The Wicked Problems in Sustainability Initiative

Our Motivation

The next generation of leaders will face a wide set of ‘wicked’ problems including urban planning, climate change, or feeding the world. Many wicked problems will require technical expertise in their responses and will have impact on any engineer’s career. However, technical professionals will need to be comfortable with the uncertainty and values-driven conversations implicit in addressing wicked problems. Teaching these problems is necessary but difficult, given their interdisciplinary nature, need for new curriculum development, and a lack of local professional expertise nationwide.

WPSI is a response to these challenges, and supports a community of courses that focus on a shared wicked problem each year. See the Call for 2016 Participation for this year's details.

What are we doing?

WPSI has finished its third year, with courses at the University of Pittsburgh, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and University of South Florida. We want to make sure that any school can expose their students to the complexity of the problems they’ll be dealing with in their careers, and we think that WPSI helps make that possible. For more information on how you could get involved, please contact Education Coordinator Omkar Aphale at

All the schools participating in the Wicked Problems in Sustainability Initiative have project-based courses, with projects focusing on some aspect of our annual topic - for example, sustainable housing. That could be structural or electrical systems, retrofits or slums, a single house or a city block, or something entirely different. Some students will design products, others will propose social businesses, others will be in between. The level of integration between the local course and WPSI as a national initiative is up to the local faculty member - some schools will build new courses, many others will graft WPSI onto existing material. 

Beyond local course content, students are exposed to experts in these issues - professionals who have worked on standards like PassiveHaus, work as air pollution enforcers, or have worked in different countries like Kenya. Projects will go through design reviews, with feedback not only from local instructors but also from students at other institutions and ESW-coordinated experts. Final results are presented at the ESW Annual Conference and receive support for implementation where feasible. The topic for the next year is also chosen by the community at the conference.   


2016 Topic: Public Water

You can grab this info along with mentorship details as a flyer (PDF).

Water is a critical resource without substitutes. Treated, potable water is a key driver of public health and a universal human right. However, more people have cell phones than toilets - building public water infrastructure is very hard. Even in developed countries, water infrastructure is buried, forgotten, and falling apart or poorly managed (often with disastrous results like Flint, MI). How we maintain and expand this critical good is a key wicked problem in building an environmentally and socially sustainable world.

Public water is a critical link in the web of modern civilization.
Public water requires massive amounts of energy and resources.
Public water systems are unavailable to 600M people, and many water projects fail.
Public water systems must shift going forward, even if groups’ values do not always agree

We are always looking for new courses, faculty, and mentors who are interested in working with us! Contact Alexander Dale at atdale (at)