic, constructive, and experiential—addresses the needs of people who will consume a product or service and the infrastructure that enables it.”

What she does not address in her article, however, are what the consequences are even of design thinking now that the water treatment plant has irrevocably changed the nature of the problem (the problem was access to clean water, and now is access to someone who can carry the clean water). Rittel and Webber argue that,

“With wicked problems, however, every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves “traces” that cannot be undone. One cannot build a freeway to see how it works, and then easily correct it after unsatisfactory performance. Large public-works are effectively irreversible, and the consequences they generate have long half-lives. Many people’s lives will have been irreversibly influenced, and large amounts of money will have been spent–another irreversible act.”

So, where our our consequences in thinking about the idea of social entrepreneurship. The person who has built the most comprehensive definition of social entrepreneurship is Dees, who says that by definition, social entrepreneurs are:

  • “Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission.
  • Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning.
  • Exhibiting a heightened sense of accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created.”
Compared with Rittel and Webber who state that wicked problems are:
  • Have no stopping rule.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • The solvers of wicked problems are liable for the consequences of their actions.
The parallels are clear; both Dees and Rittel and Webber see that because wicked problems have no stopping rule, social entrepreneurs must be relentless. Wicked problems have no immediate and ultimate solution, and so social entrepreneurs must be consistently innovative. And finally, they both agree that social entrepreneurs carry with them the weight of accountability on their shoulders for their actions in regards to wicked problems.I have created a diagram outlining more in detail the other authors and their positions as the discourse around social entrepreneurship and wicked problems deepens and matures.

See the full PDF here.

Social entrepreneurs and wicked problems are inextricably linked; we cannot talk about social entrepreneurs without referencing the complex social problems that they are taking action on.

As our understanding of wicked problems deepens, so does our understanding of what it means to be a social entrepreneur; we realize that while our business may not “solve” a wicked problem, it will surely change it in an intangible way, and that the best way to “solve” wicked problems is to have many social entrepreneurs working on issues and collaborating to address all of the multiple facets of a problem.