An Interview with Dr. Nadya Bliss

The Newest Member of New America’s Resource Security Team

Photo: Image provided by Nadya Bliss

Dr. Nadya Bliss is the Director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University. A mathy computer scientist, Bliss spent 10 years at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a prestigious Federally Funded Research and Development Center, before coming to ASU. New America and ASU have an extensive partnership in a number of areas, including in looking at climate change and other natural resources challenges. Last week, we deepened that partnership by formally adding Dr. Bliss to our team as a non-resident Senior Fellow in the Resource Security Program. Sharon Burke, Senior Advisor and Director for Resource Security, interviewed Dr. Bliss about her work.

Burke: So, it feels strange to be welcoming you to the New America team, since we’ve been working together for more than a year now, I think. Nonetheless, welcome aboard!

Bliss: Thank you – I’m excited to be working together.

Burke: So, you are also the Director of GSI at Arizona State University. Can you tell us about GSI?

Bliss: GSI is the Global Security Initiative, which supports ASU’s charter of impactful interdisciplinary research. In fact, there are a number of such university-level initiatives (meaning, they sit outside traditional academic hierarchy allowing us to bring together various departments and disciplines). Two other major ones are the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute for Sustainability and the Biodesign Institute, and GSI. We all focus on interdisciplinary challenges and approaches, though I like to describe GSI’s focus as “wicked problems” in security.

Burke: What do you mean by wicked problems? Are we talking about the Land of Oz?

Bliss, rolling her eyes politely: Wicked problems were formally defined in a 1973 paper by Rittel and Webber, “Dilemmas in the General Theory of Planning.”

Burke: That is not a very exciting title.

Bliss: Maybe not, but the content was and still is very exciting. The point was there were these messy problems that don’t have neat solutions – interconnected problems and equally interconnected solutions. In the paper, they actually defined 10 properties of a wicked problem, the first being there’s no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

Burke: Is this a trick?

Bliss: No, not all. Look, if you think about something like building a rocket – what Rittel and Webber called a “tame problem.” It is complicated, but you know what you want it to do, you know what you have to do to build it -- there are parameters -- and you know what the risks are to building it. You can approach this with a traditional engineering methodology. But with a wicked problem, it’s not that concise. A good example is climate change: this is a phenomenon that defies easy categorization. It has an effect on infrastructure, on the economy, on human health, on stability – and all at the same time, but it’s not all that clear how it’s all connected. When you try to pick apart all of these elements, there are propagating effects.

Burke: Okay, but how does that translate into a work stream or a research agenda at GSI?

Bliss: We have a notion of borderless domains – areas we work on, but that aren’t necessarily sharply demarcated. Our four borderless domains are cyber security, climate security, urban security, and health security.

Burke: Are those the only four such borderless domains?

Bliss: Oh, no. But those are the ones we are focusing on. And that doesn’t mean we won’t also bring in other areas, by the way: that’s the benefit of being based in a research university. It’s really a borderless domain itself.

Burke: So how do you actually work on a problem with no clear formulation and no clear solution?

Bliss:  The idea is not to neatly pull apart a wicked problem and say, there, we solved it.

Burke: Though that would be nice.

Bliss:  The idea is to provide better tools for understanding and addressing complexity – the analytics and the processes for better decisions. So, for example, what information, data, and ideas do you need to make better decisions about water scarcity in a desert climate, such as Phoenix? Can you make better decisions about an emerging famine in a developing nation? Can you make better decisions about trade agreements in the context of a changing climate? That doesn’t mean GSI only works on wicked problems, but we do tend to focus on problems that have messy aspects that require bringing in disciplines from across the university.

Burke: I’m still not sure I understand how you actually look at these problems. What’s your approach? How do you avoid getting so enmeshed in complexity that you can’t provide any useful insights?

Bliss: We have cross-cutting response areas or research foci – robotics and autonomy, analytics, decision making, and human and social conditions. If you go back to the  Rittel and Webber paper, one of the properties of wicked problems they define is “The planner has no right to be wrong”. What does that mean? Essentially, you can’t fully test out a hypothesis about how one would address a wicked problem. For example, say you are trying to address the complexity of something like a transportation network in a city. The planner can’t just build it out and then say “Nah, that is not going to work, let’s start from scratch.”

On one side, this sounds messy and why do we even bother with these. BUT, it actually gives us a measurable way to make progress. If “the planner has no right to be wrong”, we can focus on helping the planner – better anticipatory tools to identify vulnerabilities in a computer system, or lack of resilience in infrastructure, or properties of trade networks that can potentially contribute to conflict, or weakness of our healthcare system in responding to an epidemic. Our research foci drive these.

Burke: Do you have a favorite wicked problem?

Bliss: The thing I really like about this wicked problem formulation is that it explicitly accepts that all these things are interconnected, so in some ways, they’re all my favorites. You might say my favorite problem is the integration of all those wicked problems, such as how climate change interacts with new patterns of diseases and how resilient infrastructure can mitigate some of the stressors. Or how the emergence of famine can lead to political instability.

Burke: And the point is…

Bliss: The point is ultimately we want to make better decisions. In real life, and increasingly so, challenges are complex, and we don’t want to run away from that complexity. We want to look at it honestly.  We have a tendency to ignore complexity. But our society has gotten to a point where we can’t ignore it anymore. Energy, security, economy, globalization, health and so on – it’s all interconnected. You can’t talk about Zika, for example, without talking about the changing patterns of everything from mobility to environmental factors. And this kind of study absolutely requires bringing together diverse disciplines, which is the point of GSI.

Burke: How does this fit into resource security?

Bliss: It doesn’t make sense to talk about water, energy, and food security as separate concerns – they all affect each other. You want to find a way to maintain analytical rigor, though, and that’s what we’re striving for.

Burke: Why partner with New America?

Bliss: We want our work to be impactful for decision makers, so it makes sense to partner with New America – we get to bring together academic rigor with effective policymaking.

Burke: Is the U.S. Government set up to deal with wicked problems?

Bliss:  Our government is well positioned to start addressing wicked problems, but it’s not there yet. There’s been a great deal of discussion about removing stovepipes, but it has to be taken to a whole new level. I’m really excited about this partnership, because I think it has the potential to help transform how we approach these problems, from a policy perspective.

Burke: I think we have a lot of work to do, right?

Bliss: Right!


Nadya Bliss joins New America as a senior fellow in the Resource Security program. She is the director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University.

Sharon E. Burke is a senior advisor at New America, where she focuses on international security and a new program, Resource Security, which examines the intersection of security, prosperity, and natural resources.