Wicked Problem Plaza E-waste

Auteurs: Ecocampus, CATAPA vzw en Rotterdam School of Management Erasmus University
Keywords: E-waste, smartphones, complexe problemen, stakeholders
Versie: 1.1 ( 19/10/2017 )
Doelgroep: docenten en professors (deze actiefiche is geschreven als leidraad voor de lesgever)


Doel en gebruiksaanwijzing

Doel methodiek

Wicked Problem Plaza is een wetenschappelijke methodiek om grote uitdagingen onder de aandacht te brengen, de complexiteit ervan te ontrafelen en te zoeken naar oplossingen. Tot op heden experimenteerde men met deze methodiek enkel in het maatschappelijke/professionele werkveld. Wij dachten dat enkele onderdelen ook voor het onderwijs relevant zijn en ontwikkelden samen met de Rotterdam School of Management Erasmus University en Catapa een educatiegids voor een halve lesdag.

De educatiegids bestaat uit een set van 3 Engelstalige documenten die u helpen bij het organiseren van een WPP-sessie voor studenten over E-waste. Het gaat om een educatieve fiche, een infofiche rond E-waste en een presentatie die u in uw lessen kan gebruiken. Studenten krijgen een stakeholderrol toebedeeld, treden in dialoog met meerdere stakeholders en leren zo complexe problemen aan te pakken. U kan deze gids ook gebruiken als inspiratie en de documenten aanpassen aan uw eigen groep studenten, thema en leerdoelen.



Deze actiefiche is gericht op een halve dag.

Grootte van de groep:

De actiefiche is gericht op een groep van 30 studenten. Mits enkele kleine aanpassingen ook in grotere groepen te gebruiken.


De docent kan deze actiefiche gebruiken om studenten uit andere vakgebieden (milieuwetenschappen, sociaal werk, sociologie, design, etc.) uit te nodigen voor de les.

Neem contact op met linda.vanmeersche@vlaanderen.be  als u met deze fiche aan de slag wilt gaan.


Wicked Problems Plaza - Minerals in a smartphone

Although smartphones have become indispensable in everyday life, we know surprisingly little about the impact of these devices. Smartphones contain valuable minerals; and from the time of their extraction up to the moment when they are thrown away, the use of these minerals has an (often negative) impact on human life and its environment. At the same time these finite minerals become ever more scarce, hence increasing the demand for them. So, how can the negative impact of smartphones be minimalised in a complex multi-stakeholder world? Since there are no instant solutions, this a real wicked problem. 

Problematic from design over extraction to waste

Smartphones are intentionally designed with a short life span in mind. After a relatively short period one of the parts will break down. Because of the non-modular design of the phone, it will (almost) be impossible to replace this part; which means the entire phone will have to be thrown away. Moreover, the possibilities for recycling the separate raw materials of a phone at the end of its life are barely taken into account during the design process. This makes recycling such a difficult and non-cost-effective process that the majority of the metals contained in smartphones are sourced from the mining industry. Discarded electronics often end up in developing countries, where they are taken apart and some parts are recovered, but under circumstances which are hazardous to health and the environment.

Many of the minerals in a smartphone are extracted in countries with a miserable reputation as far as social and environmental standards and human rights are concerned. Cobalt, for example: 53% is sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it plays a major role in funding conflict. On top of that, poor employment conditions – such as low pay, few qualified jobs for the local population, unsafe working conditions and health risks – and child labour are rife in the informal mining industry. On an environmental level, the mining industry not only exhausts water reserves but also pollutes water and agricultural areas with metals and chemicals. The mining industry also often poses a threat to human rights: land grabbing, little to no involvement of the local population before a mining project starts and violence and intimidation are methods used to suppress protest. 

Lastly, smartphones are mainly produced in low-wage countries, where workers  work long days for low wages in unhealthy conditions.

Smartphones have travelled a very long way before they are on the shelves. This transport is one of the causes of greenhouse gases emission.

All these external costs are not included in the price of smartphones. Their social cost is much higher than their real cost, but no one is held to account. 

Who has the power to make a change?

Theoretically, it is the consumers who hold power and influence over products through their purchase choices. If they stop buying smartphones, none would indeed be made anymore. But consumers are very poorly or not at all informed about the negative impact of the minerals in their phone. For some, this is of minor importance when choosing a new phone. Price and hype are prime influence factors, which is further boosted by marketing. Time and again consumers are encouraged to buy the newest smartphone model or other technological gadgets, even when their old phone still works. But even if consumers do want more involvement, their influence will remain limited. 
A huge number of stakeholders are involved in the production of smartphones, in which profit maximisation is still key. Most of the power is concentrated in the companies. They are not transparent about the electronics chain and the origin of the materials, which helps to explain why the average smartphone owner doesn’t lose his sleep over the materials and production issue. It is obvious that the big players benefit greatly from this ignorance. But this big influence of companies also creates opportunities: resources become ever more scarce and thus more expensive. This could be an incentive to use these materials in a more sustainable way - both from an ecological and economic point of view.  
Governments also have their role to play, although it is limited and greatly influenced by corporate lobbies. They are relatively powerless against companies which operate all around the world in search of the cheapest working conditions and which meet only minimum environmental standards. If their plans are thwarted, they will simply move their activities to a different region. The possibilities for regulation are moreover hampered by traceability problems.

Challenging Alternatives

  1. Fairphone is the ultimate reference for sustainable smartphones. They work as transparently as possible, make their phones as modulable and repairable as possible, make huge sustainability efforts as far as their suppliers are concerned and even their sales model is resource-saving (e.g.  no earphones or charger are included). They moreover highlight awareness raising  in their marketing strategy. Still, they are faced with scaling problems. They can only guarantee the traceability of 4 metals (tin, tantalum, gold and tungsten) out of more than 40 and this in a context of technical problems.
  2. Repairing phones is an important option through which jobs can at the same time be created. Currently, sellers only occasionally repair products and parts and only within the warranty period. Reparations after expiration of the warranty are expensive and tedious for consumers and also imply that they have to forgo use of their phone for some time. This hasn’t stemmed the rise of shops which offer smartphone repair services and which work independently from the big players.
    Refurbishing and remanufacturing are also making headway. Despite the available technical knowhow, consumers are still hesitant and doubtful. I-Fixit is a company which takes this to the next level. They sell repairing tools for electronics, put manuals for repairing these electronics online and rate products on their repairability. This has made consumers more inclined to repair their phones and has boosted the emergence of stores such as I-Fixer, which very probably use I-Fixit as a medium. 
  3. The recycling of components is also an interesting option for smartphones are full of metals which can be recycled. Some retailers and network operators already give incentives to their customers (for example, a reduction) for bringing back their old devices. But the brands themselves don’t follow their example. Many consumers aren’t aware of this either. 
  4. Leasing is another option which is examined. Under the current leasing systems, consumers pay a monthly fee and receive a new or refurbished device after a specified time. Because companies remain owners of the phone, the latter is designed in as sustainable a way as possible. One of the arguments against this option is that is doesn’t bring about a system change.

Still, technology is not the only answer to these challenges. Structural changes in the balance of power and consumption patterns are needed for the Earth is finite.

Preliminary task

The Wicked Problem Plaza (WPP) is a scientific method to tackle big challenges and has been developed by Professor Rob van Tulder of the Partnerships Resource Center and the New World Campus. A WPP is a dialogue in which important stakeholders come together to discuss a wicked problem which concerns every one of them. The facilitator leads the stakeholders through four steps for relying on their heads, hearts and hands when examining both the problem and the possible resolutions to the problem. 
Since all of you are students and represent only one view on the ‘wicked problem’, we will have you represent the other stakeholders. Roleplay will allow you to identify yourself with the stakeholder, meet other stakeholders in the WPP and negotiate with the others. This will only be effective if you prepare yourself well for the WPP and learn about the stakeholder you will represent. On the internet you will find information about this stakeholder and his/her institutional background. Look for information about his/her (political) ideas/views and feel free to contact a stakeholder and interview him/her about what he/she would do to contribute to a solution to this problem. Also have a look at his/her CV and find out more about his/her educational background. Be creative and proactive. Collect arguments about this initiative to make sustainability a part of every study programme. To help you to be creative, we ask you to pick a subject/image that would be representative of the wicked problem according to the stakeholder. You will need to engage in dialogue with others about this subject/image.

Stakeholder Representatives
Smartphone user: Apple  
Smartphone user: Nokia  
Smartphone user: Fairphone  
Smartphone producer: Apple  
Smartphone producer: Nokia  
Smartphone producer: Fairphone  
Somebody who has explicitly chosen not to have a mobile phone   
Phone Salesman/-woman   
I Fix It repairman/-woman  
Flemish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Development Cooperation, the Digital Agenda, Telecommunications and Postal Services Alexander De Croo   
Recycling Company   
Miner in DRC   
Consumer Association   
Rebel leader in DRC  
Congolese Government   


1 Introduction

In this class, a group of max 30 students will work on the wicked problem of e-waste. You will look at the problem from different perspectives, and go from problem orientation to potential solutions. The approach consists of brainstorming, stakeholder roleplay and dialogue methods. Students will learn how to critically assess a present-day problem and will understand why such problems cannot easily be solved. 
By way of preparation, you will ask the students to read the E-waste infosheet, in which the problem is shortly explained and 4 possible solutions to the problem are presented. In this infosheet students will also find information about the stakeholder roles and an exercise in order to prepare themselves for the stakeholder dialogue. At the beginning of the class you will shortly recap this information, for example by means of the E-waste PowerPoint presentation, during which you can enlarge on the wickedness of the problem. You can also explain the method and practical exercises that the students will be involved in, such as the stakeholder-triangle.  In this way the class will truly consist of a combination of thinking, listening, and in a later stage, talking and acting. 
Below, you will find a script that can help you to structure the class. This can help you to prepare the practical exercises and to gain more insight in the WPP methodology. You can also choose to start with the equity space, instead of the interest space, but make sure you do a recap after the second space. And you can adapt the tools to the needs of the specific group and the time allocated for the session. Some of the practical exercises in the script are explained in detail under the script. 

2 Script

When and what? Content/questions Who? How long? What do you need?
Preparing the class •    Reading the infosheet about the wicked problem and preparing the stakeholder roleplay. Student One week in advance ‘E-waste’ Infosheet, attachment 1a 
Internet connection to find more information about the wicked problem and the stakeholder.
9.00-9.30 Introduction •    What is a wicked problem? 
•    Why is e-waste wicked? 
•    What is the WPP and what will we do today?
Teacher 30 min •    E-waste Powerpoint presentation about wicked problems by professor Van Tulder.
•    flipchart/blackboard to take notes.
9.30-10.00 Interest space         Positioning in the stakeholder triangle All 30 min Tape, paper and sufficient space to move around. 
See next chapter 3 for an elaboration.
10.00-10.30 Equity space
  • Why are you here?
  • In what way do you work on a solution for the problem? Or why not (yet)?

Write keywords on post-its.

Personal interviews in pairs 30 min Coffee, light music. 
10.30-10.45 Short recap Reading the post-its and earlier insights on the interest space. All   Flipshart
10.45-11.15 Efficiency space 3 'solutions'
  • What works and what does not  work in this solution?
  • Why does this solution not yet completely solve the wicked problem?
  • How can we upgrade the solution in order to better address the wickedness of the problem?
4 subgroups 4 x10 min 4 flip charts, markers, post-its, ‘E-waste’ info sheet with the four solutions. 
11.15-11.30 Short pitches Short pitch of the new upgraded solution, q&a with other groups. 4 subgroups 4 x 3 min  
  • What did I learn today?
  • What can I do with these learnings?
All 30 min  

3 An elaboration of some of the tools

3.1 Interest space

Aim: Introduction of participants and their positions and interests.

3.1.1 Stakeholder traingle

This practice can be used in the interest space. Before doing this exercise, it is useful to give some explanation of the triangle in the introduction, for example with the powerpointpresentation that we provided. 

Create a triangle on the floor with tape, rope or markers, make it as big as possible (preferably 3x3 meter). Put post-its/paper on the 3 corners and write  ‘civil society’, ‘market’, and ‘state’ on them. 

Round 1: position-based negotiation
Ask participants to take a position in the triangle. Which stakeholder role do they represent and in which corner do they belong (civil society, company, government, or somewhere in between?). This position represents your primary stake. 
A question you may use: ‘from which role/position do you want to take steps in order to solve the problem of e-waste? 
Ask some participants why they are in that position. Who do they represent? Which role do they also have (e.g. consumer, parent, concerned citizen)?
How does it feel to be put in one corner? How do you feel now that you are representing a sector?
Who is still missing in the triangle? Which stakeholder should have been there and why are they not here? How can they be represented? 

Round 2:  interest based negotiation

Select three participants per corner; e.g. Congolese government, the government of Flanders and European government in the ‘State’ corner. ‘Phone company’, ‘recycling company’ and ‘Congolese mine employer’ may be in the ‘Market’ corner while the ‘Communities’ corner may be populated by CATAPA, Congolese mineworker and phone consumer. Or any other choice that guarantees diversity. This will result in the presence of 9 persons per corner in the triangle. The others step out of the triangle and watch what will happen. Ask the 3 groups: what kind of action do you want to take? What is your interest in taking that step? 

For example: the government of Flanders may say: ‘I will subsidise the recycling of phones’.  This will make the recycling company happy, so they both do a step towards the middle. The phone company may be less happy and might take a step back. The other parties are not influenced by this statement. Then another player will propose another action, to which people will react by taking steps forward or backwards.  
The triangle above gives an indication about the amount of steps that parties can take in order to come closer or less close to each other. You can use the PowerPoint beforehand to explain these steps.

After each step, you can ask the students outside the triangle to comment on what they see. They can also recommend steps in order to change the field. Also, you can make them wonder what the current reality looks like. 

Round 3: collective vision based negotiation
How can the parties come to an ideal solution? How can the students who are outside of the triangle convince the insiders to make everyone come to the middle (the so-called partnering space?). How can we make sure that parties will not only shake hands, but also hug each other? 

3.2 Equity space

Aim: use this space as a time for personal reflection and connecting to the heart. 

Personal interviews in pairs: let participants interview and listen to each other as they discuss personal questions for reflection. Ask the students to pair up with a stakeholder they are not very familiar with, to sit somewhere comfortably and get a cup of coffee. As a teacher you explain the questions and the exercise right at the beginning. Every stakeholder asks 2 questions to the other within a 15 minutes’ time frame, after which they change roles. The questions are: ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘In what way do you work on a solution for the problem? Or why not (yet)? The interviewing stakeholder does not interrupt the other with new questions or his/her own answers (even agreeingly nodding is an answer). The interviewer listens carefully to what the other says and will write this down in keywords on a post-it. The interviews finish after 30 minutes and the stakeholders give their post-it to the other for validation. They then copy all the keywords on the flipchart. 

3.3 Recap

The teacher then gives the students 5 minutes to read the post-its in silence. Next, students may comment on what they have read. Ask them if and in what way the new information that has been gathered in this space, is similar or very different from what they learnt in the interest space. Have a short discussion about this, for 10 minutes max. Then move on to the next space. 

3.4 Efficiency space

Aim: This is the most active part of the Wicked Problems Plaza in which participants will work on potential solutions. It involves a lot of brainstorming and creative out-of-the box thinking. Still, it also involves a critical assessment of the feasibility of approaches. And it approaches the question of the efficiency of current approaches and why they are not yet working.
Brainstorming: Divide the group of students into 4 subgroups, preferably with an equal share of stakeholders (CSO, market, government). Let them take place near a flip-chart and give them markers and post-its. Also hand them the E-waste infosheet again and tell the subgroups which solution they will work on. The students will get 30 minutes for brainstorming, and will concentrate on three questions. They will have to pitch their answer to the third question. Explain to them that out of the groups one person will pitch the new solution, in only 3 minutes. You will give them the first question right at the beginning, the second one after 10 minutes, and the third one after another 10 minutes. With the last question, tell them again about the expectations for the pitch. If needed, they can make a separate flip-chart paper with keywords for the pitch. The three questions are:
•    What works and what does not work in this solution?
•    Why does this solution not yet completely solve the wicked problem?
•    How can we upgrade the solution in order to better address the wickedness of the problem?

Pitches: Ask the pitcher to explain the answer to the final question in just 3 minutes. Preferably they ‘sell’ their new solution to the other groups. After 3 minutes, ask the other 3 groups to ask questions about this new solution. This should be done in only 2 minutes. Keep a strict timing, in order to make it a vivid space. After each round of pitches and q&a thank all the stakeholders for their good work and let them applaud each other. 

pdf bestandEducation guide WPP E-waste (645 kB)


pdf bestandPowerpoint WPPE-waste (1.66 MB)