Who will solve the world's 'wicked' problems?

There's no easy way around it. Complex problems with multiple causes and multiple stakeholders will require collaboration between governments, the private sector and civil society to fix.

The increasing pace of globalisation has brought about complex, “wicked problems” from climate change to food security that need concerted collaboration between three sectors – governments, civil societies and companies.

Calling this the “tri-sector collaboration”, Peter Ho, senior advisor for the Centre for Strategic Futures in Singapore, said this approach will be the way forward in solving these intractable problems; having multiple stakeholders means that these challenges cannot be solved by governments, civil societies and companies acting on their own. 

“Many stakeholders don’t usually agree on what the problem really is,” he said. “For example, wicked problems include big challenges like climate change. You think it’s obvious that everybody thinks that we should reduce carbon emissions.”

In fact, many scientists don’t agree that carbon emissions are the only cause of climate change; many of them don’t even agree there’s climate change, Ho said. 

“Suppose everyone agrees that climate change is about reducing carbon emissions, who’s going to bear the costs?” He asked.

There are many such issues where consensus is hard to achieve which is why it is so difficult to find a way to address them, he added.

Ho, also senior fellow of Singapore’s Civil Service College and chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, was speaking at a panel discussion organised by the Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences to promote its Tri-Sector Collaboration post-graduate programme.

Indeed, this type of collaboration is increasing, as seen in initiatives such as the setting up of Grow Asia last April by the Asean secretariat, large agribusinesses like Sinar Mas and agriculture ministers in the region.

Grow Asia aims to help smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia adopt sustainable farming practices such as reducing water loss and using non-chemical fertilisers while enabling them to increase their crop yields and profits.

The group hopes to reach 10 million smallholder farmers in the region by 2020. 

The many stakeholders don’t usually agree on what the problem really is. For example, wicked problems include big challenges like climate change. You think it’s obvious that everybody thinks that we should reduce carbon emissions.

Peter Ho, senior advisor for the Centre for Strategies Futures

Other similar collaborations include the Climate and Clean Air Coalition started by Hillary Clinton in February 2012 when she was the United States secretary of state.

It brings together the governments of Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden and the United States, as well as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and private sector partners to deal with immediate climate-related problems such as pollution and healthcare.  

There are also other global alliances on vaccination and sustainable energy, and a group that combat aids, tubercolosis and malaria. In Southeast Asia, there are a number of programmes in disaster management and disaster relief.

In the Philippines, which suffer from regular tropical typhoons and earthquakes, its largest conglomerate Ayala Corp has been working with its competitors as well as the government and aid groups to alleviate some of the impact of these natural disasters.

“We are always in disaster protection mode,” said Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chairman and chief executive officer of Ayala Corp, who also spoke at the event.

“A number of us in the private sector will mobilise our workers every time a disaster hits. So we got together and said, why don’t we get ourselves organised? We are competitors in industry but here’s a common cause.”

Together, these companies mapped out their capabilities and logistics across the country and started coordinating with the government to begin to “make more sense of” disaster relief operations in the Philippines, he added.

Ayala cited another example of a private-civic society collaboration: that between World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Bank of Philippine Islands, which mapped out possible scenarios of climate change and how those instances may affect islands and coastal areas in the Philippines.

They hope to present this information to the government soon and come up with ways to cope with the various scenarios.

The 3P approach

One government agency that recognised the need to work with the private sector more than a decade ago is Singapore’s PUB, the national water agency under the city’s Ministry of Environment and Water Resources.

Khoo Teng Chye, former PUB chief executive and currently executive director for the Centre for Liveable Cities in Singapore, remembered setting up the People, Public and Private division (3P) of the PUB to facilitate this collaboration.

“The idea is not about government. It is about governance,” Khoo said. “And it’s an idea that also embraces the private sector. We knew that we could not do all the work by ourselves. That’s why we founded the 3P department.”

The PUB needed the expertise of the private sector to come up with technological solutions to address environmental problems, and it needed to work with the NGOs and the public on theimportance of conserving water resources, he explained.

“You need to work with the people sector so that the people can see that, this is a nice new environment that has been created. So I want to make sure that the environment is kept clean because at the end of the day that’s my drinking water,” he said.

Since then, the 3P approach has spread to other ministries and agencies within the Singapore government.


In the private sector, the need to engage with groups other than traditional shareholders such as institutional investors has also come to the fore, said Piyush Gupta, chief executive officer of DBS Group, Southeast Asia’s largest lender.

One of the ways this is manifested is in the way companies do their annual reporting, where a new buzzword “integrated reporting” has been making the rounds.  

Integrated reporting involves multiple stakeholders and the company determining the outcomes achieved for customers, employees, civil society, government and regulators, and shareholders.

“It has become very multifaceted as opposed to being driven by a single response to shareholder value,” Gupta explained.

As an example of tri-sector collaboration at work, students from the first cohort of the post-graduate programme also presented their research project on food waste in Singapore at the event, which involved finding the causes, attitudes and behaviours behind the problem as well as possible solutions to address it. 

The 18-month programme aims to train leaders that can make sense of megatrends affecting business-government-society interactions, from environment to demography to technology, SMU said. 

Addressing a tricky problem like food waste – which is a result of apathy towards food, lack of awareness of the real cost of food production and unfriendly policies towards the food business, among others – will need all sectors of society to work together.

“You have to think a bit long term, you have to develop the habit of consultation and open dialogue and then hopefully, in that process of dialogue and consultation, you find some common ground where you can move things forward,” Ho said. 

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