It was about ten years ago now that I heard the term, coined by Donald Schon, "swamp problems" to refer to messy, confusing problems that defy technical solutions. Schon pointed out that the problems of greatest human concern lie in the swamp, rather than on the high ground, where we develop most of our technical knowledge and apply the rigor of research.
Ron Heifetz talked about this kind of problem as an "adaptive," challenge as opposed to a technical challend and in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers, developed an approach to leadership in a world of adaptive challenges.
The problem is our social problem solving approach is still stuck in technical, rather than adaptive mode.
Check out the May 19 2008 issue of the New Yorker and Bee Wilson's review essay called "The Last Bite" for a doozy of a swamp problem. He is writing about the need to radically change the system of Western food production, "right down to the spinach." According to Wilson, as of 2006, there were eight hundred million people in the world who were hungy, but they were outnumbered by one billion who were overweight. As he puts it, "Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand, and generated a wildly dysfunctional market."
This complex and interconnected challenges, which includes food producers, large food companies, consumers, advertisers and a host of other players, will be difficult to solve. It was created in part from a failure to develop the habit of looking at the pieces of the problem as a whole -- as a system where a solution in one place may create an unanticipated problem in another.
A place called the "Sustainable Food Lab," is trying to back out of this mess, http://www.sustainablefoodlab.org/overview/ by taking a different approach, and acknowledging this as a swamp problem. Check it out to see what they are up to.
More in subsequent posts.