Introduction to social problems

The nature of problems

This is the second part of a trilogy on social innovation where I will delve into the nature of problems. Read the first part here.

In the previous article, the concept of social innovation was disclosed through the lens of education; giving educators an overview of how they can break new grounds to address social issues surrounding them.

Being an educator, you would have realized that education is a very complex system. Apart from being interconnected with other large systems like politics, economics, culture and society, there are also many actors like people, materials and rules which are very hard to catalogue.

These elements interact with each other so much that the complexity increases exponentially. It is scarcely possible to draw a line that shows the relationship between the cause and effect because one cause may have many effects. Also, an effect could be the cause of another problem. School, which is a complex system, has complex problems.

Taking illiteracy as an example, possible causes are poverty, illiterate parents, undiagnosed learning disabilities, prolonged absenteeism, negative stigmas or perceptions. In a case like this, what do you suppose is the main issue? Which of these issues are deemed to be significant? How do we solve them? Does addressing the issue of poverty alone eradicate illiteracy?

This is what Rittle and Webber (1973) described as wicked problems. There is not a clear definition of the problem, stakeholders have divergent views about what the problem means to them, there is not a fixed set of solutions readily available, no end point and every problem is a symptom to another problem.

Dealing with wicked problems can be confounding for social innovators because of the dynamic at play. So how can social innovators delve deeper and understand wicked problems? One of the tools developed by Toyota is called the 5-Whys technique (Davies, 2020). This tool helps unpack problems and get to deeper levels of understanding the nature of these problems.

It does this by drilling a problem down to its root by asking ‘why?’ five times and then strategizing a solution. So instead of exploring possible causes of illiteracy on a surface level, by using the 5-Whys, social innovators can have a more profound understanding of the issue. The five whys could look like this:

Why are children illiterate?

They have been absent from school for some time.

Why have they been absent from school for some time?

They do not have transport to get to school.

Why do they not have transport to get to school?

Their parents can’t afford one or hire one to send them to school.

Why can’t their parents afford?

They are unemployed.

Why are they unemployed?

They lack skills and knowledge.

From this we can see that one of the possible causes of illiteracy does not just stem from absenteeism, but the real reason is poverty and this roots from unemployed parents who lack skills and knowledge. Now, social innovators can start thinking about what they can do to equip parents with skills and knowledge so that they can afford to send their children to school.

Having said that, this may not be the ultimate answer as wicked problems are very complex, but this technique is a way to make roads into what looked like a daunting and almost hopeless problem. Rather than developing lots of complicated solutions which have very marginalized improvements and sometimes further entrenching the root causes of why these problems exist in the first place, it is better to narrow down the focus and take viable measures that have transformational outcomes.

A figure in education that has truly done just this is Mr. Nazmi an English teacher who teaches in the interiors of Sarawak. Unlike urban schools which could resort to online teaching during the pandemic, schools in the interior struggled to ensure that the children were not left behind in their education due to the lack of access. Also, all of us are aware that access to education is a wicked problem that has been surrounding the interior schools all over Malaysia for some time now.

Mr. Nazmi however, knew what the children really needed and he came up with an innovative solution called ‘Homework COD’. He travelled over 200km in rough terrains to send homework to the children living in 13 different villages. He also collects their completed work when he sends them new ones each week. By doing this, the children were able to have access to education during the pandemic.

Does this measure entirely address the issue of access to education during the pandemic? No, it does not but this is the first crucial step that every social innovator needs to take when dealing with a wicked problem. As mentioned earlier, there is no end point, but change is still possible when the focus is narrowed.

In the last part of the trilogy, I will wrap up by exploring the way to discover resources and the design thinking steps for social innovation.


Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: a positive revolution in change. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Davies, S. T. (2020). How to overcome obstacles by using Toyota’s five whys technique. Retrieved from

Rittel, H. W. & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4 (2), 155-169.

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