Case Studies Addressing Wicked Problems

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Tackling Wicked Problems with Transdisciplinary Participatory Modeling: A Case Study Template

By Hans-Peter Plag, April 27, 2021 (last update June 6, 2023)



The MARI case study template (MCST) is designed for tackling wicked problems related to sustainability, mitigation of threats, and adaptation to changes. Wicked problems are social or cultural problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden associated with progress towards a solution, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Super wicked problems have four additional characteristics: (1) time is running out; (2) there is no central authority to address the problem; (3) those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it; (4) policies discount the future irrationally. Wicked and super-wicked problems can hardly be addressed in the framework of traditional discipline-based approaches, and a transdisciplinary approach is needed to tackle these problems.

Tackling wicked problems requires a participatory transdisciplinary approach including imagination (Brown et al., 2005). For wicked problems is true what in general applies to any “Gestalt”: The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. It will always be that way. Therefore, no matter how many disciplines and teaching modes are being integrated, there will always be “unknown” parts and emerging properties, which is a good thing. Trouble arises from an attempt to fit the whole into the sum of its parts. The MCST therefore does not attempt to break down a wicked problem into parts or approach the problem with a combination of disciplines. The MCST respects the integrity and wholeness of the problem and tackles it by perceiving its Gestalt through careful system mapping with a systems thinking mindset.


The template is based on sustainablility science and utilizes the core concepts of adaptation science. Sustainability is an emergent property of a complex system. Two criteria need to guide human behaviour in order to maintain the health of the planetary life-support system and for sustainability to emerge: (1) humans need to consume flows in this life-support system while conserving the stocks (that is, live off the interest while conserving natural capital), and (2) increase society’s stocks (i.e., human resources, civil institutions) and limit the flow of material and energy as much as possible (Brown et al., 2005). Both are central aspects of a regenerative culture.

A particular challenge to the quest for sustainability arises from the need to create transformation knowledge guiding the development of interventions to make progress towards sustainability as the emerging property of the system that represents human communities embedded in their environment. Science needs to support society and interact with societal agents in efforts to work out this transformation knowledge. Reaching societal goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations presents policy makers with a complexity individually and through many interconnections. At the same time, the unsustainability of the current global trajectories of society and the Earth's life-support system introduces an unparalleled urgency to develop the necessary transformation knowledge. A major gap exists in the absence of an epistemology for the creation of transformation knowledge. While there are increasingly efforts to carry out transformation research in “real-world laboratories,” there is no thorough epistemological approach available for this new type of research.

Because of its transformational and transdisciplinary character, sustainability science differs from traditional modes of knowledge production. Sustainability science links system knowledge and goal knowledge through transformation knowledge (Fig. 1). System knowledge informs about what might happen, the possible threats and hazards, and the past, current and potential future system trajectories. Natural sciences have focused on system knowledge and created a broad basis of that knowledge. Goal knowledge describes what we want to happen and what desirable futures we want to realize. Transformation knowledge identifies the interventions required to change the system trajectory and to facilitate pathways to desirable futures. Over the last few decades, social sciences have developed both the epistemology and methodology for the creation of goal knowledge. The elaborate process that led to the agreement on the seventeen SDGs exemplifies the level of goal knowledge that can be reached today, and a transition to global governance by goal-setting appears feasible. What is currently lacking is a fully developed transformation science that links the system and goal knowledge through the disturbances and interventions needed to ensure a progress towards desirable futures. Transformation science as part of sustainability science focuses on the identification of disturbances and interventions that can divert the Earth's life-support system from its current trajectory out of the “safe operating space for humanity” onto a trajectory towards desirable futures closer to the agreed-upon goals expressed in the SDGs.

Figure 1: The three main parts of sustainability science. Sustainability science relies on three main kinds of knowledge: system knowledge, goal knowledge, and transformation knowledge. While the epistemology of creating system and goal knowledge is well developed, the epistemology of creating transformation knowledge is in its beginning. From Plag and Jules-Plag (2018).

However, the epistemological basis for the creation of transformation knowledge has been neglected to a large extent. A major unsolved problem in the epistemology of sustainability science is therefore the understanding of how transformation knowledge can be generated, tested, and validated. This raises important epistemological questions: How is knowledge for transformation produced? What is the role of experimental interventions in producing transformation knowledge? What theories can support knowledge production for transformational sustainability?

Developing the interventions to change the system trajectory in a desirable way is an iterative process (Fig. 2). Any intervention through policies, organizational changes, and technologies needs to be validated as far as possible prior to implementation, which poses epistemic challenges due to the fact that a priori validation is impossible: only during implementation can the impacts be monitored and there is no chance to go back in time and try another intervention. Model simulations can be used to explore possible futures under different scenarios for drivers, an approach used, e.g., for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment or the assessment of future climate change.

The iterative nature of implementing transformation (Fig. 2) requires detailed monitoring of the complex system trajectory after interventions in order to ensure that the resulting trajectory brings the system closer to the desired future and accepted goals and to detect in a timely manner the need for further interventions.

Figure 2: The iterative nature of bending system trajectories towards desirable futures. Achieving the transformation from the current state and trend to a desired future requires an iterative process of disturbances exceeding the system's resilience and corrections to bring the system's trajectory closer to the desired future. From Plag and Jules-Plag (2018).

The MCST has a living systems thinking perspective of the world. The very common event-oriented perspective focuses on symptoms and aims to reduce the direct causes for these symptoms. By doing so, the problem-solving remains at a superficial level that links apparent causes to symptoms without understanding the fundamental casual loops that can only be captured in a systems thinking perspective. The MCST guides the investigations from the common superficial level into the fundamental level where root causes can be discovered and addressed.

The MCST can be used for case studies carried out by individuals or groups. A case study can be combined with a virtual (simulated) or actual participatory modeling effort. In some cases, participatory modeling utilizing role-playing can substitute for one that engages the societal agents of the wicked problem considered.

The Case Study Template

Objective of the Case Study

The goal of a case study is to research a wicked problem and to develop options that would address the problem in the context of mitigation and adaptation science (Figure 3). The MCST ensures that the five main areas of adaptation science as defined in Moss et al. (2013) (i.e., the hazards, the fragilities, foresight, decision making, and options) are reflected in the structure of the case study report, and that the case study takes a systems thinking approach.

Figure 3: Case Study Structure. The aim of a case study utilizing the MCST is to address a wicked problem with transdisciplinary participatory modeling and to provide recommendations to selected social agents for transformative mitigation or adaptation actions that would help to tackle this wicked problem. The main outcome of a case study is the case study report.

Case Study Outcomes and Readership

In most cases, the cases study outcome consists of a detailed case study report and a presentation of the main aspects of the cases study. In more advance case studies, the students are also asked to prepare one-page summaries as well as a video giving an overview of the case study.

The students are asked to assume that they are writing the case study report in support of decision making by a specific stakeholder group engaged in tackling a real-world wicked problem. This implies that the case study paper is written in a way that a non-expert can understand the text.

Case Study Report

The case study report has nine sections reflecting the seven boxes in Figure 3 and in addition providing a summary of the conclusions and specific recommendations. After a brief introduction giving a general description of the issue considered and why this issue has to be considered as a wicked or superwicked problem, the next section provides an analysis of the societal context and the decision space, including a mapping of stakeholders and a summary of relevant regulations, rules and norms. In most cases, this section discusses role playing exercises to highlight the interests of the most relevant stakeholder groups or efforts in participatory modeling. This section also includes a shared goal statement describing the future the stakeholders would like to create.

The next section provides a detailed description of the wicked problem posed by the goal statement resulting from the analysis of the decision space and the role playing. This section includes a conceptual model representing this problem, which is designed to deliver answers to the core questions. This conceptual model identifies the relevant flows and the stocks, and it includes the relevant decision space appropriately. A figure will represent the conceptual model as a causal loop diagram that can be translated into a stock and flow model.

The subsequently four sections consider the system model developed in the previous section to understand the system fragilities and the hazards the system may be explosed to, exploring the spectrum of possible futures, and develop interventions to direct the system towards a desirable future consistent with the goal statemnt. The last two sections summarize the discussion and main conclusions and make specific recommendations on how to address the issue and make progress towards a desirable future.

The sections present the following information, with appropriate attention to detail throughout and the appropriate bibliography. In detail, the report section have the following contents:

  1. Introduction: Gives a brief overview of the real-world issue being addressed. Questions considered here include: What is the challenge? Where is this a problem? What system is being considering (eco-system, species, human community, ...)? Who (human or non-human) is impacted? What and who has caused the problem? Who is trying to solve/address the problem? Is this a wicked or super-wicked problem? What has been done to address it? Who are the societal agents that may benefit from the case study report?
  2. Decision space and role playing: Who are the societal agents involved and impacted by the problem and how do they make decisions related to interventions? The system is embedded in a societal framework with many stakeholders with potentially conflicting interests. The viability of any option proposed to move the system toward a desirable or desired future will depend on the decision making of these social agents, in particular those that have the authority to implement interventions impacting the future of the system. A mapping of the stakeholders with respect to their authorities and interests helps to identify those that need to be included in the participatory efforts. A mapping of the rules with respect to their relevance and leverage helps to identify potential interventions. In a role playing exercise, the interests and concerns of the main stakeholders are expressed and a shared goal statement is developed that describes the future the stakeholders would want to create.
  3. Conceptual Modeling: This section aims to understand the system that represent the wicked problem described by the goal statement. It gives a detailed description of the real-world problem from a living systems thinking perspective and provides a conceptual model that represents the system underlying the problem. This conceptual model includes all relevant stockes and the flows between them. It also links the integrated environmental human and non-human system with the decision space relevant to implement tranformative interventions.
  4. Identifying System Fragilities: What are the constitutional and process fragilities of the system considered? As much as possible, these fragilities are discussed quantitatively. The goal is to get a realistic, tangible and precise characterization of the fragilities. Which of the fragilities can be reduced through adaptation of the system?
  5. Current and Future Hazards and Threats: What are the hazards that constitute threats for the system considered? What system trends could lead to threats? Gives a comprehensive overview of the hazards, how they interrelate, and how they may change over time. Discusses the hazard probabilities as a function of hazard magnitude. Which of these hazards can be mitigated? The section also provides a set of future hazard scenarios that can be
  6. Foresight and the Spectrum of Possible Futures: What was/were the causes that led to the system being exposed to threats and what future developments can be anticipated? What are the risks that require some form of risk and resilience governance? What future challenges can be expected? What is the full spectrum of possible futures for your system? Is there a prognosis and what does this prognosis look like? A scenario-based approach with three or more different hazard scenarios can help to explore the spectrum of possible futures. What are the long-term consequences of the “no action” option? How are small-scale (local) and large-scale (global) processes impacting the system's current and future trajectory. What has been done to move the system towards desirable futures? What were the outcomes of these efforts?
  7. Interventions and Options: What are viable options for interventions that would put the system on trajectories towards desirable futures? Are they addressing the problem through mitigation of the causes, managing and mitigating the impacts, or adapting the system to the changes. Are the options likely to increase the system's resilience and antifragility? Considering that wicked problems have no defined solution, only better or worse options, and most realistic options are not going to be simple, what are the practical advantages and disadvantages of competing options? Who are the potentially competing societal agents and what do they stand to gain/lose from each option. At least three options are considered and the associated scenarios and potential system trajectories are discussed. Importantly, the options considered here are consistent with the foresight developed in the Foresight Section.
  8. Discussion and Conclusions: Summarizes the case study and briefly discusses the sitation.
  9. Recommendations: Recommends specific transformative interventions that have a realistic potential to impact the future of the system in a desirable way. Relates these recommendations to the scenarios discussed in the sections on foresight and options. Clarifies to whom these recommendations are directed and who could play a major role in implementing them.

Format: The case study report has to be developed using the Case Study Tool. This tool provides separate boxes for each section and allows to give each section a meaningful headline. At the end, the bibliography is included in the box with the heading "References". For the format of references, see below the section on References.

Figures and Tables: Figures and tables are uploaded using the respective functions provided by the tool. Figures and table are numbered and must be referenced in the test. Figures must have a caption including the source of the figure. Tables also have a caption. If the table comes from a source, the source needs to be cited in the caption. Make sure that each caption explains the figure or table sufficiently but does not add significant text.

Units: All units must be System International units (e.g., km instead of miles; mm, cm, m instead inches and feet; degrees Celsius instead of Fahrenheid; g and kg, instead of pounds).

References: Citations and Reference have to follow the documentation style defined by the Council of Scientific Editors, known as the CSE style. See SSF-Guide or the WISC page for more information on the CSE style.

Oral Presentation and/or Video

The case study report is paired with an oral promotional presentation. This presentation can be used to produce a promotional video. The length of the oral presentation depends on whether the case study is carried out by individual students or groups of students. The goal for the presentation is to inform the audience (general public and peers) about the real-world issue and to convince the audience to care about it and act responsible. The video should be between 5 and 10 minutes and cover the full promotional presentation.

Presentations and videos can be prepared in powerpoint of keynotes. A template for the presentation is available in powerpoint, keynotes, and pdf.

Using the Case Study Template

The use of the case study template depends on the specific setting. Details are provided at the specific Web page for the course or activity in which the case study is carried out. However, in general a case study has five separate steps, which have to be completed in sequence:

  1. Identifying the wicked problem to be addressed.
  2. Brief outline and draft bibliography: The first step in using the Case Study Tool is to prepare an outline for each section and a bibliography. The instructors will comment on this.
  3. Draft case study report: Once a complete draft of the report is available, it has to be submitted for review. The instructors will comment on this.
  4. Final case study report: After finalizing the report, it has to be submitted as the final version. The instructors will comment on this and give points. The upload of the final report as a PDF file with very good layout is optional.
  5. Case study presentation and presentation in class: The case study presentation has to be uploaded prior to the class when it is presented.