How ‘wicked’ are your public transport operations?

Transport planning is a wicked problem.

A wicked problem is a problem so complex it seems insoluble. Take the health issue of smoking in Australia – stakeholders include government, consumers, the tobacco industry, the health sector, and the rights and freedoms of the public. Different political parties don’t see eye to eye, people hold different values, and numerous attempts have been made to reduce smoking rates in various ways, none wholly successful. As soon as one factor changes, unforeseen consequences arise which also have to be dealt with.

The idea of a wicked problem is commonly used in planning. Design thinking has shown potential to make progress in wicked problems where linear thinking has not. The best attempts utilise an iterative loop, trying things again and again and altering your response based on what happens.

Anything where there’s lots of stakeholders and many different values at play can be considered a wicked problem. Obesity, drink driving, climate change – there’s not necessarily a right way to deal with these. Of course, one of the most extreme wicked problems is transport.
It can be said to be ‘extreme’ because of the sheer number of issues at play. With some transport-focused organisations, they’re looking out for transport efficiency. But in driving for that there could be negative effects in other realms such as customer service. The number of stakeholders is large – state and federal governments, transport authorities, city authorities, and private industry. On top of this, government cycles affect what’s focused on, different geographical areas demand different solutions, and there’s an incredibly diverse group of people seeking the services of one system (business people, ordinary commuters, school children, tourists).

Anything one group does is going to change the nature of the problem – as you address one symptom, others may get worse. There’s always going to be unexpected knock-on effects. But by aligning stakeholders towards a common goal or collaborative burning platform, it’s possible to solve – or at least improve upon – a wicked problem.