During the heady days of post World War II science, German researchers noticed that thalidomide diminished morning sickness. It became so popular among pregnant women that pharmacies distributed it over the counter.
But when children began dying prematurely or being born with limb and organ deformities, the government had to restrict the drug. A solution designed to resolve a problem ultimately created new problems.
DDT, an early synthetic insecticide, was once hailed as the solution to diseases like malaria. Then Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and environmentalists started to rally.
The UN stopped promoting DDT for more than 20 years, and researchers tracked species declines where it was sprayed. Scientists and lay people debated whether it was a carcinogen, and by the 1970s, countries across the West were banning it entirely.
No one, least of all the scientist who earned a Nobel Prize for synthesizing this chemical, would have predicted it would eventually put the bald eagle at risk. But that’s what happened.
Problems inspire solutions, and those solutions produce new problems, which in turn inspire new solutions, and new generations of problems and solutions.
That’s the problem-solution cycle. It’s a way to describe the consequences of change, especially the kinds of changes designed to resolve individual, group, organizational, or social issues.
It’s not the same as the problem-solving cycle, the process that engineers and social makers use to define and develop responses to problems.
The problem-solution cycle simply acknowledges that because we can’t account for all consequences of change, even the good that we do will have outcomes we either didn’t or couldn’t plan for. Future problems—and there will be some—aren’t an argument for taking no action today at all.