Wicked Problems, Innovation and Project Masiluleke

“Most problems in organizations are ‘wicked problems,’…but most problem solving methods are suitable for simple, well-structured problems. The usual approaches do not, therefore, help organizations or people deal with their most important problems.”

– Robert Louis Flood, Creative Problem Solving


In corporate world some problems are well defined i.e. start, end and in between steps are known, these are also called as tamed problems. While some problems are not only difficult to define but are also resistant to solution, such problems are called as wicked problems.


A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems ex. Poverty which is difficult to define, and is in turn related to number of macro factors like education, nutrition, economy, employment etc.


Most of the wicked problems are in social field ex. poverty, unemployment, corruption, public health, education etc. But people who are supposed to resolve it are bureaucrats who are trained to solve well defined problems, hence are unable to resolve wicked problems. Their efforts either end up in failure or they simply give up and just ignore the problem.

Wicked problems need innovative solutions, something bureaucrats just cannot come up with. Instead of bureaucrats, the responsibility should be given to social entrepreneurs, who can come up with innovative ideas using their network.

South Africa is battling with problem of AIDS, which has assumed form of epidemics in that country. Problem of AIDS is not just of diagnosis and treatment. It has lot of social and cultural dimensions ex. complex issues of privacy, sexual identity, fear and behaviour. These issues have to be handled along with the biological spread of the disease.

Traditional approach of government opening diagnostic centres, waiting for people to turn up for diagnosis and then giving medicines was not working. An innovative approach was needed.

Data showed that around 90% of South Africans have access to mobile phone. A project was designed around it. It was called Project Masilueke or Project M, which was a joint effort of  Pop Tech (community of innovators from many fields), frog( a global design and innovation firm) and MTN ( mobile service provider in South Africa.

project M

KwaZulu- Natal area of South Africa was chosen for this project. Initially MTN started sending SMS to people in that areas informing them about AIDS and giving them helpline number.

“Frequently sick, tired, losing weight and scared that you might be HIV positive? Please call AIDS Helpline 0800012322.”


When contacted, people were sent Home HIV Test Kit, designed by frog which helped a person to do diagnostics at home. Instead of blood test, it consisted of saliva based diagnostics. The test, with copy written in both English and Zulu, was available free of charge.

projectm kits

The person could get in touch with mobile based helpline and app to discuss his/her test results and start counselling and treatment.


This combination of mobile support and saliva-based diagnostics resulted in significant increase of awareness of AIDS in KwaZulu- Natal region, which would not have been possible with traditional methods.



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