Getting to Here — My Path to the Wicked Problems Collaborative

I started a crazy project two years ago. I was afraid it had little chance of succeeding. But a lot of thoughtful folks chose to take a chance (and they were exceedingly patient with me as I fumbled through the process), so I’ll start here by thanking them.

Before I get to the story of our book, I need to take a step back to the events which nudged me toward this project to provide a bit of context.

I spent my twenties doing work that largely made me miserable. I was backed in to ill-fitting roles, doing uninteresting work, that lacked purpose, and afforded little room for creativity. I realize I wasn’t working on a chain gang, but from a thinking standpoint, it was awful.

Keep your head down. Follow the rules. Punch the clock. Don’t think, just do. Enjoy life at the margins (if at all).

By my early 30s, I was already trying to hang on by my fingernails long enough to make it to retirement (which I knew was never going to happen). The stress of having to live within unnecessarily confining rules and policies, and inhuman hierarchies, took a toll that slowly built up.

I was getting ready for work one day when I passed out in the shower.

Thud.

My wife took me to the emergency room where I was hooked up to every monitoring system known to man. The doctors gave me a clean bill of health and sent me home explaining that it was probably a weird confluence of factors, but that it was nothing to be concerned about unless it happened again.

The next morning it happened again.

Clunk..

I then spent a couple of days in the hospital where the doctors took the poking and prodding to a new level. By the third day, I was exhausted and scared. I was told that a doctor was coming to do a final eval and that I’d probably be going home soon. I paced the room nervously as I waited for the doctor to come in.

By the time he arrived, my legs were starting to feel weak. I should have sat down, but I wanted to get home, and I thought I should show what “good shape” I was in. The doctor said my case was puzzling. (I had apparently become the hot topic of discussion throughout the hospital.) He had gone over everything with his colleagues, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. I passed out in front of him as he was telling me that a nurse would be in shortly to have me fill out my release papers.

Thwack…

When I came to, the scene was chaotic. Suddenly there were more people buzzing around the room than it could comfortably hold. A nurse arrived with a crash cart and started firing up the defibrillator. I signaled that I was conscious, and the frantic moment quickly subsided, but the look of panic on the faces of doctors stuck with me. So when a nice man in a white lab coat later showed me an EKG strip with a long pause in it, and suggested that I might want to put my affairs in order, the alarm bells that were already ringing in my head became deafening.

Hit the <pause> button. “wtf?!”

Image source: Flickr/Mo Riza

I had about three weeks to recuperate after receiving that news, a break from the treadmill that afforded me a chance to think things through. The big question that kept rolling around my mind was, had that been it, would I have felt good about what I had done with my time here? The answer was a resounding, “No.” So while the doctors sent me home with the advice that I might want to start taking it easy, I knew I had to take my chances swimming upstream.

It’s better to burn out…

Prior to that, I had long been looking for a way to make a positive difference in the world, and that search had been maddeningly fruitless. As I worked through my interests and desires, I eventually figured out that I wanted to work on wicked problems, the messy, interrelated problems faced by humanity–the gnawing ones which seem to defy resolution (Social and environmental issues like climate change, war, disease…), and  that I wanted to do something that brought diverse thinkers together to work on these problems, but even knowing that it still took a long time to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

I don’t remember when the “spark” occurred, but I vividly remember discussing the idea with the editor I was working with at the time. When I finished describing it, she excitedly yelled out, “That’s ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’!” She was referring to an old poem which describes six blind men who approach an elephant from different angles and declare it to be what their senses tell them the individual parts are: “a spear! (tusk),” “a wall! (body),” “a tree! (leg),” “a hose!” (trunk), and so on. Each of them understood an aspect of the animal, but none of them would discover its true nature on their own. This idea became the organizing principle from which the project flowed.

Wikipedia/racconish

My editor’s excitement helped get me moving forward. I started reaching out to people who shared unique perspectives to see if they might be interested in taking part, and I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response I received. In the end, we were able to list academics, activists, artists, business leaders, economists, and journalists among our number. (There’s a full list of of contributors, with their chapters, at the end of this post, and their bios are available here.)

That starting point was just over two years ago. From there it was quite the roller coaster ride, with wonderful highs reading and editing submissions as they arrived, and miserable lows as publishing houses declined to sign the book, (or never, ever, ever responded). Fortunately, we’re living in an era in which you can go off into the publishing wild on your own, so I decided to head down that path. Several months of writing and editing ensued, with the specter of failure ever-present, but we were able to emerge with a book that I’m really proud of. Now that we’re here, it’s hard to believe the creation phase is over. It was an awful lot of work, but it was work that I enjoyed because it aligned with my interests and passions. (As such, I’m looking forward to working on the next one, “What do we do with technology?, which is tentatively scheduled for Spring of 2017.)

The Wicked Problems Collaborative is excited to offer “What do we do about inequality?” piping hot, and fresh out of the oven. Our book brings new perspectives to an array of issues which endure persistent inequality (wealth, race, income, access, etc.) and offers ideas towards achieving better outcomes than those we currently see. Please check the list of chapters/authors below, and do let me know if you have any questions. If you’re interested in picking up a copy, you can find it here. And if you’d like to keep up with our adventures going forward, here are a few links that’ll help:

Thanks for reading.

-Chris


What do we do about inequality?
Wicked Problems Collaborative – Book 1

OPENING VOLLEYS
EDITOR’S NOTE
THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
PREFACE
INTRODUCTION
1. TO ADDRESS INEQUALITY, THINK GLOBAL | Dylan Matthews
2. THE IDEOLOGICAL STRAITJACKET | Sean McElwee
3. WHAT DOES EQUIPOTENTIALITY BRING TO THE TABLE IN TERMS OF EQUALITY? | Michel Bauwens
4. INEQUALITY, UNCOUNTED | Alex Cobham
5. THE INEFFICIENCY OF INEQUALITY | Daniel Altman
6. IS CAPITALISM UNFAIR? | Chris MacDonald
7. THE PROBLEM OF INEQUALITY | Kevin Carson
8. TOWARDS RENOUNCING PERSONAL PRIVATIZATION | Nicholas Archer
9. THE INEQUALITY OF WILDNESS AND THE NECESSITY OF WILDNESS FOR EQUALITY | Megan Hollingsworth
10. THE STICKINESS OF INJUSTICE | Jennifer Reft
11. NOBLE FICTIONS AND SACRED TEXTS | Paul Fidalgo
12. THE VOICES THAT ARE NOT YOUR OWN: MAINTAINING CHOICE IN THE AGE OF THE ALGORITHM | John C. Havens
13. THE EMPATHY DEFICIT: WHY THE INEQUALITY CRISIS IS ALSO A CRISIS OF EMPATHY | Robin Cangie
14. BILLIONAIRES WITH DRONES: FROM OLIGARCHY TO NEOMEDIEVALISM | Frank A. Pasquale
15. WHAT SHOULD THE WORLD LEARN FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF INEQUALITY IN LATIN AMERICA? | Patrick Iber
16. OCCUPY SANDY AND THE FUTURE OF SOCIALISM | Sam Knight
17. THE “PLACE OF BIRTH” LOTTERY | David Kaib & Chris Oestereich
18. INEQUALITY AND THE BASIC INCOME GUARANTEE | Scott Santens
19. THE AGE OF INEQUALITY: CAUSES, DISCONTENTS, AND A RADICAL WAY FORWARD | Jason Hickel & Alnoor Ladha
20. TWENTIETH CENTURY SOLUTIONS WON’T WORK FOR TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY INEQUALITY | David O. Atkins
21. THE STATE OF AFFAIRS: HEADING FROM BAD TO WORSE | Adnan Al-Daini
22. THE TRAGEDY OF OUR MIDDLE CLASS | Peter Barnes
23. POST-SCARCITY ECONOMICS: WHY ARE SOME PUNDITS AND ECONOMISTS STILL ENAMORED OF AUSTERITY? | Tom Streithorst
24. INCOME INEQUALITY: WHAT’S WRONG WITH IT, AND WHAT’S NOT | F. Spagnoli
25. TURMOIL & TRANSITION | Harold Jarche
26. KNOWLEDGE, POWER, AND A POTENTIAL SHIFT IN SYSTEMIC INEQUALITY | Jon Husband
27. THE QUESTION OF INEQUALITY: A VIEW FROM INDIA | Akhila Vijayaraghavan
28. WHAT YOU KNOW IS BASED ON WHO YOU KNOW | Deborah Mills-Scofield
29. INEQUALITY IS ABOUT THE POOR, NOT ABOUT THE RICH | Miles Kimball
30. TO TACKLE EXTREME POVERTY, WE MUST TAKE ON EXTREME INEQUALITY | Nick Galasso & Gawain Kripke
31. ADDRESSING WEALTH EQUALITY WITH INVESTING SOLUTIONS FROM NATURE, NURTURE, AND SCIENCE | Rosalinda Sanquiche
32. THE LOGIC OF STUPID POOR PEOPLE: STATUS, POVERTY AND GATEKEEPING | Tressie McMillan Cottom
33. POOR CHOICES | Melonie Fullick
34. THE PARTICIPATION GAP | Devin Stewart
35. GETTING THE FRAME RIGHT | KoAnn Skrzyniarz
36. THE FIRST JOB CREATOR | Adam Kotsko
37. LIFE IN THE TREETOPS: A CHOICE OF CHASTENING PRIVATION OR DEBASING PROSPERITY | Chris Oestereich
NOW WHAT?
IT’S LONELY OUT IN SPACE
PARTING SHOTS
NEXT

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