Wicked Problems and Climate Change – The Future of Insurance

Image Source: REUTERS / Daniel Munoz

Image Source: REUTERS / Daniel Munoz

Exploring Wicked Problems with Design Thinking

Last year, along with Jonathan Hoss and Karen Maxwell, I looked into the topic of flooding in Australia. The project was focused on using design thinking to identify and begin to solve wicked problems that were arising through climate change.

Wicked problems are deeply complex problems where the stakes are high enough that it is dangerous to be wrong, and yet no solution is possible without raising a further “higher level” problem. Richard Buchanan defines them (read the full article here) with specific properties where there is always more than one explanation for why the problem exists and that there is no opportunity for prototyping potential solutions, therefore only a one shot opportunity for intervention.

The paper is fantastic as it discusses why designers tend to be drawn to these particular solutions, possibly actively revealing them through design thinking methodologies.

Wicked Problems Caused by Environmental Disasters

For the project Jon, Karen and I ended up exploring insurance, strange but true, as a topic where large issues were being raised that were placing pressure on a wide variety of stakeholders. As you can see in the presentation below that sets up the project, specific regions in Queensland; Roma and Emerald, were so heavily affected by the floods that the insurance company that paid out the most claims, Suncorp, then decided they would no longer support ongoing coverage without mitigation against future damage being developed. A wicked problem emerged as tensions between Government, Insurance Companies, Residents affected by the drought, and other Taxpayers where all at conflict over responsibility and appropriate calls to action.

The results include individuals with damaged homes being repaired at their own expense, all at high risk of repeat damage with no course for preventing it.

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Fast forward a year from the project, and there are only now beginning to be stirrings of a solution to the problem. The insurance embargo placed on the region has said to have worked, according to the insurance companies, by forcing the government to act. While nothing specific has happened just yet, it is very intriguing to be able to watch the issues arise when trying to solve a specific wicked problem.

Parallel to our project, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New York, causing far more damage economically. But the problems that arose have never quite scaled to the level of a wicked problem that could not be solved. While much debate is under way still about how best to manage future scenarios, clear action is being taken to mitigate future damage, whilst previous damage is being resolved. While I understand there are many homes yet to be fully repaired, and families still struggling to recover, there is a tremendous amount of proactive work being done to prevent future damage. Visit the USGS website and there is plenty of information about how data gathered will be used to predict storms and ultimately inform future projects.

Visually Communicating Context for Wicked Problems

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