COVID-19 — A “Wicked Problem”
The COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of a “wicked problem”. Back in 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined this as a problem that is ill-defined, unique, has no stopping rule or perfect solution and is nested within a range of other problems in which action relies on judgement. Working out how best to address the pandemic raises a wide range of ethical dilemmas, including how best to balance a focus on lives vs. livelihoods, and maximising vaccination of one’s own population vs. helping others.
Addressing a problem like COVID-19 requires simultaneous attention to a wide range of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include dealing with the impact of poverty; variations in health and well-being; educational quality; decent work; industry innovation; responsible production; protecting life below water and on land; ensuring peace, justice and strong institutions; and the need to work in partnership to achieve the agreed changes.
Values and the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Values are the engine house of change. All technical, social, economic and political decisions are value-laden.
In addressing wicked problems like COVID-19, decisions about which way to proceed require value judgement. There is a profound difference between change (something becoming different) and progress (a value judgement by the individual that this is desirable, worth becoming involved in).
A set of values is embedded in the UN SDGs. They include a commitment to no poverty or hunger; fostering good health; ensuring quality education for all; care for the environment; fostering harmonious living; and collaboration for the common good. These, in turn, have links to the values seen in our studies of successful graduates and leaders. Such values include having compassion; showing kindness to others; being able to work productively with diversity; having humility; being calm under pressure; honest; authentic; non-grasping; willing to persevere under trying conditions; able to listen; share; and to face and learn from errors.
Higher Education, the Age of Uncertainty and the SDGs
Higher education plays a central role in developing the world of tomorrow and in addressing key social, cultural, economic, and environmental sustainability challenges. It develops a large proportion of the world’s leaders, entrepreneurs and scientists. It creates many of the social, cultural, technical, economic, and environmental solutions that help ensure we have a sustainable future. It helps shape the values of these people and, if well structured, can prepare them to successfully navigate the current age of uncertainty.
To achieve this mission, our higher education institutions need to give more careful focus to developing graduates who are not only work-ready for today (i.e., competent) but are also work-ready plus and capable of successfully negotiating this uncertain tomorrow and the wicked sustainability problems that characterise it.
As John Stephenson noted almost a quarter of a century ago when he was Director of the Royal Academy of Arts Higher Education for Capability Project:
Capability is not just about skills and knowledge. Taking effective and appropriate action within unfamiliar and changing circumstances involves judgments, values, the self-confidence to take risks and a commitment to learn from the experience.
– John Stephenson, “Capability and Quality in Higher Education”
Work-Ready Plus Graduates
Capable, work-ready plus graduates are sustainability literate (i.e., socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally); change implementation savvy (i.e., able to productively engage a wide variety of people with necessary change and help them deliver it); and inventive (i.e., socially, not just commercially). In addition, they are clear on where they stand on the tacit assumptions driving the 21st century agenda — assumptions like growth is equally good for everyone; consumption is happiness; ICT is always the answer; and global uniformity is great. They have the distinctive set of personal, interpersonal and cognitive capabilities outlined earlier.
There is increasing interest around the world in developing the key capabilities of work-ready plus graduates through the use of capstones focused on the key dilemmas of early career professional practice, and social enterprise capstones focused on the SDGs. The Enactus and Blue Economy projects1 provide a wide variety of case studies on how capstones focused on the SDGs can be successfully enacted.
Effective Change Leadership in the Age of Uncertainty
Good ideas with no ideas on how to implement them are wasted ideas and change doesn’t just happen but must be led, and deftly.
– Michael Fullan and Geoff Scott,
Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education (2009)
What is significant is that the key capabilities of successful early career graduates align with the key capabilities identified in our studies of successful change leaders in higher education. The combined findings are summarised below.
Successful change leaders listen, link, leverage then lead, in that order. To engage staff with change, leaders undertake a stocktake of what is already underway in their institution and acknowledge this. They focus on a small number of priorities for action and seek to learn by doing — by trialling potentially relevant solutions under controlled conditions to identify what works best before moving to scale-up. They are true to their own values, “practice what they preach” and are transparent and honest in dealings with others. They know their strengths and limitations; are organised; are willing to face and learn from errors; and they can think creatively and laterally. These leaders develop a “why don’t we”, not a “why don’t you” culture, and focus on using the moral purpose of the institution as a key motivator. They recognise that change is a complex learning and unlearning process for all concerned, in which staff will be constantly assessing if engagement with the change is relevant, desirable and, most importantly, feasible. Finally, effective change leaders are particularly deft at networked learning.
In combination, this profile provides an operational definition of how to enact SDG 17 (i.e., partnerships to achieve the other 16 goals).
The New University
To act on the above findings it can be argued that the new university needs to focus on:
- seeking to develop work-ready plus graduates;
- giving specific transdisciplinary attention to the 17 SDGs in its teaching, research, engagement projects, and operations;
paying equal attention to equipping graduates for social and commercial entrepreneurship;
- helping graduates come to a personal understanding on where they stand on the tacit assumptions driving the 21st century agenda;
- developing a shared moral purpose;
giving emphasis to Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths (STEAM, not STEM); and
- operating as a “living laboratory” on how to manage change effectively and address the SDGs
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for institutes of higher education to consider what their key purpose should be over the coming years — in an era when more “wicked problems” will challenge the world, and where leaders at every level must be equipped to tackle them. This is when we must effectively address the interlaced challenges of social, cultural, economic, and environmental sustainability.
The SDGs provide a set of values and focus areas for action. By embedding them in the teaching, research, engagement programmes, and operations of our colleges and universities, we make sure that we develop ethically robust graduates and future leaders who are not only work-ready for today but who are also equipped to successfully negotiate the uncertain tomorrow we all face — by being work-ready plus.
This article is based on a keynote speech given at the Global Higher Education Forum (GHEF) 2021.
Geoff Scott is Fellow of Australian College of Education (FACE) and Emeritus Professor of Higher Education and Sustainability at Western Sydney University.