Real-World Wicked Problems

Wicked problems are much like board games. Board games can look wildly different, but their inherent underlying premise–the nature of what it means to be a ‘board game’–stays largely the same. Wicked problems are classified by their multi-dimensionality, complexity, and inherent lack of solution. Like board games, wicked problems come in all shapes and sizes, but the inherent complexity of their nature–the nature of what it means to be a ‘wicked problem’–stays largely the same.

In previous blogs, the NNSI team has outlined what wicked problems are, how wicked problems are connected to the social determinants of health, and how social impact leaders can utilize design thinking to address complex, wicked problems. In this blog, we hope to provide some further examples of wicked real-world problems and the efforts being made to address these problems respectively. This blog highlights three wicked problems: (1) senior care, (2) educational outcomes for children, and (3) supporting low-income children, youth, and families. It focuses on the problem and some efforts to address it using social impact networks. 

1. Senior Care

Providing proper and ongoing care for senior citizens is a wicked problem. The natural aging process results in an ongoing need for care for the senior population, who experience health and financial challenges. There is no one solution to this problem; even addressing it requires a continual and concerted effort. 

One network taking on this wicked problem in the Pittsburgh area is called AgeWell Pittsburgh. AgeWell Pittsburgh is a network of four nonprofits working to reduce competition and improve the quality of care for seniors in the Pittsburgh area. These nonprofits include the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the Jewish Association on Aging, the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh, and the Jewish Family and Community Services in Pittsburgh. While senior care remains a wicked problem, AgeWell has employed several ongoing strategies to reduce the impact and severity of this problem and subsequently help the senior population of Pittsburgh.


“Assisting older adults and their caregivers in maintaining a healthy and independent life”


Among their calculated approach to senior care, AgeWell prioritizes communication, coordination, and collaboration. Some examples of these goals in practice include:

  • Ensuring that organizations with aligned mission statements are working together
  • Dividing, distinguishing, and delegating their services to prevent overlap but still communicating between the divides
  • Checking the compatibility of working partners before placing them into groups striving for long-term goals

Senior care may be a wicked problem, but AgeWell Pittsburgh has reduced the impact of this problem through their strong effort to bring nonprofits together, increase their communication among a coordinated and divided mission and foster a space of collaboration.  

2. Educational Outcomes for Children 

The second wicked problem this blog will discuss is educational outcomes for children. Like senior care, the problem is ongoing and complex. Race, gender, and economic resources influence educational outcomes for children across the globe. 

In Kenosha County, Wisconsin, the Building Our Future Kenosha (BOF) is one network working to mitigate this wicked problem. BOF, founded in 2016, is a network of organizations and sectors working together to improve educational outcomes for children in the area through a specific focus on community engagement and kindergarten readiness. BOF is the product of collaborations between leaders from business, government, education, and non-profit communities. 


“Helping every child succeed in school and in life, regardless of race, zip code, or circumstance”


Like AgeWell Pittsburg, BOF has found success through efforts to improve and maintain good communication, coordination, and collaboration among the stakeholder and networks with interest in this cause. Some examples:

  • Focusing on community engagement and speaking with community members to align goals and direct impact
  • Having monthly meetings and check-ups with their neighborhoods of focus and engaging in the community events of these neighborhoods
  • Listening to the needs of the community and shifting practices accordingly (such as when 40 BOF community partners took training at the Racial Equity Institute to understand the impact of race and racism in the United States and the Kenosha area)

Through focusing on these general strategies, BOF continues to make strides towards improving the educational landscape for children in the area and mitigating the impact of this ongoing wicked problem.

3. Supporting Low-income Children, Youth, and Families 

The final wicked problem the NNSI team will discuss is the continuous need to support low-income children, youth, and families in our communities. 

The Anne Arundel Partnership for Children, Youth, and Families is one network fighting this problem. This network aims to minimize the impact of a low-income status on the lives of children and families in Maryland. The Anne Arundel Partnership for Children, Youth, and Families was created by the State Legislature in 1993 and is comprised of 24 collaborative boards representing the 24 counties in Maryland. This partnership uses its power as a government agency to implement policy work and advocacy initiatives to help improve the lives of low-income children, youth, and families. 


“Reducing the impact of parental incarceration on children, families, and communities;

improving outcomes for disconnected youth;

reducing childhood hunger;

and reducing youth homelessness”


Again, as with AgeWell Pittsburgh and Building our Future Kenosha, the Anne Arundel County Partnership for Children, Youth and Families prioritizes communication, coordination, and collaboration through:

  • Bringing together diverse community members and stakeholders to listen, build partnerships, and develop solutions
  • Setting long-term initiatives that bring together stakeholders under set guidelines and goals
  • Creating spaces where community members can discuss important issues such as infrastructure issues and largely ignored low-income communities

The Anne Arundel Partnership for Children, Youth and Families has made significant progress in their efforts to aid low-income communities, and through its efforts, large and small scale changes made it possible to help these communities long into the future. 

In sum, the three examples in this blog illustrate that although wicked problems look different, approaching these problems often look similar. The complexity of wicked problems necessitates a dynamic solution that requires more than one organization to work together. They often arrange their efforts in networks because solutions to wicked problems require dynamic coordination. These networks must pivot to changing circumstances and address new issues that arise.