Students address "wicked" problems in Wege Prize competition

Since 2013, the Wege Prize competition has awarded teams a cash prize for their solutions for solving “wicked” problems –– problems, the competition describes, that are "considerably resistant to resolution." These are issues that, once under inspection, unveil an entirely new network of issues that must be resolved as well.

“Wicked problems are systemic, which means they both affect and are affected by a broad diversity of people, places, institutions, and fields of knowledge,” says Wege Prize Organizer Gayle DeBruyn. “The more you broaden your perspective, the better you will be able to understand and address these complex problems.”

The competition is broken into four phases: the first phase consists of two essays, one describing an entrant’s desire for entering the competition, and the other outlining the research plan of the problem being addressed. The second phase is the project summary first draft, or the means by which the solution will be brought to life. The third phase is a revision of the summary draft, and the fourth phase is the final draft and presentation to judges and a live audience.

Each year, the competition receives between 50 and 80 applicants, and have more recently allowed participation from graduate students and students attending university internationally.

“Due to the educational nature of the competition, we accept all qualified teams and encourage them to move forward through each phase, using the judges’ feedback to grow their understanding and develop their solutions,” says DeBruyn.

Each team is comprised of five members who choose a world issue they want to solve. This year, the teams, which were announced on December 6, will create a business model based on a circular economy.

“A circular economy is restorative by design,” says DeBruyn. “It is globally recognized as the most viable alternative to the linear economy, and is powered by the same transdisciplinary approach required of Wege Prize teams.”

In a circular economy, products should maintain their highest utility and value as a way to maximize their output, saving both money and energy. In this same way, businesses and services mirror the same model and overall, create an efficient work cycle, from the perspective of monetary value and eco-friendly operation.

In comparison, the linear economic system, which is the primary business model seen in practice today, relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy. In this model, natural resources are used in abundance but very rarely restored, taking away from the long-term sustainability of our present economy.

Following the model of the circular economy, the 2018 Wege winners generated a solution to eco-tourism in Mexico, protecting the environment and the rights of indigenous communities, all while creating fiscal gain. 2017 winners created a food and beverage processing plant which converted organic waste products into animal feed and fertilizer. Outside of the competition itself, DeBruyn says it’s encouraging to see teams develop their ideas beyond the Wege Prize.

The 2018 first-place winners are currently rolling out their online platform to real-world customers, and the 2017 first-place winners are currently selling the product they developed.

“Wege Prize participants are empowered with a bold new way of looking at and tackling problems that may seem impossible to solve,” says DeBruyn. “The more people there are who not only believe that a better future is possible, but who are actively equipped to help us get there, the closer we get to making that future a reality.”

Photos courtesy of Wege Prize. 
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