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  • Writer's pictureMegan Penhoet

How to face the Super Wicked Problems: Collaboration

Updated: May 4, 2020

The world faces "wicked problems", those problems whose social complexity is such that there is no determinable stopping point. It stands to reason that no single actor can hope to successfully tackle them without strong partnerships. With artificial intelligence and machine learning revolutions already in motion, an isolated and linear approach to exponentially growing problems is insufficient. And it turns out that "wicked" is not even the worst we face. The climate crisis is categorized as a "Super Wicked Problem". One in which: Time is running out. There is no central authority. Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it. Policies discount the future irrationally. Sigh.

To successfully address "wicked and super wicked problems" the modern world depends upon collaboration among global leaders.

At present, there may be no better example of a culture of collaboration than in the Nordics. The Nordic ability to keep cool and collaborate in times of pressure is perhaps even more striking in the wake of Brexit and the era of American isolationism and protectionism. Along with a strong culture of collaboration, the Nordic bloc has opted for a level of transparency and trust that makes its policy-making clear and easy to support. 

The Nordic Council of Ministers was established in 1971 as "...the official body for inter-governmental cooperation in the Nordic Region. It seeks solutions with visible positive effects for everybody who lives in the Nordic countries." This clear, positive and straightforward statement of purpose reflects a high level of transparency at all levels of government, industry and civil society in the Nordics. Like the open-access policies of Sweden, which pioneered open access to research publications beginning in the 1990’s, the Nordic Council of Ministers itself in 2014 instituted open access rules for itself and any research it funds.

The relationship between transparency and access relies on a third ingredient: collaboration. The Nordics have to "sing as one voice" to be heard in some environments. With Russia close by and the West buried in its own isolationist, deeply divided, historically low moment, the Nordic penchant for working together, both internally and across borders with one another, not only grants them stability, it also gives them a competitive edge.

How is collaboration and transparency foundational to "competitive edge"? Sweden is second to the giant United States in producing both unicorns and pop musicians. Nordics punch above their weight in innovation, technology, pop music, transportation and artificial intelligence, and have impressive global standings in education, trust in government, happiness, health and quality of life indices. The thread running through these and other successes is collaboration. 

In 2018, the Nordic Council of Ministers commissioned a report on Nordic Leadership. The Nordic style of leadership is uncovered and described here: 

 Consistent prior research suggests good evidence for a distinctive Nordic leadership model or style: a cooperative model supporting creativity with high degrees of both autonomy and responsibility, with roots in early 20th century focus on balancing interests in society. The values that have guided leadership issues to date relate specifically to openness, integrity and trust.”

Nordic collaborative leadership style permeates all of modern life; from corporate boardrooms to governments, from higher education to innovation test beds. Sharing information and decision making with many stakeholders and creating policies and technologies that balance interests in society, the Nordics have created an environment that strongly supports entrepreneurship. Support for new ideas and for risk taking is strong when there is infrastructure and a high value assigned to innovation. While Sweden produces the most unicorns outside of the U.S., Finland is now the #1 startup producer in the EU. Nordic openness, access to information and a strong culture of collaboration creates this competitive edge in innovation and business. 

The best ideas are surfaced when all voices are valued, as in the less hierarchical organizational Nordic structures. When access to information, technology, and education is easy, as in the Nordics, the number of citizens drawn to create, iterate and innovate increases. And this is why the Nordics punch above their weight. Collaborative leadership reinforces the values people regularly exhibit and live by.

The Nordics are a beacon of hope to democracies such as the United States. Culture and leadership are intertwined to be certain. Can the U.S. achieve the well-being scores of the Nordics? Or is the political divide is too great? Success in the face of daunting global issues will depend upon adopting collaborative leadership at every level of society. Whether or not the U.S. as a whole is as collaboratively inclined, we need leaders, even if they are outliers, to guide us to a collaborative future.

Leaders can make out-sized contributions to society. Corporations and governments are looking for strategies to succeed as the world changes at faster speeds. The Nordic countries have shown that economic success and societies’ needs are not mutually exclusive.

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