Hacking Wicked Social Problems With Renaissance Thinkers and Gamers

02/18/2014 06:49 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

You can't cure advanced cancer of the brain with a knife. Not often anyway. Or at least not without causing major damage. We have learned that simple chop-and-carve techniques doesn't work when every cut against a tumor causes damage to neural pathways that control vital organs of the body. The brain, our legions of organs and their functions are connected in a system of intricate regulation of the numerous flows of fluids and electrical signals that drive and keep our bodies alive and healthy. Curing advanced cancer of the brain is a wicked problem.

Likewise, you can't fix wicked social problems with linear thinking and scalpel approaches. Wicked social problems are tumors in our social fabric, often deeply rooted in the command-and-control systems of our societies. Witness Obamacare. "Shock and awe" all over again: years of negotiation and design, stalemates and lawsuits, renegotiation and redesign, ripple effects as sequester hit our institutions. We felt the tremors into the farthest corners of our society. There's no end in sight. And why would we expect there to be one in the first place? Does a perfect solution even exist? Wicked social problems are - by definition - protracted and complex. They are multi-dimensional in that they require the consultation of many stakeholder groups and the development of incentive systems that align them toward change. Social innovation, its governance and its impact toward more just, sustainable and healthy communities, is the defining challenge of the 21st century.

Of course, we can't afford to throw our hands in the air and walk away from the challenge. That is not the American spirit. We are the people that designed the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods system, the New Deal and the Apollo program. We have proven that we can tackle wicked problems with persistence, conviction, ingenuity and lots of diverse innovation talent. We can do it again to achieve impact for wicked social problems.

For starters, we need to change the way we think: In the post-WWII world, we have honed a western tradition of linear, short-term cause-and-effect thinking into an extreme craft. It is being taught in our business schools, practiced in our institutions and abused by our political officials during election times with promises of rapid resolution of wicked problems. This type of thinking serves one purpose: to reassure our anxious selves in 30-second "blitz-reflections" that we can cut in and cut through, make some progress, accept collateral damage, and move on. So we run in circles, cutting into organ after organ, institution after institution, patching up and growing new ones if we have to. We sleep better telling ourselves that doing something is better than doing nothing. But balance the system we do not. The next tumor grows. The next institution collapses. The next system collapse is around the corner.

Instead, we need to tackle wicked social problems with multi-dimensional, inclusive solutions. Easier said than done, for sure. Here's one approach:

Business people need to create ecosystems in which diverse sets of talents are induced to think like DaVinci: across disciplines and stovepipes so we can gain new insights and synthesize new solutions. Luckily, some of this is already being done in pockets, but it's still not the mainstream approach. This week, a thousand cross-disciplinary thinkers and doers from all over the world will converge on Silicon Valley to take part in the Global Innovation Summit to learn how to create effective innovation ecosystems.

Really what we need is a new system of ecosystem entrepreneurs. Business people who orchestrate the Renaissance crowd toward solutions. They need to consult with biologists to borrow from nature's ways of creating equilibria, anthropologists to gain justice wisdom from communities in far off places, psychologists to chart patterns of irrational behaviors, linguists to understand how language systems regulate emotions, thoughts and traditions, etc. etc. We need to put the best thinkers in those fields into one space with artificial intelligence researchers, design professionals, entrepreneurs, financiers and economic strategists to align interest and build the right teams to create systemic solutions for lasting impact.

But most of all, we need hackers, gamers and producers. They will help us stitch the content from disparate disciplines together. They will use the collective wisdom and insights to design gaming engines that can optimize social, environmental and economics pay-offs. They understand motivation, achievement, rewards, good and bad addictions, crowds and multi-player interactions. And they know of the unintended consequences of complicated socio-technical systems in which culture, commerce, and community collide! They will make sure the Renaissance content "plays" well.

Can't mitigate climate change through a system in which everybody gains, including industry? Can't design a social security system that is fair to current and future generations? Can't figure out equitable water supply in the Middle East across political, ethnic and religious fault lines? The social system hackers and gamers will get you there, with a little help from their renaissance thinker friends.

This post is part of a series produced in partnership by the Global Innovation Summit and The Huffington Post around impact, innovation, and technology. For more information on the Summit, click here.