DISMALL Problems

A DISMALL problem is a Difficult Intelligent Social Multiple Agents Large-scale Lock-in problem. So many critical problems fit this pattern that this is an important class of problems. This will take some time to explain.

Solving a novel difficult problem is never easy. The path to solution is invariably long and tortuous. Our path has been no exception.

When Thwink.org was first founded in 2001, we first defined our mission as solving the global environmental sustainability problem, using the most efficient and effective methods available. Well, we got the second half of that mission about right. But the first half has changed.

After seven years of iterative analysis, we discovered we were solving the wrong problem. The environmental sustainability problem is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem: the Broken Political System Problem. This was an enlightening discovery. Little did we know there was one more.

About five years after that, as we dug further to get the big picture from a systems engineering perspective, so many problems appeared that were symptoms of the same underlying problem that we realized we were actually solving an entire class of problems. This was totally unexpected but welcome, because it took us to the higher level of thinking so necessary to solve such incredibly difficult problems.

In 1968 Garrett Harding opened the most influential environmental paper ever, The Tragedy of the Commons, with these precociously insightful words:

At the end of a thoughtful article on the future of nuclear war, Wiesner and York concluded that: “Both sides in the arms race are . . . confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation.”

.... Whether they were right or not is not the concern of the present article. Rather, the concern here is with the important concept of a class of human problems which can be called “no technical solution problems,” and, more specifically, with the identification and discussion of one of these.

It is easy to show that the class is not a null class.

Hardin then proceeded to discuss the class of "no technical solution problems," making a number of keen points that thereafter set the debate, and the direction, of modern environmentalism.

Note where Hardin started: "with the important concept of a class of human problems." This is a supremely powerful concept. It can open up entirely new productive lines of attack on hitherto insolvable problem domains, as Hardin so skillfully proceeded to do in The Tragedy of the Commons. We wish to take the same approach here.

DISMALL Problems as a side effectThere is an important class of problems that arise from the Broken Political System Problem, as illustrated in the diagram. This class of problems is, to millions of dedicated activists, the most important class of problems in the world.

Past members of this class (solved problems) include slavery, women's suffrage, and civil rights. Current members of this class (unsolved problems) include environmental sustainability, over population, recurring wars, avoidable large recessions like those of 1929 and 2008, endemic corruption, excessive wealth inequality, large-scale discrimination, and more. Each of these problems has resisted solution for a long time. Their solution would benefit the common good. These problems fit a pattern. They can be characterized as difficult, systemic, large-scale, and involving social systems of multiple intelligent social agents. They also involve systemic lock-in, as for example Garrett Harding explained in The Tragedy of the Commons for the environmental sustainability problem: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited.” Let’s label the class Difficult Intelligent Social Multiple Agents Large-scale Lock-in (DISMALL) problems.

What makes DISMALL problems difficult is lock-in. Deep, well hidden, poorly understood forces exist that lock social agents into self-destructive behavior and make it excruciatingly difficult to break free, despite the prolonged effort of public interest problems solvers. Therefore if we are to successfully effect systemic change we must understand the fundamental systemic forces involved.

For DISMALL problems this requires root cause analysis, which is the practice of finding and resolving a problem’s root causes. That's why this website is so root cause analysis centric. There is a wealth of information here that can be applied to solving DISMALL problems, by solving their causes at the root cause level.

One final thought:

They may not know it, but every activist, academic, NGO, or agency working on a big, persistent, difficult social system problem is working on a DISMALL problem. Most of us are thus working on solving the same problem, because every DISMALL problem is a symptom of the same deeper problem: the broken political system problem.


This page was first created on June 3, 2015. The DISMALL acronym first appeared a few months earlier, in February, while preparing an article for Spanda Journal in an issue on Systemic Change. The article, not yet published, is Solving Difficult Large-scale Social System Problems with Root Cause Analysis.

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Two Companion Problems

This is a companion glossary entry to the Broken Political System Problem. The two problems go together and are inseparable.