Thorbjørn Mann 2021

The claim we want to examine, as stated by proposed approaches (methods, techniques, perspectives): “This approach can be used to tackle WP’s” seems to accept the understanding of WP’s — the original Rittel/Webber one or a slightly different one of later interpreters, as well as a common understanding of ‘tackle‘ as not only ‘trying’ but actually achieving the development of a ‘solution’ to problems described as WP’s: ‘solving’ such problems. It was already pointed out in the first post of this series that of course any group is entitled to ‘tackle‘ (understood as ‘trying to solve’) any problem with any approach it deems appropriate. The question then is whether the claim actually can be seen as a believable promise that a problem with the WP properties will be solved usingthe approach or method. (The possibility that the very concepts of ‘problem’, WP, ‘solving’ these, etc. might themselves need critical scrutiny was be taken up in a the second post of the series).

So what are the criteria that might be used to determine the merit or validity of a claim of the above nature? Put crudely: what would make a client confident to hire a company using an approach X claiming that the approach will solve the client’s WP?  Would a first step be to look for answers to the question of how the proponents of the approach would respond to each of the mutually accepted and understood WP properties? Two questions: 

a) If the respective property is seen as a significant obstacle to the achievement of a solution‘ to WP’s, what will enable X to overcome / respond to that obstacle?


b) What if the WP property is serious, what are its implications for application of approach X? E.g.: If the property requires an adaptation of the approach or the general understanding of ‘solution’: what would those adaptations look like? 

What other critical question might be asked? The attempt to examine a few competing approach ‘brands’ might help improve this first set of questions. 

The examination of the answers — their generality or specificity, the strength of supporting evidence  or argument, and fit to the problem at hand —  might help to assess the merit of the claim, even if it may not be sufficient to establish a sound basis for preferring one approach X from a competing method Y. This is, in essence, an invitation to entities aiming to work on the world’s WP’s, to contribute their response.

Not being a representative or promoter of a particular ‘brand of this kind, but feeling obliged to offer an example of what answers to these questions might look like, I will sketch a few sample answers from a less controversial ‘approach’: the predominant political parliamentary process. The answers are not intended as a comprehensive set of possible responses, but to clarify what such responses might look like, and start the discussion:

Some potential responses of the ‘parliamentary process’ (‘PP’) as a problem-solving ‘approach’, to the WP properties: 

  • No definitive problem formulation

The PP accepts ‘problems’ on its ‘agenda’ as the justification for proposed ‘solutions’ in the form of proposed ‘bills’ that aim to remedy them. That is, problems statements dealt with as stated by the legitimate participants in the process (elected representatives of defined constituencies). Such statements may be questioned and debated in the subsequent discussion prior to a decision. That is, the issues of what problem formulations will be entered for discussion and consideration is entirely the task of the participants (though they may be responding to statements in the media and public domain).

  • Every wicked problem is essential unique:

Each ‘bill’ for legislative action is accepted without regard to its uniqueness or similarity to other cases, though it may have to be stated in formal terms defined by procedural rules, terminology, and conventions. 

  • Any ‘solutions’ for WP’s are not ‘correct’ (true) or ‘wrong’ (false) but, in the opinions of affected parties, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. 

The terms ‘true or false’, ‘good, bad’ etc. may be used in the discussion of proposed measures, but the outcome of the process is (sidestepping this issue?) is simply ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’. 

  • Every WP can be explained in many different ways, but can also be seen as part of, or as a symptom of another problem or set of problems.

The debate offers the opportunity for presenting such considerations. The issue may best be included in provisions or justification statements for introducing bills for decision: these should include evidence of having explored different explanations or underlying problems of which the stated reason of the bill could be a mere symptom. 

While the issue of ‘tests’ (or their substitutions by systemic prediction or simulation models) may be and perhaps ought to be more forcefully entered into in the debate of a proposal, the viability of proposed legal actions is left to the judgment of each participant. (In theory, unless constrained by factors such as ‘party discipline’).

  • There are no immediate nor ultimate tests for the goodness or appropriateness of proposed ‘solutions’.
  • There are no well-described and finite sets of admissible operations that can be brought to bear on WP’s.

If this means that the process should deliberately be kept open to new ideas and ‘operations’, it of course applies to the phase of development of solutions before they are presented to the decision-making body for approval or rejection, which then does rely on agreed-upon procedural rules. The debate itself remains open to offering new ideas, or they may be assigned to special groups for more systematic analysis.

  • There is no enumerable set of potential ‘solutions’ to a WP: the ‘solution’ space is infinite and multi-dimensional.

In PP practice, solution proposals are simply presented to parliamentary bodies for approval. The debate may make claims of having explored the entire solution space, but the support for such claims and their counter-arguments must be judged by the participants. Claims of there being ‘no alternative’ to proposed solutions are always flawed and should be avoided: there is always at least one alternative: that of ‘doing nothing’. 

  • WP’s have no inherent ‘stopping rule for efforts to deal with them.

This being true for all possible approaches, the question becomes one of adopting meaningful and practical ‘problem-external’ stopping rules. Common examples in parliamentary bodies are the rule of ‘no more comments / objections’ serving as triggers for proceeding to the decision-making (e.g. voting) phase, or agreed-upon simple time limitations. Provisions like the ‘filibuster’, pretending to ensure that there will be enough time to present ‘all’ concerns for ‘due consideration’, should be amended with rules preventing mere repetitions of arguments already heard.

  • Every WP is essentially unique. 

This feature should be seen as a warning against relying exclusively on precedent cases for the justification of proposed solutions: again, it is a suggestion for the debate to explicitly examine the unique aspects of the problem the solution claims to address.

  • Every effort to deal with a WP is a ‘one-shot operation’ 

Like other WP properties, in the PP,  this should be seen as ‘stock’ reminder for the debate to address.

  • The WP-planner hasno right to be wrong’ (as in ‘trial and error’) but is liable for the outcomes of any actions taken. 

The issue of accountability for actions taken or not taken by parliamentary bodies is a perennial one. Traditional provisions of holding representatives or officials by the threat of denying re-election, or (for more egregious issues: removal from office) arguably are in need of improvement. Especially in view of other rules such as term limits: If representatives can only one serve a single term, or two terms, there is no accountability remedy for flawed actions during the ‘last’ term. There is no logical reason against the parliamentary system making such improvements. 

     * The ‘distributed information’ feature of WP’s:

This admittedly serious issue is one that should — and arguably can — be addressed in the provisions for preparation of action proposals (bills) to parliamentary bodies.

* Nonlinearity, ‘loops’ and counter-intuitive patterns in the behavior of the system affected by a proposed action:

Like some other assessment aspects (such as quantitative measures of performance of proposed solutions), this issue may not be sufficiently well dealt with in traditional parliamentary debate: Rhetorical debate arguments tend to focus on simple cause-effect relationships, and — for quantitative issues — highly aggregated but therefore abstract indices such as ‘growth’, ‘Gross National Product’ or ‘Deficit spending’. Systemic analysis and representation of complex systems aspects should be made required components of the preparatory justification documentation of proposed bills, together with provisions for sending proposals ‘back to the drawing board’ to include new and insufficiently detailed concerns brought up during the debates, or in outside public comments accompanying the debate.

   * The ‘doorknob’ syndrome: 

This aspect is related to the ‘WP as a symptom of other problems’ feature. It should properly be dealt with in the preparation phase of bills, with a summary of its treatment in the justification documentation. 

   * Making decisions on behalf’ of others, such as actually affected parties: 

In the PP, this question is addressed by the assumptions 

a)   that by constituencies electing their leaders and representatives, thereby entitle them to make decisions on their behalf, and 

b)  that conflicts of interpretations in the constituency as well as conflicts in the decision-making body are adequately settled by majority rule voting. 

It must be admitted that these provisions do not meet the aim of ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ design for all parts of the constituency. In fact, the majority rule (in all its variations to ensure more fairness) allows all concerns of the voting minority to be summarily dismissed. The remedies for this are seen in the ‘re-election’ provisions — calling for efforts to develop better ‘accountability’ tools (as discussed above).

   * The ‘making a difference’ syndrome:

Contributing to the uniqueness of WP’s, this aspect can be seen as not adequately served by the rules of the PP. It must of course be balanced against the necessity for agreed-upon procedures that can be fairly and equitably applied to all similar public projects. Such common rules include the principle of separating the ‘projects’ of generating and reaching agreement on general project rules from the specific planning projects to which those rules apply. Specific ‘unique’ aspects of individual projects may require exceptions or modifications of the general rules. (To prevent conflicts that could derail constructive planning projects, the general rules must and can contain provisions for such possibilities). Individual participants’ desire to ‘make a difference’ will mainly be constrained by such rules in the main decision-making phases of the PP, but arguably can find opportunities for creative application in the preparatory and support activities.

Summary observations:

This tentative discussion suggests that while the Parliamentary Process as practiced may fall short of adequate provisions to avoid pitfalls related to some WP properties, but that needed improvements are quite possible. A common denominator is that such improvement provisions will be situated in preparatory activities such as developing the specifics of plans and other support functions, before the final plans are presented for approval in the main decision-making phase. This may remain a problem, because any such supplementary functions may or may not be called upon, at the discretion of the ‘official’ members of the main decision-making assembly. 

Another potential problem of the parliamentary process — common to many other ‘approaches’ — is that the final decision-making tools such as majority voting have the potential of marginalizing or entirely ignoring many of the contributions and insights achieved in supporting and preparatory activities, and even overriding key concerns of minorities, in the main decision body. This feature of common planning and policy-making is not addressed in the WP ‘properties’: Should this issue be included in that set, or be seen as a separate but ubiquitous wicked problem that affects many or all other WP’s? 

The Parliamentary Process, in its many forms, currently is a main governance planning tool, up to the highest international institutions. Can it be expected to be easily and smoothly replaced by a ‘better’ system any time soon? The main competitive ‘approach’ currently being authoritarian rule, which arguably offers few assurances for meeting the PP promises of ‘listening to all concerns and give them all due consideration’ in making decisions, much less guarantees for attending to WP pitfalls. (But it may deserve a chance to present its case, not just to violently take over?) 

Barring convincing demonstration that a better approach will emerge, is the best hope we have that meaningful improvement provisions such as those related to the concerns expressed in the WP (and others!) can be integrated into the PP structure? A wide, structured, and thorough discussion of other competing ideas is urgently needed, and it should include the response of each approach to the Wicked Problem features. 

— o —



Thorbjørn Mann 2021

This is the second post on the question of claims by proposed problem-solving ‘approaches’ to successfully ‘solve’ Wicked Problems.

Looking for reassuring answers to the question whether some approach, method or ‘perspective’ can be expected to live up to claims that using the respective approach will reliably result in ‘solving’ Wicked Problems, it may be useful to turn the question around and look at the concept of ‘wicked problems’ itself, and its understanding. Are its ‘properties’ and implications really justifying the frequent automatic rejection of such claims, or claims of a technique guaranteeing solutions? The following first attempt, for discussion, takes a stab at this question, examining each of the WP properties:

* “No definitive problem formulation”:

This feature reflects the fact that different people involved in a project will have very different opinions about the problem, and that the acceptance of one view of ‘what the problem really is about’ is a choice or decision. It is a stern challenge to the habitual recommendation to begin a problem-solving process with a ‘clear statement of the problem’. The implication: to avoid controversies and disruption from occurring later in the process it is necessary to not only begin such a process with a widely open invitation to affected and interested parties to contribute many different perspectives of the problem, but to keep the process open to emerging insights on this issue. 

* “Every WP can be explained in many different ways”: 

The same recommendation holds for this WP property: 

* “Every WP can be seen as a symptom of another problem or set of problems.”:

One obvious implication of this feature is that any proposed ‘solution’ idea, however promising, can be dismissed as ‘only treating the symptom’. The question should therefore be raised early in the process to be discussed, and any necessary decisions resulting from it agreed upon – such as having to shift the entire effort to a different institutional level or entity – before devoting much time and energy to develop a ‘symptom-treating’ solution. 

* “Every wicked problem is essentially unique”:

The implication of this feature is that ‘tried-and true’ methods and lessons from previous cases may not be applicable to a new WP.  However, could it be that the stark formulation of the property unnecessarily hides the fact that the significance of similarities and differences between the new problem and similar cases are a matter of degrees? There may be part of the problem that are sufficiently ‘similar’ to warrant the application of known tools. The process should address this question by looking at details and make decisions about using known methods where applicable and devote efforts to develop new tools as needed. 

* “WP ‘solutions’: not ‘True or False’ but ‘Good  or Bad’:

This reminder was especially necessary at the time the WP issue was raised and published: there was a veritable movement of stressing ‘fact-based’ decision-making, that is, using ‘objective facts’ about a proposed solution’s measurable performance as the decision criterion. This trend seems to re-emerge periodically, (under slightly different banners such as ‘science’ or ‘expert advice’), perhaps because of inappropriate populist switching to decision-making based on ill-informed intuitive ‘goodness’ judgment or insistence on ideological principles decrying the facts presented by discipline experts as ‘elitist oppression’. So the reminder should perhaps be revised to reflect that the real issues are 

    –  the selection of the performance measures for which the ‘facts’ are then established – of course factual information must be provided and assessed for any problem, wicked or tame;

    – these ‘facts’ will always be qualified by probability; especially the  predicted ‘facts’  offuture solution performance (which of course aren’t even facts yet!); and

    – the necessity of communicating about how fact-measurements and predictions relate to the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgments (the process Rittel called by the somewhat problematic name of ‘objectification’); and

    – the most important question of  whose judgments  should determine the common decisions about accepting or rejecting proposed ‘solutions’. 

* “No immediate nor ultimate tests”:

This property refers to the difference between scientific hypothesis-testing and the discussion of proposed plans to remedy social problems, as well as to the feature that plans and policies will have chains of consequences that make ‘immediate tests’ meaningless even if we had such tests and ‘ultimate tests’ un-specifiable because the time span of those consequences is indefinite. However, any reaction of doing without any ‘testing-like’ efforts is seriously mistaken. Two considerations:

    – Simulation models used properly (that is, to explore the possible consequences of different actions and strategies taken today) can be considered a kind of test or better ‘evaluation’ – the best tools we have for predictions, none of which are establishing true facts since they all deal with future developments: probabilities.  And

    – Argumentative discourse: The sharing and assessment of the proverbial ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments about proposed plans.In which simulation model results may play a significant role, but the essential difference is that planning arguments contain the ‘ought’ premises that are not properly assessed as ‘true’ or ‘false’ and thus the same ought claim may be ‘plausibly’ seen as ‘ought’ or ‘desirable’ by some affected parties but as ‘not desirable by others. The degree to which a plan is perceived as achieving the ‘ought’ state (of a problem perception) is the basis for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgments of the plan. 

I have suggested that to Popper’s advice about scientific hypothesis-testing: 

“We are entitled to accept a hypothesis as corroborated (only) to the extent we have done our very best to show that it is false, plausible and it has survived all those tests” 

the closest analogous ‘test’ we have in design and planning is the following:

We are entitled to accept a plan as plausible and ‘supported’ (only) to the extent we have done our very best to expose it to all the most plausible counter-arguments  (‘cons’) and those have all been shown to be flawed or outweighed by supporting arguments (‘pros’). 

Evaluation procedures and approaches to develop measures of plausibility of individual judgments of planning arguments have been described, as the closest we have to ‘testing’ plan proposals.  

* “No well-described, finite sets of admissible operations”

This feature is set against disciplines like mathematics where the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division etc. are the admissible operations that define ‘tame’ problems. It warns that approaches attempting to specific a finite set of such operations for WP’s are liable to encounter new ways to tackle them – ‘anything goes’ if it works. 

* “No enumerable set of potential solutions to a WP”:

The insight that the ‘solution space’ for WP’s may be infinite and impossible to define implies that claims of finding ‘optimal’ solutions are meaningless: there may be even better solutions somewhere in regions of the solution space that were not explored. This constrains the discussion to the more modest quest for solutions that are ‘good enough’ within the regions an approach is able to examine: a feature that was earlier proclaimed as ‘satisficing’?

* “No inherent ‘stopping rule’ for efforts to deal with WP’s”:

The implication of this feature is simply that stopping rules  for efforts to tackle WP’s are not provided by the problem itself but by constraints outside the problem but acting on the task force working on it – and as such ‘arbitrary’ and debatable: financial and time constraints being the most common such limitations. For the problem itself, ‘we can always try to do even better”. 

* “Every effort to deal with a WP is aone-shot operation’”: and

* “No trial and error’”:

These two properties are intimately related. We cannot rely on the trial and error strategy to learn how to ‘solve’ a WP: Any actions on the problem itself will expend resources, generate new consequences: the ‘next trial’ will now be a very different problem.  

* “The WP-planner has no ‘right to be wrong’:

Like the hypothesis-testing issue above, this aspect refers to a fundamental difference between science and WP-planning. The scientist having performed a test that refutes a hypothesis may be disappointed — but that is making a legitimate and rightful contribution to scientific knowledge. The would-be WP- solver failing to remedy the problem is actually ‘making things worse’. The plausible implication then is the call for holding the planner – or the decision-maker for the implementation of the plan liable’ — ‘accountable’ — for the failure. More often than not, such calls are rather meaningless, if there is no ‘account’ involved (other than perhaps a decision-maker’s position or ‘reputation’: how does it balance suffering of people affected by the problem of the wrong solution?). Should efforts be devoted to finding better ‘accounts’ for this issue? Rittel suggested one implication: the ‘complicity model’ of planning. Taking this aspect seriously, no decision-maker would be able to accept responsibility for major decisions if it required ‘investments’ equal to the risks of failure of plans. It would be necessary to find ‘accomplices’ willing to share that risk. Again, what kind of ‘account’, what ‘currency’ might be used for this?  (I have sketched one possible idea: the use of the ‘reputation’ account of ‘merit points’ earned for the value of contributions to the public discourse to have decision-makers ‘pay’ for important decisions.) 

* “Distributed information”:

This issue refers to several aspects of large public WP’s: 

    – The need to assemble ‘factual’ information about how the problem – and any proposed solutions — affect many different parties ‘out there’ – that are not yet documented and certified in knowledge bases and experts’ knowledge. This may require research and information-gathering for which the need will only become apparent as the discourse proceeds, so that initial estimates of needed resources will be unreliable; and initial surveys to gather such information will be insufficient: the questions to be answered will only emerge later on: the information-gathering effort must accompany the process throughout;

    – The question of ‘getting ‘ the information may require offering some incentives for people to contribute it – early enough to be useful (rather than complains after the fact) – and mechanisms for assessing its truthfulness or validity;

    – If the property of ‘not true or false but good or bad’ is valid, and thus should determine the decision, these judgments will have to be the judgments of the affected parties. This will require a clear distinction between ‘factual’ information (that must be ‘verified’) and goodness/badness judgments that must be accepted as individual’s assessments and aggregated into overall statistics of sentiments of approval or disapproval. This task is not adequately addressed by many ‘approaches’; the effort to achieve consent or even consensus in small task groups seems to sidestep rather than systematically and transparently confront it. (See also the issue of ‘making decisions ‘on behalf of others’, below.)

* “Nonlinear and counter-intuitive system behavior”:

It is the merit of ‘systems modeling’ to bring this issue to the attention of planners and decision-makers. The simulation models aim at overcoming the resulting prediction difficulties of this ‘complexity’ of the systems involved in WP’s. The connection between the prediction results and the ‘goodness’ judgments (of the many affected parties) has not been sufficiently well explored much less convincingly resolved.

* “The ‘doorknob’ syndrome:” 

The warnings against getting lost in the upward or downward ‘cause’ or ‘symptom’ issues of WP’s are understandable but carry the risk of under-estimating the reality and significance of such relationships.  The rules that can guide decision about how much attention to devote to them, like the ‘stopping rules’ discussed above, are often extraneous to the problem – which can lead to flawed decisions. 

* “Making decisions ‘’on behalf of others”: 

Governance and planning decisions on public issues have traditionally been taken by leaders, officials, or representatives of the community, with the justification that these decision-makers are sufficiently familiar with their constituencies to make decisions ‘on their behalf’.  This can mean one of two things: Either they know (or claim to know) ‘what’s best’ for the community — even if there are people in the community who disagree — or they know the basis of judgment (the way the community members relate their goodness judgments to the facts of the matter) well enough to make judgments ‘as the people themselves would’. Both assumptions have been questioned, and current efforts to validate either assumption are cumbersome and unconvincing, adding to the wickedness of the problem at hand. 

* “The ‘making a difference’ syndrome”:

Many people are perfectly content with the provisions of planning decisions being made by leaders, officials or hired consultants: delegation of work allows us to focus on ‘our’ work and priorities.  But to the extent people are – in the name of ‘citizen participation’ – becoming more extensively involved in public problem- solving issues, this makes that involvement a part of their lives, in which they may want to ‘make a difference’ – a somehow outstanding contribution. Consciously or subconsciously, this may mean ‘doing things differently’ from the way things have been done, or from what some recommended ‘approach’ or method is proposing. The planning process itself becomes a part of the plan, and they want to make it ‘theirs’. Regardless of how appropriate or allowable this may be in the view of other participants or approach promoters, this will introduce unforeseen complications into the process. If it is seen as part of these individuals’ ‘right to pursuit of happiness’ – that governments are supposed to ensure: should all public planning efforts include provisions for such efforts – and what would they look like? 

There may be some commonalities of implications in these properties that are not apparent in the individual items, and that deserve closer examination.  One such common assumption is the reference to the ‘WP solver’. Is this an unspoken and unquestioned assumption of a single designated person or team to do the problem-solving ‘on behalf’ of the community affected? The reality of public projects is that there are always multiple institutions with various decision-making responsibilities – the task then also involves the organization of constructive coordination between all these entities. 

A larger common aspect is that meaningful response to WP properties requires some common communication and coordination platform. For all the progress of information technology over the last decades, an appropriate and effective platform for this purpose remains to be developed.

The platform, finally, will also be the venue for reaching decisions. None of the WP properties mention this explicitly, but their implication is that the traditional decision-making modes (such as voting) do not meet the expectations of suitable responses to the issues – e.g. being based on transparently explained individual ‘goodness’ judgments. Especially for problems transcending existing governance boundaries with different decision-making entities and rules, this will become an urgent consideration. 

Are these sketchy observations indicating an urgent need for wider discussion? 

— o —

Can ‘Approach X’ be used to tackle Wicked Problems?

An invitation  to examine claims of design and planning approaches 

to effectively ‘solve’ wicked problems.

Thorbjørn Mann 2021

(This post is the first part of several attempts to explore the question, in comments or further posts)

The question whether certain design and planning approaches can be used to ‘solve’ or ‘tackle’ wicked problems [1] is an issue raised anew with each new ‘approach’ being brought out on the market. Such claims have been made for widely popular ‘thinking’ ways — ‘systems thinking, ‘design thinking’, ‘holistic thinking’, ‘sociocracy’ and Pattern Language [2], for example: 

The question may have to be restated somewhat. Of course every such approach ‘can’ be used to try to address wicked problems. If we only have one tool, that will be the one we will, indeed must use. But the real question is about the validity or plausibility of claims that an approach will reliably be effective and successful (indeed: the only or better one than others on the market). It is the one we must ask: the more so, the more serious and global and ‘wicked’ the emerging problems facing humanity are seen to be. 

Wicked problems (‘WP’ in the following) are expressed as statements of discrepancy between perceived real conditions and perceived opinions / desires about what those conditions ought to be. The wickedness resides in what Rittel and Webber called their properties — which cannot be stated often enough, (because many comments tend to omit or re-state them in ways that change their meaning): 

  • There is no definitive problem formulation that systems thinking or other approaches, Pattern Language etc. could ‘resolve’ by appropriately react to. Traditional problem-solving methods insist on starting by ‘clearly stating’ the problem; this is the first serious issue the WP view is raising: there are many ways a WP can be stated and explained.
  • Every wicked problem is essential unique: though there are always similarities with other, known problems, there are always new features that can make traditional ‘tried and true’ solutions inapplicable.
  • Any ‘solutions’ – proposed reactions – to WP’s are not ‘correct’ (true) or ‘wrong’ (false) but, in the opinions of affected parties, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, – and different parties tend to have different and opposing opinions as to which is good and which is bad. 
  • There are no immediate nor ultimate tests for the goodness or appropriateness of proposed ‘solutions’;
  • There are no well-described and finite sets of admissible operations (‘recipes, ‘approaches’, procedures, techniques, tools, and we may add: ‘thinking’ kinds, that can be brought to bear on WP’s.
  • There is no enumerable set of potential ‘solutions’ to a WP: in other words, the ‘solution’ space is infinite and multi-dimensional.
  • WP’s have no inherent ‘stopping rule‘ for efforts to deal with them — that is, a stopping rule inherent in the problem statement, that can tell the problem-solver to end the effort: we can always try to do a little better.
  • Every WP can be explained in many different ways, but can also be seen as a part or symptom of another problem or set of problems (the sets Ackoff [3] called ‘messes’).
  • Every WP is essentially unique. This implies that there are no ‘experts’ that can claim expertise from previous work on WP’s.
  • Every effort to deal with a WP is a ‘one-shot operation’ – each attempt to solve it counts significantly; ‘trial and error’ approaches are inappropriate, and any ‘another try’ is now a different problem – and will have consequences that can be seen by different affected parties as new problems.
  • The WP-planner has no ‘right to be wrong’ (as in ‘trial and error’) but is liable for the outcomes of any actions taken. 

Some additional aspects or implications of one or more of the above features can be added to this list:

     * The ‘unique’ aspects, especially regarding the ways a problem or the attempts at solving a WP affect different individuals or groups in the overall affected community, is that the information about these effects is distributed, not yet reliably collected in documentation or existing data bases, or in the memory and skill set of ‘experts’. The effort to confront a WP may involve the development and application of entirely new tools of information collection, analysis, and testing.

   * The connections and relationships between the components of ‘systems models’ of wicked problems and their context, can be multiple and contain various ‘loops‘ that add nonlinearity and sometimes counter-intuitive patterns to the behavior of the system over time: effects that many descriptions summarize as ‘complexity’ and excuse that wicked problems ‘can’t be solved’ (which doesn’t prevent some promoters of new approaches to claim that their approach can be used to solve WP’s…) 

   * The reality of problems of the wicked kind is that they are prime examples of the syndrome that even earlier systems efforts to describe systemic planning method recognized as the ‘doorknob syndrome‘ [4]: the problem of designing a better doorknob is inextricably embedded in 

a) ‘upward’ design issues: of the design of the door to which the doorknob will be attached, which may be accepted as ‘given’ — but perhaps included in the design considerations: (should it be a single-leaf or double-leaf or a sliding door, which depends on the wall into which the door will be set?) as well as the design of the spaces on either side, and so on until it ends up mulling the design of the society creating and inhabiting the building and the economic conditions of its production; and 

b) ‘downwards’ design issues and their context: the choice of material for the doorknob and its surfaces, which involves the production modes for each material choice, the available materials and their composition, supply chain etc. down to the atomic level of its components. 

The problem as it first is brought to attention can escalate in both directions, and the ‘context’ to be accepted as given at each level is not a matter of the logic of the problem itself. It is a choice on the part of the ‘planner(s) and as such involves another layer of uniqueness. 

Some ‘social’ aspects of public planning that, I feel, have not been sufficiently well acknowledged so far are the following: 

   * The discussions about WP talk about ‘the planner’ or entity (consulting firm) attempting to develop a plan for addressing the problem on behalf of the client community, or for a ‘governance’ decision-maker client who has the legitimacy and/or power to actually set in motion the plan the planner just recommends. The WP features seem to imply that the community as a whole should be both: planner and decision-maker, which may become part of the doorknob syndrome; but in any case raises the question of the appropriate (design of the) process and decision-making modes and criteria. This inevitably makes any WP a political problem, in addition to its own complexity;

  * To the extent the people respond to the demand for participation by devoting time and effort to public planning, this makes the planning process itself an inextricable part of the whole problem, — and of their own lives. People may have visions and desires of ‘making a difference’ in their participation in public affairs, making the entire project, planning process and outcome distinctly ‘theirs’. Consciously or unconsciously, they may work to not just accept any part of the work — attributes of the resulting plan as well as the process, but to do things distinctly ‘differently’ from traditional ways. Doing it ‘their way’, — objections of invested experts in the domain notwithstanding, who insist on having things done ‘professionally’ and ‘properly’, ‘according to standards and (collectively assumed norms and expectations. This desire to ‘make a difference may be intolerable to some who, like Aristotle, demanded to exclude any ‘subjective opinions’ from the resolution of public issues. But others, a key part of the very purpose of society is to empower and facilitate access of all its members to their own ‘pursuit of happiness‘. The need to ‘balance’ these two opposing forces makes the entire process of any significant planning process a wickedly unpredictable one — almost by definition.

Against this onslaught of wickedness stand the calls from victims of problems that ‘something ought to be done’. And what possible judgment can there be against any effort and approach to bring whatever tools and procedures and principles to bear on the problems we face? In principle, any theory, approach, method, perspective for working on problems, wicked or not, must be welcomed for discussion.

But given the variety of so many different ‘approaches’ and the impossibility of having them all work on the challenges we face, the question of ‘what makes an approach or method more or less likely to succeed in the battle against wicked problems?’ is equally legitimate and urgent. 

What are the strategies we might pursue in looking for answers to this question? The question can be stated more specifically: How can we assess the likelihood that a proposed approach will prevail against the different Wicked Problem Properties? 

Apart from the strange and isolated suggestion [5] that because they can’t really be solved, WP’s aren’t really problems — so we shouldn’t waste our efforts trying to solve them, — except maybe some tame aspects that admittedly are part of all WP’s? A few distinct strategies can be seen in the efforts of some proposed approaches to convince us that they indeed can ‘tackle wicked problems’. 

One possible strategy consists in reducing the impression of wickedness of the WP properties. The examination of this strategy would call for looking at each such proposal’s answer to each of the problem properties. 

Another strategy consists in pointing out how projects addressing WP’s have produced outcomes (‘solutions’) that have received enthusiastic approval by not only the ‘clients’ of projects but more importantly by the teams and participants working on them, as the main success criterion.

A third tack consists in ‘adapting’ the approach claiming to be useful tools for dealing with WP’s. For example, redirecting the focus of approach away from claiming that constructing solutions from ‘valid’ components will lend validity to any of potentially multiple solution generated so that only one such solution needs to be generated and does not need additional validation or evaluation) towards sets of general procedural recommendations that should be given ‘due consideration’. 

Two variants of this strategy, at opposite ends of a scale of quality ambition, are the ‘axiomatic’ approach (following e.g. the example of geometry) starting from ‘self-evident’ true first statements that don’t need further explanation or evidence to generate true theorems by combining the first axioms with equally valid logic arguments; and the example of government regulations e.g for buildings. The former must be followed to generate ‘valid’, beautiful buildings according to mostly qualitative aspects. Then, the validity of outcomes is ensured by following the process. The latter must be met to ensure minimal acceptable standards of e,g. safety and other objectively measurable criteria to get a permit. It involves minimal ‘evaluation’ efforts — checking whether the rules have actually been met. Qualitative concerns assessed by subjective judgments are more difficult to address with this approach.

These difficulties lead to efforts to construct ‘axiomatic’ theories for qualitative concerns — e.g. is Alexander’s effort to declare qualities such as ‘value’, ‘beauty’ and ‘life’ of built environments to be ‘matters of objective fact’ is an example of this strategy? Because the ‘axioms’ are not as universally accepted as ‘self-evident’ such efforts are considered controversial. 

Are there other possible avenues for building support for the position that a planning approach will be able to convincingly ‘tackle’ wicked problems? This post is an invitation to explore that question for discussion. Pending development of such strategies, it may be useful to examine the specific considerations needed for acceptance for some the above strategies in some detail. This will be the subject of follow-up posts: the first one of which will be the issue of how a given approach might respond to each of the WP properties to establish its validity.

— o —

[1] Rittel, H. and M.Webber: “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” [Panel on Policy Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 4, (1969) 155-169].

[2] e.g. Douglas Schuler, Aldo de Moor and Greg Bryant: “New Community Research and Action Networks : Addressing Wicked Problems Using Patterns and Pattern Languages.” 

[3] Ackoff, Russel: Resurrecting the Future of Operational Research | SpringerLink › article › jors.1979.41

[4] ‘Doorknobbing’ — a term and story I remember from my student days, warning against ‘over-thinking’ any given design problem, I do not remember its original author 

[5] Nelson, Harold: From a FB or WP SciO SystemsThinking discussions, I partially noted: “Wicked problems are indeterminate and thus are not real problems in any normative sense. Rittel chose politics as the strategy for dealing with them. They also reveal the difference between describing and explaining real-world systems (actually framing and naming them) and creating systems that are considered to be desirable by someone.”  

— o — 

What ‘supporting evidence’ does it take?

In the Fog Island Tavern

“Last call”
– What, Vodçek ? When we just are getting ready to solve some serious problems?
– Time waits for no procrastinating problem-solvers, Bog-Hubert.
– Okay then, a last  double Zin for me,  and the same double-seeing treatment for  this august problem-solving team…
–  Sigh. All right. Now, what was the humongous problem you were getting ready to solve?
– Good question. What was it again, Sophie? 
– Somebody here was wondering why Abbeboulah isn’t making any progress on his Occasion/Image theory for Architecture. 
– Right, that was it. Well, how do you know he isn’t making progress? 
– He ain’t on TV, and he ain’t getting rich from it so he can buy hissef a new boat.  That’s how we know. 
–  Good point, Renfroe. He doesn’t even show up in the Tavern much anymore. 
–  But he may be home making progress, eh?
–  Well, we’ll see,  But the question was why we don’t see any of that progress.
–  So was anybody having a good explanation? 
–  We were just getting to that.
– Yeah, somebody actually threw out several explanations we were going to discuss. 
– What explanations? 
–  Lets’ see if I remember all the  know-it-all wild ideas you guys were throwing around here in just a few minutes. There was the idea that he isn’t making progress, and the opposite idea that he is making progress but isn’t quite done yet.
–  Didn’t somebody suggest that he just isn’t doing any effective marketing, promoting the idea? 
–  Because he’s not interested in marketing, or not good at it?
–  Or because he doesn’t get any funding for it? 
–  Is it  important enough to get funding?  
–  Well, some friend of Abbeboulah’s was telling him that he should get off that fool’s errand of the global planning discourse system and finish the work on that occasion and image theory.
– Right, that was it. And somebody here said that it was because it wasn’t a real theory. Didn’t you,  professor? 
–  Well yes, I brought up the issue. But Abbeboulah himself  has never called those ideas a ‘theory’. He was just calling it a ‘Way of Talking”. 
– Well, then what was all the stuff he talked about here, then?  Sounded like some theoretical concoction to me?  What’s a theory, anyway? And why didn’t he call it one?
–  I guess he was trying to reserve the term for a more ‘scientific’ story — ‘scientific’ meaning  trying to find out what the world is like, and especially how or works.  What are the laws that govern what happens in ‘reality. The laws of nature?  And for that there are some features that he felt he wasn’t ready to claim. 
– What are those?
–  Well, a ‘theory’ in the ‘scientific’ sense is  a ‘way of talking’ — and more specifically: describing and explaining — some aspect of reality. So a theory, at the basic level, is a set of statements about that part of what we call ‘reality’ that identifies, distinguishes what we perceive, and provides descriptions of those distinguished things that help us understand what the theory is talking about, and recognize them in the world we perceive.  The set of statements should mutually support each other, that is, make sense as a coherent story. 
– Makes sense so far. 
– Yes, Sophie. but you see, there are a lot of ‘theories’ out there that made sense at some level, to many people, but that turned out to be wrong. The flat earth ‘theory’ for example. 
–  So how do we know whether a theory is right or wrong? 
–  Well, now: that’s the sticking point. ‘Science’ — meaning those called  the ‘natural sciences’ that look at reality and how it works, — has developed some good criteria for what makes a valid scientific theory. They rest on observation: We observe some aspects of ‘reality’, and try to state a ‘law’ that explains why things happen they way they happen. Then we  state a ‘hypothesis’ that goes like this:  If the law is true, we should observe an effect  (evidence, consequence, result, implication) of the law. So we look around, or make an experiment of a situation where only the law is supposed to be at work, to see if the evidence shows up. If is does — we can say that the experiment results ‘support’ the hypothesis. Not ‘proves’: supports.
–  And if it doesn’t?
–  Excellent question, Renfroe. If it doesn’t, we will have to say that the hypothesis was wrong. Refuted. ‘Falsified’. Or that our experiment was  flawed. Which means that we have learned something, that helps us develop better hypotheses, theories, observation and experiment tools. But it also means that a  theory, to be scientific, must be able to be ‘tested’, and potentially be refuted, with observations and experiments. There must be some possible observation that would tell us the theory is wrong.
–  So if it can’t be tested in some way, it isn’t scientific? 
–  Right. 
–  But can it be a theory without being scientific? 
–  If you are willing to stick with a plausible but limited understanding of the term ‘theory’ as just a set of statements about the world that are mutually connected and supported, sure. But the problem is that for the things we are doing, we want, need knowledge (especially in planning for the future)  that we can trust. The can help us construct buildings that will hold up to the forces of winds and snow and rain and earthquakes. 
–  But didn’t you just say, in so many words,  that there’s no theory we can trust with 100% certainty — if there’s a possibility that it’s wrong?  
–  Yes, the upshot is that we are always taking chances, making a bet. Anybody telling you the theory he’s betting on is 100% foolproof doesn’t know what they are talking about. But then, would you invest a lot of money and effort  on a plan when the theory supporting it can’t be tested, verified or refuted — at all? 
–  So are you saying that Abbe Boulah isn’t calling these ideas a ‘theory’ because he hasn’t been able to test it yet?
– Wait:  his ideas or ‘Way of Talking’, as he calls it: isn’t it about planning the built environment? 
– Right. Oh, I see what you are getting at:  if it consists of statements about the future, how can they be tested? You can’t observe the outcomes of doing something if it hasn’t been done yet?
–  But that goes for all the knowledge and theories we have to do our planning with? 
–  Yes. And that is why some of the bright idea buildings that have been built  turned out out to be big mistakes. And have to be blown up, if they didn’t fall down by themselves. 
–  That’s scary. You are saying that we live in built environments that are planned and built on nothing but unsupported bets?
–  Yes, Sophie. But it isn’t all just pipe dream bets. All buildings, no matter how experimental, use a lot of knowledge that has been fairly well supported — by experience, and by predictions using logic and calculation. Even testing, for example whether the concrete has been mixed right. So most buildings are fairly safe. The environments based on new ‘ways of talking’ will still be built to reasonable standards of safety and performance.  But the claims about how some new shapes and forms will or won’t make users happy, or make money for the owners and developers, those are much less supported by solid evidence, — and can’t claim the status of scientific theories. So does it make sense for him to avoid the pretentious label of ‘theory’ — that some people use to make their ideas sound more scientific and reliable? 
–  Are you saying they are selling snake oil? 
–  I’m not accusing anybody — just saying its a plausible temptation;  just investigate and make up your own mind.
– But …
– Yes, Sophie? 
– Well, if it sounds like a good idea, what does it take to produce enough of  what you call ‘supporting evidence’? Even for part of a story?  That would make more people willing to take bets on a theory even if it’s only half- or three-quarter-baked? 
–  Good question. Maybe that’s what Abbe Boulah is working on:  What would it take to develop reasonable supporting evidence for this occasion and image story?
Any ideas?  What, Vodçek? 
– Hey, that’s enough. Don’t start another round of  swapping unsupported ideas. By ol’ procrastinator king Valdemar Atterdag’s famous prediction:  Tomorrow is another day! Last call!  What supporting evidence does it take, mon cul!
–  We’re counting on it… 
–  I said: tomorrow!

Ideologies as Contagious Illnesses?

For discussion: An issue involving two current problems.

A paper on the “sociopathy of ideologies” by Dr. Hans Grunicke [1] raises a question whether ideologies can be seen as contagious ‘illnesses’, especially with regard to the way they spread and react to prevention and ‘treatment’. If so, the comparison might reveal helpful suggestions about more effective ways of responding to either one. 

There are important issues about such comparisons that need clarification. For example, there is more common consensus about the state of affairs we call ‘health’ and ‘life’ that is being threatened by a virus, and that it should be resisted and ‘defeated’, than about competing ideologies that each see themselves as the ‘healthy’ state and the other as the ‘unhealthy’ and potentially ‘toxic’ threat. So the definitions of health or ‘soundness’ and unhealthy, toxic features of ideologies will be obvious controversies.

Two first tentative ‘maps’ of the forces and effects involved may help to start the examination of this idea. The ‘epidemic’ map tries to show interventions of societies to maintain or restore ‘health’ and the productive or counterproductive ‘loops in that system, with ‘society’s main intervention agents as ‘government’ and ‘media’. In the ‘ideology’ map the part of ‘health-defending’ party is simply shown as the ‘dominant’ ideology responding to the effort of one ‘alternative’ ideology to become dominant. 

Some first observations concern the role of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ loops or circular forces. The ‘ideology’ map shows a clear patterns of escalating actions and countermeasures that can be seen as a toxic vicious cycle or spiral towards violent confrontation (‘war’) where one ‘ideology’ will remain or win dominance over the other. Each action can be seen as leading to escalation, even when intended as a means of forcing the sequence back onto a ‘lower’ level of confrontation in the system.

The ‘pandemic’ map does not show one clear overall ‘escalation’ loop. Of course there also is escalation, determined by success or failure of prevention and treatment interventions over time. But an equally important role is played by several potentially positive or negative feedback loops, that affect society’s compliance with the needed or recommended efforts: Government measures that prove ineffective to combat the pandemic, plausibly reduce public confidence in those measures, and thus reduce the public’s compliance with those measures, just as their visible effectiveness would increase confidence. But that same confidence that “the pandemic is under control” also can reduce the compliance, inducing a false sense of reduced risk. The effects of government and media communication to the public will further complicate these effects. (The media role in the ‘ideology’ system should be added to the map and investigation.)

The maps show that there are many possible ‘intervention’ points in each network (numbered for further detailed discussion) of each item. Is this contrary to the impression in the general discussion that covers only a few contested issues? Should public discussion in both domains be more concerned with comprehensive strategies consisting of several ‘treatment’ possibilities at the many intervention points?

[1] Dr. Hans Hermann Grunicke: “Zur Soziopathie von Ideologien”: (unpubl. draft 2020), private communication.

Added diagram to March 13 comment.

Connecting Systems Models With Argumentation and Systematic Evaluation

Thorbjørn Mann 2020


      My attempts to sketch an outline of a (potentially global) ‘Planning Discourse Support Platform’ encountered difficulties in accommodating the differences between Systems Modeling, the Argumentative Model of Planning, and the approaches to systematic evaluation (‘formal evaluation’ techniques). These issues suggest an effort to develop better connections between these perspectives. The following is a summary of the main tenets of such a connection perspective.

The planning discourse: a general ‘systems’ view

      The planning discourse can be (roughly) described as the exchange of communications about PLANS aimed at remedies some PROBLEM.


      Understood as some person or group’s claim that some aspect or state S of reality IS not as it OUGHT to be and calls for some PLAN of ACTIONS to be developed to change that discrepancy:

      The state of affairs or ‘situation’  SI  — assigned a ‘quality’ assessment judgment Q  (on some scale such as  Q ={‘couldn’t be better’ / good  (satisfactory/ good enough) / so-so / bad/ couldn’t be worse} as ‘worse’ than the ‘better assessment of a ‘desired’ state SO that OUGHT to be (in that person’s opinion). Upon questioning the ‘problem-raising party may describe the IS- situation by a set of descriptors s(values of variables); and  the OUGHT-state, or OUTCOME state as a set of different values of those variables.

SI = {si1,si2,…sin}    


OS = {so1,so2… son)     

A restatement of he PROBLEM in terms of quality judgments Q:

PROBLEM = Qi ≠ Qo  or   Qi < Qo 

      Aims or different desirable outcomes SO can be distinguished as

SOo — > Qosomax      Any ‘optimal’ outcome given the judgment ‘couldn’t be better’


OSo — >  Qosoge         Any outcome that can be given a judgment of ‘good enough’.

PLAN = {Actions a}     

      Plans aiming at a better outcomes consist of a set A of actions a that, given situations SI in overall CONTEXT C  are claimed to achieve SO.


      The system of the planning situation is understood as SI-descriptions, the set of C-descriptions, and the set of actions A, and the set of relationships REL between them. The system can be described in a Systems Models  SM:

SM = {IS, A, C, REL} 

      The SM model must contain the variables describing SI, A, C , and the relations REL.  (Many SM simulations (aiming primarily at ‘understanding the system and its behavior) only describe SI and C, and their relationships, and explore (simulate) different settings of SI and C that result in different outcomes). For planning, the connections to Q assessments of outcomes are not explored, – since Q judgments are individual ‘subjective’ assessments: the model would have to include all those individual assessments. The standard ‘shortcut’ practice is to resort to some (‘objective’) aggregated state measure of the extent to which SO has been achieved, to serve as the group’s basis for decision. A ‘group’ GQ would require obtaining information of how the outcome variable values determine / influence Q- assessments. This is not part of the standard  practice – even if the modeling is done within a small team:  the team is supposed to achieve ‘consent’ or consensus about which aggregated state variable is to be ‘optimized’ and serve as the basis of decision, and the decision is postulated as legitimate ‘on behalf of’  the actual population affected in one way or another by the problem and proposed solution. The legimacy of this ‘shortcut’ is of course open to question. A more legitimate approach would have to include the Q-assessments of all parties in the model and simulation. Formal Evaluation Techniques offer explanations of what this would require, as follows:

Connecting the systems view with a ‘formal’ evaluation technique

Qe  = AF(qe1, 2,3,…n)     

      The overall Qe assessment of a plan by an individual evaluator e is a function AF of the individual’s  assessments q of evaluation ‘aspects’ and the ‘weights of relative importance w the individual assigns to each aspect (for example: 0<w <1.0 and ∑wi = 1). Each aspect judgment can be a function of a set of sub-aspect judgments, sub-sub-aspects etc. – or a function of a ‘criterion’ or ‘performance measure’ that measures how well a Plan is expected to achieve that aspect. ‘Criterion’ is a different name for a variable s in the  systems model. The criterion function can be expressed in a graph (or equation) showing how different values of so correspond to different values of q (in the diagram as ‘the objectively measurable variable’):

Figure 1:  Criterion function example,, showing how one person’s q–judgment depends on a performance variable s, on a q-scale of +U to –U

Group judgment indicators

    Statistical measures of judgments by individuals in a group should not be called  ‘group judgments’: groups do not make judgments but group decisions.  (The exception perhaps being the unlikely total ‘consensus’ results) can now be derived from individuals’ overall Q judgments: the mean, range, lowest judgment (of the ‘worst-off’ party); or coefficients measuring the degree of disagreement in the group.

Connection the evaluation aspect tree with a systems model

      The following diagram shows how the evaluation criteria relate to a systems model – or vice versa – how a systems model should be connected to an individual’s evaluation aspect tree.  It raises questions such as: should all systems variables be represented in the aspect tree if it aims at ‘complete ‘objectification’? Or can some judgments – for example aesthetic judgments or issues pertaining to individuals’ moral ‘system’ – be left as un-explained or unrelated to any measurable variable?

Figure 2 – Evaluation aspect tree and ‘quality’ judgments and systems model

Argumentation and Systems Model

      In the Argumentative Model of Planning, an approach to evaluate the plausibility of plans as a function of the plausibility or merit of the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments about a proposed plan, the corresponding elements and steps can be described as a process of emerging complexity of mutual additions to what may be called a ‘systems-enhanced’ discourse (or a discourse-validated systems model) of the evaluation of planning project proposals:

(In the following, ‘argumentative discourse activities are regular; the ‘systems modeling’ process italicized ).

Starting, again:  with a PROBLEM being raised:  “Situation SI is not as it ought to be” Specifically: the initial (‘now’ at time 0 ) state of SI is not as it ought to be:

            SI ≠ So          (initial is-state ≠ future ought-state)

SI  (as understood by problem-raisers) is described by a set of variables s1, s2, s3,…sn:

            SI =  {s1i, s2i , s3i…sni};  and  SO =  {s1o, s2o, s3o,…sno}

A first version systems model SM1 is prepared,

consisting of the variables of situation SI,

and exploring relationships between the variables.

A PLAN of actions A is proposed:

+A!’  (“Plan A ought to be adopted for implementations!”) A  is described in detail as composed of a set of actions a:

      A = {a1, a2, a3.. }

SM1 is modified to SM2 by adding the proposed actions of A.

Can they be connected (according to general laws and relationships)

with ‘new’ variables of S, in the ‘context’ of the system

that ought to be brought to the attention of participants in the discourse?

ARGUMENTS are raised for (‘pro’) and against (‘con’) the proposed PLAN: first, in general, ‘qualitative’ form:


            +A!                         (Plan-Actions A ought to be adopted

             because                  because

            +(A àRà SO)!                  A will bring about (have relation to) SO                       

and                         and

            +(SO)!                        SO ought to be aimed for)!


            ~A!                         A ought not to be adopted

            because                        because

            ~(A àRà So)!                  A will not bring about SO

            and                        and

            So!                        SO is what should be aimed for)!


            ~A!                        (A ought not to be adopted

            because                        because

            +(A à R à SO)!            A will bring about SO

            and                        and (but)

            ~SO!                        SO (as described in the problem explanation)                                           should not be aimed for)!

      The authors of arguments may be asked to offer more detail – to explain – the claims in their premises. For example:


            +A!                         (Plan-Actions A ought to be adopted

             because                  because

            +(ai àri,jà sj)!                  part ai of A will bring about  effect sj of SO,                 

and                         and

            +(So)!                        sj in SO ought to be aimed for)!

      This raises the claims ai, ri,j, sj to ‘successor issues’ that need to be discussed or for which evidence is called.

The variables ai, sj, and relationship ri,j  , and the respective variables of all other pro and con arguments will now have to be added to the systems model SM2, for a revised version SM3.

Calculations of the effects of actions A throughout the system may not be performed without including assumptions about conditions in the ‘context’ or environment C      of the system: the first argument premise may have to be further explained or qualified as follows:

The ‘factual-instrumental’ premise should specify the conditions {c} under which the relationship ri,j is expected to hold, and a third premise added to the argument: +(ck1,2,..)!

The values of these ‘conditions must then be verified and added to the model.

The calculations or simulation will now present all the ‘objective’ measures of performance (‘consequences’) of implementing the actions A of the plan; these may give rise to more issues regarding their plausibility or desirability, and corresponding new arguments.

Entering ‘quality’ judgments      

With the presentation of the revised systems calculations, discourse participants will now be able to ‘evaluate’ the merit of these contributions. One way this can be done is by assigning a ‘plausibility’ judgment to each premise, use these to derive a plausibility value of each entire argument; develop ‘argument weights’ by first assigning weights of relative importance to all ‘deontic’ (ought-) claims in all arguments and multiply the plausibility of arguments with the respective weight of its ought-claim, and finally ‘aggregate’ the argument weights into an overall plausibility judgment of the plan.

Q =  FP(PlanPl)     

      An individual’s assessment of ‘Quality’ of a plan is a function FP of Plan plausibility Planpl. The relationship can be shown in a diagram like the criterion functions in figure 1 above, using Planpl as the ‘performance criterion’.

PlanPl =FA{Argwi-1,2,…n

      Plan plausibility PlanPl is a function FA of the argument weights argwi of all pro and con arguments i raised in the discourse of the plan. For example: Planpl = ∑{Argwi}

Argwi = FAW(Argpli, wi)

      The weight of an argument is a function of the Argument weight function FAW:  of the plausibility of that argument and the weight of relative importance of its deontic (ought)-premise, for example:

Argwi = Argpli x wi        and

Argpli = APL{prempl}      

      The argument plausibility is a function of the plausibility prempl of all argument premises (for the ‘planning argument’.  Here, the so outcome of premise 1 is the systems variable  so;  the expression ‘will result in’ of premise 1 is equivalent to the system’s model relationship between the plan (actually, to be specific, the action a of the Plan) and the variable value so which the argument then claims in premise 2 to  be desirable, and the set {c} of conditions under which premise 1 is expected to hold, of premise 3,  is a subset of context conditions of the overall systems model.  (A diagram showing the connection between argument assessment and the systems model remains to be developed.)


      The connections between the different ‘perspectives’ guiding evaluation – the systems model, the ‘formal evaluation’ model, and the argument assessment model can now be seen, at least, to facilitate the ‘translation’ between the different approaches.

Mutual shortcomings of approaches

      The decision to choose equivalent symbols for the elements or variables involved also shows the shortcomings of each perspective: The standard systems model does not accommodate the evaluation aspects, suggesting to decision-makers that the ‘objective’ variables suffice to support decisions; the formal evaluation and the argument assessment approach fail to provide the ‘systemic’ overview of the ‘whole system’ that is the major contribution of the systems model.

There is no completely adequate single approach

      An essential insight, I suggest,  is the following: Neither the construction and calculations of the systems model, the assessment of plan plausibility and its argumentative ‘pro and ‘con’ discussion, nor any ‘formal’ evaluation procedure, can be a sufficient condition to support decisions guided by the merit of all aspects that ought to be given ‘due consideration’ for important planning projects. Nor can they be arranged in some linear sequence, such as first, collect the ‘data’ to construct a systems model, then develop pans, argue the pros and cons, or evaluate alternative plan options.

‘Parallel’ development of systems model and evaluation

        The work involved in each of these views should be going on ‘in parallel’: the argumentative discussion (with participation by all parties affected by the problem or plan) identifies aspects and variables that should be included in the systems model.  The model supplies variables whose probability, plausibility and desirability (contribution to ‘quality’) should be discussed and evaluated with tools like the formal evaluation or argument discussion.

      The decision about which tools should be used for each individual project must be taken – agreed upon — by the participants in the process. However:  the platform should provide the tools, the guidelines, opportunity and support, even encouragement, for the use of different techniques in the project, as appropriate and applicable. 

      This work is ongoing; the above interim observations are offered for discussion.

— o —

About True Love and Logic

In the Fog Island Tavern, on a long November evening.

– Vodçek:  what’s wrong with our friend Dexter over there — he’s been sitting there by himself brooding all night?

– Right, Bog-Hubert. I think he’s having problems with his girlfriend.

– How so? I thought it was all true bliss and love with those two?

– It was his logic bent that got him in trouble. Something logical about love. Or lack of logic. You know he’s a computer guy, and it’s all logic with him.

– Yes I know, he’s been very helpful with our projects. But what does logic have to do with love? 

– He briefly mentioned something when he came up to order his beer. It seems he stumbled upon a post in a social network group — about philosophy, no less — where some guy logically proved that humans can’t really experience true love. You were here, Renfroe: did you hear that? I was kind of busy with the orders.

– Yeah! Oh man. So when his girlfriend asked him if he truly loved her, he just blurted out that conclusion, didn’t want to lie about such important issues. Boom, big mistake. That was it. ‘You don’t love me!’… You can imagine the rest.

– Poor Dexter.  Makes me wonder about that proof? Did you catch that, Renfroe?  

– Nah. It had something to do with perfection. We love what’s perfect, but we ain’t perfect.

– Ah. I think I get it.  We love what’s good, beautiful, perfect?

– Right. Makes sense. Doesn’t it?

– Okay:  so we’d have True Love only for what’s completely good and true and  perfect?

– And since we are all not completely perfect, we can’t have completely True Love for each other. 

– Right. It’s what the preacher says in church:  you can only truly love God because He’s the only perfect being. What’s that, Sophie? 

– You mean She.  God. Perfect. 

– Oh yeah, I plumb forgot, sorry, Sophie. It’s just that Preacher keeps saying He, and Good Lord Almighty. Stuff like that. Hard to change old familiar sayings, I guess…

– Okay, different issue. For now, you’re forgiven. 

– Hmm. And so Dexter has to come up with some lame explanation about how close to true love he loves her, matter of degrees is a difficult one for one-and- zero digital folks like Dexter anyway. Too late, hopeless. Good…. Grief. 

– Clever save, Vodçek. But I wonder. What’s wrong with that logic thing? Bog-Hubert? 

– Well, Abbé Boulah would say something like, if you have trouble with the conclusion, check out which of the premises might be wrong, or whether the argument pattern is valid.  

– I thought Abbé Boulah had given up on valid logical arguments?

– That’s only for his beloved planning arguments. Another different topic. But look at those premises:  The first one says that we love what’s good, perfect. The other one says we humans aren’t perfect. If you accept both of them, and the argument rule — which is deductively valid — then you’ll have to accept the conclusion. So if you disagree: which is it?

– Okay: I think we have to accept the second one. Sorry Sophie, we know you’re almost perfect but as Abbé Boulah also keeps saying about some issues, “Let’s not investigate”.  

– Wise decision, Vodçek. But I don’t know, the first one also sounds good.

– I don’t agree, Bog-Hubert. What if it is the other way around? 

– What in three twister’s name are you talking about, Sophie? Don’t we love what’s good and beautiful and true? 

– Of course we do, at least most of us, — some folks may have poor taste about some things.  But what if love is really about accepting the other in spite of their  flaws, not just because of their good features? 

– Interesting. And a quite appealing way of looking at it — not as selfish as the other one.  

– I agree. But even more difficult to live up to? 

– Yes, perhaps more of a challenge?  So what you are saying is that the more flaws somebody has, the closer to true the love for that person would be?  I’ll have to think about that. 

– Why is that, Vodçek?  Isn’t that also more like what the preacher says: God loves the sinner man? And the other son, the lost and derelict one, more than the good son who stayed home and was the more perfect one?  If the lost one does come back, that is… 

– Ah Renfroe, you got me there. I just have more trouble loving customers, the bigger the bill they stiffed me with… Just one of my flaws, I admit. 

– I think that is a better definition of True Love, too, at least to think about, together. But think about it all the way through: Does it follow that loving somebody who is completely flawed, with no redeeming qualities, that would be perfectly True Love? 

– Help!  You’re talking about the devil there, Vodçek, aren’t you?  Satan? And the only people who would be capable of True Love would be Satanists? 

– Don’t you hate it when something like that happens with perfectly good logic? 

Is the term ‘absolute truth’ meaningless?

Thorbjørn Mann, July 2020

Some thoughts about ‘absolute truths’, systems thinking and humanity’s challenges. An exploration of knowledge needed for a discourse that I suggest is critically significant for systems thinking related to questions about what to do to about humanity’s big challenges.  I apologize for the roundabout  but needed explanation.

‘What better be done’: absolute truth? 

There are recurring posts in Systems Thinking groups, that insist on decisions being made by focusing on the ‘right’ things’, or what better (best) be done, implying that what is ‘better be done’ is a matter of ‘absolute, objective truth’. Thus, any suggestions about the issue at hand are being derailed — dismissed —  by calling them mere subjective opinions and by repeating the stern admonition to following the absolute truth of ‘doing what better be done’, as if all other suggestions were not already efforts to do so. 

Questions about what those truths may be  are sidestepped or answered by the claim that they are so absolute, objective and self-evidently true that they don’t need explanation or supporting evidence. Heretical questions about this are countered with the question such as  “are you questioning that there are absolute truths”? Apart from the issue whether this may be a tactic by proponent  of an answer (the one declared to be an absolute truth) to get the proponents’ answer accepted,  is it an effort to sidestep the question of what should be done altogether stalling it in the motherhood issue of absolute truth? At any rate, raising questions. 

Does this call for a closer examination about the notion of ‘absolute truths’, and how one can get to know them? What is an ‘absolute truth’ (as compared to about a not so absolute one?) 

Needed distinctions

There may be some distinctions that need reminder (being old distinctions) and clarification,  beginning with the following:  

‘IS’- States of affairs in ‘reality’  versus statements about those 

There exist situations, states of affairs ‘s’ constituting what we call ‘reality’. Existing, they ‘are’. Whether we know them or not; (mostly. we don’t.) And if we know and recognize such a state, we call it ‘true’.  But isn’t that less a ‘property’ of a state ‘s’,  than a label attached to the statement, about ‘s’? About ‘s’,  is it not sufficient to simply say ‘it is’?  So what do we mean by the expression ‘absolute truth’? As a a statement about ‘s’ , it would  seem to imply that there are states of affairs that ‘are’ ‘absolutely true’ and others that aren’t? So would it not  be necessary to offer an explanation of this difference? If there isn’t one, does  the ‘absolute’ part become meaningless and unnecessary?  

So the practical use of ‘true’ or ‘false’ really refers to statements, claims about reality, not reality itself. When we are describing a specific situation ‘s’  or even claiming that it exists, we are making a claim, a statement.  When such a statement matches the actual state of affairs with regard to s, we feel entitled to say that the statement is ‘true’. Again: ‘truth’ is not a property of states of affairs but a judgment statement about ‘content’ statements or claims. 

About the claims of a statement ‘matching’ the actual state of affairs. Do we really know ‘reality’, and how would we know? Discussions and attempted demonstrations  about this tend to use simple concepts — for example: “How many triangles are depicted in this diagram?”. The simple ‘answers’ are both ‘obviously true’ (even though people are occasionally disagreeing even about those) —  but  upon examination based on different understood definitions of the concepts involved. The definitions are not always stated explicitly, which is a problem: it leads to the troublesome situation where one of disagreeing parties can honestly refer to answers based on ‘their’ definition’ as ‘true’ and to other answers  as  ‘false’ (and consequently questioning the sanity or goodwill intentions of anybody claiming otherwise). So are all those answers ‘absolutely true’ but only each given the appropriate related definitions and understanding? 

The understanding of ‘triangle’ in the diagram example may be  that of “three points not on the same straight line in a plane, connected by visible straight lines.”  There may be a fixed ‘true’ number of such triangles in the diagram. But if the definition of ‘triangle’ is just “three points not on the same straight line'”,  and it is left open whether the diagram itself intends to show a plane or a space, the answers become quite different and even uncountable (‘infinitely many, given the infinitely many points on a plane or in a space depicted by the diagram, that exist in triangular position relative to each other).

The term ‘depicted’ also requires explanation: does it only refer to triangles ‘identified’ by lines connecting three selected points, lines drawn by a color different from the color of the ‘plane (or space) of the diagram? If drawn by the same color, are they n o t  ‘depicted’? Do the edges and corners of the diagram picture ‘count’ as ‘depicting’ the lines and apex of a triangle, or not?  So even in this simple ‘noncontroversial’ example,  there are many very plausible answers, and the decision to call one or some of them ‘absolute truth’ begins to look somewhat arbitrary. 


The label ‘true’ or ‘false’ apply to existing or past states of affairs. Do they also apply to claims about the future (that is, to forecasts, predictions),   The predicted states of affairs  are, by definition, not ‘true’ yet. The best we can do is to say that such a statement is more or less ‘probable’: a matter of degrees we express by a number  from 0 (totally unsure) to 1(virtually certain) or by a ‘percentage’ number between zero and 100. 

Actually, we usually are not totally certain about the truth even of our claims about actual ‘current ‘ or ‘always’- states of affairs. We find that we often make such claims only to find out later that we were wrong, or only approximately right about a given situation. Even more so, about more complex claims such as whether a causes b  and whiter it will do so in the future. But it is fair to say that when we make such claims, we aim and hope to be as close to the actual situation or effect as possible. Can we just say that we should acknowledge the degree of certainty — or ‘plausibility’ — of our statements? Or acknowledge that a speaker may be totally certain about their claim, but listeners are entitled to have and express less certainty — e.g by assigning a different certainty, probability or — I suggest –‘plausibility’  to the claim? Leaving a crumb of plausibility for the ‘black swan’?

‘OUGHT’ claims and their assessment:  ‘Plausibility’ rather that ‘truth’ 

For some other kinds of claims, the labels ‘true’ or ‘false’ are plainly not appropriate, not even ‘probable’. Those are the ‘ought’-claims we use when discussing problem situations (understood as  as discrepancies between what somebody considers to be the case or probable, and what that person feels ‘ought’ to be the case). The state of affairs we ‘ought’  to seek ( or the means we feel we ought to apply to achieve the desired state) are– equally by definition — not ‘true’ yet.  So should we use a different term?  I have suggested that the label ‘plausible’ may serve, for all these claims, expressed as a number n (for example ‘1’) between -n (totally implausible, virtually improbable or the opposite being true) and +n (virtually certain)  with the midpoint zero denoting ”don’t know’, ‘can’t tell’.  Reminder: these labels express just our states of knowledge or opinion, not the states of affairs to which they refer: we make decisions on the basis of our limited knowledge and opinions, not on reality itself (which we know only approximately or may be unsure about). 

How can we gain plausibility of claims? 

The question then is:  How do we get to know whether any of these claims are ‘true’  or probable, or plausible, and to what degree? Matching? Or: — since we can rarely attain complete certainty (knowing that there can be ‘black swans’ to shatter that certainty) — how can we increase our degree of plausibility we feel we can attach to a given claim.? What are the means by which we gain plausibility about claims? Possibilities are: 

1)  For ‘fact’-claims: 

1a) Personal observation, experiments, measurements, demonstration, ‘tests’. 

1b) Inference from other fact-claims and observations, using ‘logically valid’ reasoning schemes;  

1c) From ‘authorities’: other persons we trust to have properly done (1a) or (1b), and can or have explained this;

1d) Declaring them ”self-evident’  and thus not needing further explanation. 

2)  For ‘ought- claims:

2a) The items equivalent to (1a) obviously don’t apply:  So: Personal preference, desire, need, accepted common goals or ‘laws’

2b) Inference? The problem here is that inferences with ‘ought  or what I call ‘planning arguments’ — claims are inherently not (deductively) ‘valid’ from a formal logic point of view and because the label ‘true’ does not apply. However: for some of the factual premises in these arguments, reasons (1) will apply and are appropriate.

2c) From authorities:  Either because they have done 2a or 2b, or because they have social status to ‘order’, command ought-claims?

2d) ‘Self-evidence’?  For example: ‘moral norms’? Laws? 

Is ‘self-evident’ equal to ‘absolute’?

We could add claims about ‘meaning’, definition etc. as a third category. For all, is the claims of ‘absolute truth” equivalent to ‘self-evident?  It is the only one for which explanation justification, evidence is not offered, even claimed to be impossible, unneeded. What this means is:  if there are differences of opinion about a claim, can the proponent of such a claim expect to persuade others to come to accept it as theirs?  What if both parties should honestly claim / believe that theirs is the absolute truth? Claiming ‘absolute truth’ or ‘right’ or ‘self-evidence’ is not  a good persuasion argument, but if repeated sufficiently often (brainwashing) surprisingly, effective, history tells us.  If justification (e.g. by demonstration) is attempted, it turns into one of the other kinds.

So, for all these claims and their ‘justification’ support, different people can have different opinions (different plausibility degrees). This is all too frequently observed, and  the source of all disagreements, quarrels, fights, wars. The latter item (war) suggest that there is a missing means for acquiring knowledge: the application of coercion. force, violence, or in the extreme, the annihilation of  persons of different opinions. The omission is based on the feeling that  it is somehow ‘immoral’ (no matter how frequently it is actually applied in human societies, from the upbringing of children to ‘law enforcement’ and warfare).  

The need to shift attention to ‘decision criteria’ and modes acknowledging irreconcilable differences of opinion

There is, for all the goodwill admonished by religious, philosophical and political leaders, the problem that even with ample efforts of explanation and offering exhortation, reasons, arguments, definitions, situations may occur where agreement on the claims involved cannot be achieved — yet the emergencies, problems, challenges demand that ‘something must be done’. 

What this means, in my opinion, is that the noble quest for ‘truth’, probability, even plausibility as the better guide for community, social decisions — ‘solution’ criteria — making decisions based on the basis of the merit (value, plausibility) of contributions to the discourse about what we ought to do  (that we ideally would all agree on!) must be shifted to a different question: what criteria can we use to guide our decisions in the face of significant differences in our opinions about the information supplied in the discourse? The criteria for evaluation of quality, plausibility of proposed solutions  should be part of but are not the same as the criteria for good decisions.  It is interesting to note that the most common decision mode – voting — in effect dismisses all the merit concerns of the ‘losing’ minority. Arguably, it should be considered a crude crutch to the claim of ‘democratic’ ideals: equality, justice, fairness to all;  But also, that the very crisis cry ‘”Something must be done” is often used as an exhortation tool to somehow generate ‘unity’ of opinions. 

Issues for Systems Thinking

I suggest that this is an important set of issues  for systems thinking. Systems Thinking has been claimed to offer ‘the best currently available foundation for tackling humanity’s challenges. But has it focused its work predominantly on the ‘IS’ questions of the planning and policy-making discourse, rather than on the ‘ought’ issues? On better understanding of the (existing) systems in we will have to interfere? On better prediction of different plan proposals’ future performance (simulation)? Sure, those tasks are immensely important and the work on these questions admirable. But are they the whole task? 

As far as I can see, the other (‘ought’) part of planning and policy-making work — both the development of a) better evaluation, (development of measures of the merit of planning discourse contributions leading to ‘solution merit’  criteria) and b) the development of better criteria for planning decisions, in the face of acknowledged disagreement about the merit of information contributed to the discourse are at best still in the embryonic state. Systems thinking appears to many (perhaps unfairly so)  as suggesting that decisions should be based on the assessment of ‘facts’ data alone, ignoring the proper assessment of ‘ought’ claims and how they must be combined with the ‘facts- claims to support better decisions.   

The development of a better planning discourse platform

Of course, the ‘discourse’ itself about these issues is currently in a state that does not appear to lead to results for either of the above criteria: the design of the discourse for crafting meaningful decisions about humanity’s challenges is itself an urgent challenge. If I had not convinced myself, in the course of thinking about these issues, that ‘absolute truth’ is a somewhat inappropriate  or even meaningless term, I would declare this a main ‘absolutely truth and important’ task we face.  


On gratitude for being shown the true extent of problems?

On a Steaming Hot Midsummer’s Day In the Fog Island Tavern

– Trying to make some breeze with your head wagging, Abbé Boulah? Not sure that’s very energy-efficient?

– I agree, — but your tropical ceiling fans don’t quite do the job either, Vodçek. And I can’t get myself to put ice in my Zinfandel to cool myself from the inside. But no, it’s not even the heat here that’s making me wonder about the state of things. Though it definitely has to do with hot air. Of the political kind, that is.

– Hmm. Maybe I should  renew my old rule about political talk in here when it’s this hot. So what’s in that little blue book you’re studying that’s creating that strange attitude in you? 

– Well, it’s the U.S. Constitution — have you ever actually read it? With all the hot air being blown around all over about it, I thought I’d take another look at it. 

– You, a damn furriner? Because I don’t think you’re a citizen yet, just a green card guy, are you?

– Right, Renfroe. See,  I never could get myself to assert the required degree of allegiance to that document. Allegiance expected when you voluntarily take on a new citizenship. It’s not like when you’re born here, you’re a citizen, subject to the rules and Constitution, willy-nilly. Nobody asks you as a kid, when you’re made to stand up and swear allegiance to it, if you’ve even read and understand it. What would happen if you said:  “Wait, there something I don’t really understand and agree with here, so swearing allegiance would be, well, a lie…”?  If you did it as an adult about to become a citizen, because would it be right to start that new life with a lie: easy, you don’t get to be a citizen. So you don’t apply, and don’t get to say things like that. But kids? Even adult citizens?  

– There is a process where we can make amendments to change it, isn’t there? 

– Yes, I know. But it’s a long process, takes a long time even to get to a vote. And what if it doesn’t pass?  If you argued for an amendment and it lost, are you now an enemy of the constitution, of the interior sort,  against whom citizens are supposed to defend it? 

– Oh boy, I never thought about that.  So what are the things in the Constitution you don’t agree with? 

– You’re asking me, Renfroe?  Me, the damn furriner, who doesn’t  really understand the Constitution and isn’t allowed to join the discussion about changing it? 

– Well, are you against it, then? 

– No, Vodçek. On the contrary, I have always considered it a major achievement of humanity and a model for many other countries. But look at some of the weird things that are now developing! There must be some not so perfect things about this Constitution, if those things are possible and allowed under it?. So I was just curious about what all the hot-air-hubbub in the current political discourse is about, that involves the Constitution in one way or another. Wondering why people, on all sides of the political divides, don’t start talking about what could or should be changed in it to avoid some of the strange things to happen that arguably are, well…

– Unconstitutional?  

– Yeah! By all the Wall Street Bull’s Excrement! That’s the word! Detrimental, dangerous in the long run,  as well as powerfully ill-smelling. 

– Is it just your non-belief showing, my friend? Even hate? 

– Well,, you must admit some unbelievable people are getting away with unbelievable stunts.

– But they’re not getting away, looks like.  They’re here to stay, at least for four more years, if not more…

– You’re shrewdly tiptoeing around the question: what makes that possible? That’s what I want to know.

– Oh, I think there’s a good explanation: If you put out many contradictory tweets, you give all the true believers the freedom — freedom, isn’t that the big constitutional thing? — the freedom to pick whichever one to believe in?  And act on it?  Isn’t that the great MAGAIC? That we all should be thankful for? 

– Sounds great, until you’re branded and treated as a traitor, told to leave the country, if you don’t like what it’s becoming,– for believing in one the great MAGAIC master feels threatened by. Coming to think of it, the country that was stolen and cheated away from the true Americans in the first place? — So that nobody even starts to think about steps that might be taken to prevent those unconstitutional things?  It seems the good citizens of the country aren’t quite awake and sufficiently worried about these things, to start some serious thinking about that. 

– Well, there are plenty of groups out there clamoring for change, aren’t there? Nonbelievers, traitors, the lot of them, I say…

– Sure, Renfroe.  Even more questionable things are promoted under the banner of needed change, even if the change is represented at going back to some ‘real’ or true interpretation of the Constitution. What gets me:  it all boils down to campaigns to defeat this or that candidate for office, or the counter-candidate. All the ads and emails we get are just appeals to contribute money for the campaigns. About winning elections, gaining power. Very little if anything seems to get to the substantive issues that make the bad things happen, let alone making them better. Can they be fixed with just some different guys in the various offices? When the underlying structural conditions still will lead to the same bad developments that people get upset and angry about?  

– Good questions. So you think the country needs to wake up to see the need for real changes? 

– I do, Vodçek. I know all the unrest and the breathless media look like you’d want to calm things down rather than more ‘waking-up’. But is it making any genuine difference? 

– Hmm. So let me ask you a hypothetical question. Say you were in charge of things. What would  wise old  y o u  do to wake up the country to see the seriousness of the weaknesses in the Constitution? 

– Good question. And sufficiently hypothetical to avoid violating your no-politics  in the Tavern rule?

– We’ll see. Let’s just say I’m not paying close enough attention for a while. 

– Okay. Let’s pin your hypothetical assumption down first — that I’d really be somehow in charge to get things done.

– That’s hyper hypothetical indeed, I agree. Hyperthetical. But why?

– Well, from what I can see, all the protesting and well-meaning commentary hasn’t been very helpful, so far. Are tings getting worse rather than better? So I think a very different tactic is needed. Actual demonstration, real action, perhaps even painful lessons. 

– Hmm. All right, we’ll put you in your hyperthetical charge. So what’s your first step? 

– It’s not a well-ordered step-by step sequence. Things done simultaneously. To be effective,  it needs distraction, confusion. But of course,  explaining it has to start somewhere, and go on in a sequence. Don’t confuse that with the actual process!

– Duly noted. 

– So one thing I’d do is to refuse to make any of the usual disclosures required by law: tax returns, financial holdings and such. That’ll keep a lot of people aggravated and busy with ‘investigations’ of various kinds. It would even let me make a lot of money while that is going on. And I’d not even hide that. Let people get jealous! Meanwhile, I’d stuff the courts and important government positions with people who will do what I ask them to do.  Anything. I’d keep firing and replacing them if they don’t. If there are complaints about that, invent details from their work that lets me call them traitors or criminal incompetents. 

– Hear that, Renfroe? So what will those people do?

– Good question. While I’m putting out silly controversies for the headlines every day, they must make as little noise and get as little attention as possible, while they are relaxing or eliminating a lot of regulations, things like environmental protection bureaucracy rules that hamper certain industries or reduce their profits. So most people won’t realize it until the consequences become obvious — that’ll take some time, right? Obviously, those industries will support my policies and campaigns promoting ‘economic growth’. So while all those personnel changes are represented as efforts to combat corruption, they actually raise a smokescreen for intensified, let’s call it facilitated merited compensation for activities and contributions to the mission. 

– Corruption, in other words. Won’t the media raise a ruckus about  that?  

– That’s a harsh and unfriendly word, we’d have to keep the media from using it. We reserve that for when we talk about the opposition. But yes, that’s the point. Now consider: every issue has ‘counterarguments’:  small aspects that can be exaggerated into threats to national security or economy, hyped up to get my base supporters firmly convinced that I’m saving the country from disaster or evil conspiracies. But eventually seen as what they are. 

– You seem quite optimistic about that?  

– Yes, because the rising inequality and injustice of it will become too obvious. But until then, I’d use those issues to paint the media as part of the evil conspiracies, as traitors, tools of unpatriotic groups or parties that only seek power. Which of course greatly increases my power; especially if I can get the owners of the media to keep their journalists on a short leash. There are ways to get that done, you know. Not by me: by others. I’d have a lot of help doing that. 

– Let me guess: the powers that have bought the media are holding the leash.  

– You’re catching on. That’s one part the Constitution doesn’t deal with well:  it didn’t anticipate that economic powers could buy both government and the media. I’d let them run with that, while getting things in place for a real power grab. I don’t even offer reasons for those things, just do them. Like killing off the post office to make voting by mail impossible: it’s just necessary to keep those extreme wing elements from taking over the country, you understand. 

– You mean the extreme left wing guys? 

– Let wing, right wing: did it never occur to you that right or left depends on where you’re looking from? See, when I talk to the Senate, the so-called left wing folks are sitting to my right, and I accuse them of many of the things that the right wing folks to my left are actually doing…

– I guess you’d have such a devious a game plan for the police and law enforcement too?

– Of course, glad you mention it. But those levers of power enhancement are already well in place and only need to be further cultivated to become fully aligned with my intentions. Look at the very term ‘law enforcement’! What does it tell you?

– Of course, there has to be a way to enforce the laws. 

– Yes. Everybody accepts the notion that ensuring that laws are upheld and violation must be prosecuted and penalized, and that it requires force. Greater power and force than any would-be lawbreaker, of course. Naturally. By definition. 

– You can’t argue with that. 

– See? That kind of lack of imagination would make it easy for me. But equally inevitably, it creates escalation. For example: if you ease the hurdles for everybody — including organized and disorganized crime — to get access to more powerful weapons, doesn’t it stand to reason that the law enforcement agencies  m u s t  be equipped with even more powerful equipment?  That’s the box people can’t think themselves out of.  So I’ll provide that, and encourage them. Then, criminals as well as the second-amendment militias counter that with more effective gadgets. So give the police military-type weaponry. It needs to get used up, anyway, to maintain the economic growth of the industries producing new stuff, see?  I’ll use every little confrontation or mis-step to increase the perceived need for more  power, even to bend the rules if needed. Until they become so powerful — but loyal to me — that there’s no viable opposition left that could threaten my power. And no bars to the temptations of abusing the power. That’s a natural law, if history tells us anything. 

– You don’t think all the folks who insist on their second amendment rights to have and carry weapons are going to start trouble about that? 

– Are you kidding? Tell them it’s their right, their power!  It’s even a bit ironic, isn’t it? Their very support is what ‘forces’ me to create those superior law enforcement and military forces, that ultimately will make their pathetic excuse ‘to protect them against the government’ the contradictory illusion it is. Subterfuge for selling more guns. To finally become so obvious it can’t be sustained. Admit it: people just like to shoot guns.  And, at least some folks like to kill with them. Some of them  like violence, destruction.  Killing. So I encourage the emergence of different factions and groups — but turning them against each other, rather than the government — while assuring all of them that the government will protect  t h e i r  particular groups. 

– Fascinatingly devious, I admit. 

– Yes. The gun issue is just one of the best examples of how the Constitution can be interpreted in so many different ways as to make all kinds of devious machinations possible and apparently ‘legal’, while causing considerable trouble. There are so many different areas — of immoral enrichment, corruption, outright crimes, to break laws and constitutional provisions that one can get away with;  the point is to use all those ‘loopholes’ to make the abuse obvious.

– Hmm. I don’t know. You really think that making all that so obvious will, as you say, make the people ‘wake up’ and take action? It actually scares me to think about what those actions might be. Getting a feeling it actually might be too late already, to avoid either chaotic unrest, or decline into, well —

– Don’t say it, Renfroe: It would get too seriously political: Vodçek is already breathing heavily, ready to cut us off.  

– Don’t tempt me, my friend. You’re getting close. Hmm. Why does all that somehow does sound eerily familiar? Can you at least tell us what remedies you have in mind for fixing the flaws in the Constitution that allows all that?

–  That’s just it: there’s not enough thinking going on about that. That’s what we need to get started! And shouldn’t you all be grateful for my opening your eyes about it? 

– Ah. Yes, I can see why you’d insist on gratefulness and loyalty. 

– And that’s why I’d need four more years, don’t you see? 

– Good grief. You’re making my head spin. 

– Don’t say it, Vodçek:  revolve? 

– Okay, that’s it. You’re cut off. 



An effort to clarify the role of deliberative evaluation in the planning and policy-making process. Thorbjoern Mann, May 2020.


The two dozen blogposts over past few months try to explore the many facets of deliberative evaluation as it relates to the planning discourse. Necessarily, the issue-by-issue treatment does not do justice to all the connections and relationships between them. Many questions that call for more exploration, testing and research were raised, but of course not resolved. Faced with public planning tasks today, we always have to make decisions based ‘on the best of our current incomplete knowledge’, so it seems appropriate to try to summarize that current state of knowledge. What can be learned from this exploration? The following notes highlight a few insights for discussion.

No ‘universal’ common approach

The first answer to this question may sound disappointing: There are so many different attitudes, perspectives, situations and tasks involved in planning that any suggestion of a ‘standard’ common approach or procedure would be rather inadequate to the specific conditions of each case, in one way or another. Therefore, it would be pointless to try to make general recommendations about details for specific approaches. They would be of the kind of ‘if approach or technique X is used, it should be done with specific details x1,x2, etc.” Those recommendations should be included in the specifications for individual techniques in the tool kit. The only meaningful ‘general’ rule should be to coordinate those agreements with tools used in other phases of a project, for the sake of consistency and avoiding confusion due to too many different jargon terms and rules.

Critical issues

In the course of the discussion, the initial set of issues calling for discussion had to be revised. Some questions emerged as more controversial and difficult to reconcile than others. They involve what seem to be fundamental theoretical objections to systematic ‘methods’ of evaluation, or simply efforts to sidestep the question since it is seen as unnecessary cumbersome addition to planning project. The first of these positions rests on the confidence that a valid theory applied to the process of generating planning or policy proposals will make evaluative scrutiny unnecessary; the second on belief in such concepts as ‘wisdom of crowds’, or the superior ability of intuition — of policy developers, of participants in the discourse, or of ‘leaders’ making the decision.

A related question arises from the practice of a number of ‘management consulting’ approaches that rely on facilitator-guided small group events aiming at consensus or consent decisions or recommendations for single solutions generated by a theory (such as the Pattern Language) or orchestrated discussion. Such groups usually consist (in the case of organizations contracting with an outside consultant firm) of selected company employees with special skills or detailed knowledge of the problems to be remedies. The ‘decisions’ reached then become recommendations to the organization’s management. If such approaches are suggested for larger public projects, they would take the form of ‘expert’ panels informed of the public’s concerns through surveys or interviews but reaching their recommendations in the small group discussions but usually not involving any formal systematic evaluation procedure. To allow for a greater degree of public participation, it would become necessary to construct a hierarchical structure of small face-to-face group ‘circles’ (to adopt the vocabulary of one such approach. Each higher hierarchy level of circles consists of representatives of the lower circles, using the same approach or facilitating mode to process the results of the lower circles into recommendations for the respectively next higher level. This problem constitutes one of several strong arguments for an ‘asynchronous’ online but ‘flatter organization of the discourse, which is precisely the aim of the overall ‘public planning discourse support platform’ for which new forms of discourse orchestration and decision-making are needed.

The map of critical issues in the diagram resulting from these insights had to be revised, showing the elements of evaluation on one side and the issues arising from different views about the role of evaluation in the planning process on the other.

Figure 1 — Issues and Controversies, Revised

Embedding a ‘toolbox’ of specific techniques in an overall framework

The needed systems of technological support of a general planning discourse platform or forum with wide ‘asynchronous’ public participation for larger projects will have to adopt some common assumptions, agreements, and vocabulary. Some such agreements are of course needed for any small or large project, whether based on F2F interactions or not. Any platform will imply some such agreements, and this poses a significant challenge to its design: to keep a delicate balance between those necessary agreements and the need to accommodate different views even about such initial provisions. One key lesson from the exploration is that there is a large variety of perspectives on which agreements would rest. The platform should not impose one such perspective but must remain flexible, open to the variety of views and preferences participants may bring to the table. It should focus on reaching common agreements for each project, as an integral project task, based on decisions by each project’s participants.

The overall framework must therefore be as simple and inviting to potential participants as possible. As people become more familiar with the platform, it can then offer guidance and opportunities for selecting special techniques and methods from a ‘tool kit’ collection techniques and tools to facilitate in-depth analysis and evaluation of the particular issues arising in different projects, as needed in the perception of participants. The choices should include the option of reaching recommendations and decisions without any explicit systematic deliberation. This, of course, raises questions about what would make decisions legitimate and compelling for the affected populations, and what responsibilities or ‘accountability’ provisions it would raise for the respective decision-makers. The idea of using the ‘currency’ of ‘discourse merit points’ to require decision-makers to pay for decisions begins to address this issue.

Figure 2 — A ‘basic’ (neutral’) planning process with evaluation as an optional ‘toolbox’ element

Procedural agreements and process

The need for flexibility can be accommodated with the provisions for the procedures to be followed to reach a decision. The diagram below shows one example of a basic framework, drawn from the tradition of parliamentary procedure that will be familiar to most people in countries with parliamentary-type governance. The key feature is the ‘Next step?’ motion that can be raised at appropriate times during the discourse, that can call for a decision, etc. but also for the implementation of a ‘special technique’ for more thorough analysis.

Translation services language-language and disciplinary jargon to conversational language

Many problems facing humanity today are ‘international or even ‘global’, with affected parties living in areas governed by many different government entities, speaking different languages. Thus, a general platform for the treatment of such projects must provide adequate translation services between different natural languages, as a matter of course. But since the discourse will draw on scientific and professional knowledge from many disciplines (and consulting firms), it will also need ‘translation from the ‘discipline jargon’ of the contributing experts.

The argument against ‘argumentation’ as unnecessarily ‘argumentative’ and adversarial

The investigation was largely motivated by the initial question of how to evaluate the merit of arguments in what Rittel called the ‘Argumentative Model of Planning’. The objections against the very word ‘argument’ can of course be dismissed as misunderstanding the meaning of the term: It is not ‘fighting word’ implying a basically adversary attitude but an offer to reasoning, — a reason –showing how a position either for or against a proposal will ‘follow from’ or can be supported by premises that the audience already accepts or will come to accept upon being show further evidence.

The existence of such misunderstanding must be acknowledged as a potentially significant and destructive factor in the planning process. I have suggested to clarify the distinction with a different abel such as ‘quarrgument’ for the kind of exchanges leading to adversarial-only verbal or physical ‘quarrels’. But a better option is perhaps to avoid the term entirely, with a provision to immediately replace an argument (if one is entered into a discourse) with the questions about the premises used. Instead of the ‘argument’ version of an entry like:

“Plan A will cause effect B, given conditions C,

B is desirable, and

C will be present”

(which may be ‘stored for reference in the ‘Verbatim’ record of the platform), the displays for the assessment will show the questions:

– Will A cause B, given conditions C)?

– Should effect B be aimed for? and

– Will conditions C be present?

The aggregation into argument plausibility, argument weight, and plan plausibility follow the same steps as those shown in the section of planning argument evaluation but skip the display of arguments plausibility and weight, to hide the controversial term.

The ‘subjective judgment versus objective fact and measurement’ controversy

The discussion of evaluation here cannot offer a ‘resolution’ of the controversy whether design and planning decisions should be based on subjective (intuitive) judgments or objective (‘rational] measurement-based ‘facts’, nor how to distinguish between these kinds of judgments. The recommendation is — for the time being and for the sake of effective process in given practical situations — to leave the controversy aside. Instead, whenever there arises a situation in which a decision-maker is asked to or claims to make decisions ‘on behalf’ of other affected parties — to call for the mutual explanation of the respective bases of judgment: explanation to the satisfaction of the other party, not to some theoretical standard or expert opinion. This may shift the issue to the realms of general research, education or public information. It may be in need of research and clarification in those domains, — but cannot be settled separately in the area of planning.

Claims of validity of planning and decision-making methods

The investigation of evaluation in the planning process was motivated by a sense that the planning decision-making process is in need of improvement (especially with respect to evaluation) and a sense that some improvement is possible. This should not be taken as a claim of being a ‘more perfect’ approach. Rather, the insights from the review suggest that such claims would be pretentious and inadvisable. As just one example, consider the expectation that a planning decision should be based on ‘due consideration’ (and thorough evaluation) of ‘all the pros and cons’ about a planning proposal, as a leader may solemnly promise. It may seem plausible at first sight, but it was seen that it is difficult if not impossible to be certain that ‘all’ those arguments — all potential evaluation aspects — have been or even can be identified. From a systems modeling perspective, the question of the proper (acceptance) of the boundary of the system at hand, is a matter of the system modeler’s judgment more than the system’s ‘true’ properties. The pressure to justify model assumptions with data leads to a preoccupation with past data and measurable variables, over future unknown possibilities, new research knowledge and subjective motivations.

Argumentation as practiced in ‘parliamentary’ discourse predominantly deals with ‘qualitative’ effects: an argument that ‘plan x will achieve a precise quantitative outcome y of variable v in a specific time frame t ‘ is not nearly as plausible as the general but vague qualitative version that ‘Plan x will, in time, improve things with respect to v’. And the qualification of planning arguments ‘given circumstances or conditions C’, if taken seriously, will call for an interminable systems analysis of the arguments’s complex context. Realization of such interminable complexity will quickly nudge participants to end more thorough scrutiny of these questions: understandable and perhaps even defensible, but not justifying claims of ‘perfect’ method. But should such questions arise — and they arguably should sometimes be encouraged — systems modeling and data analysis, diagrams and visual mapping can enhance participants’ understanding, and should be offered as needed in the discourse. By the same token: the possibility of systematic assessment e.g. or arguments will necessitate weeding out repetitive entries in displays and worksheets to the discourse, which can improve overview and understanding.

A further warning to avoid ‘obvious’ confidence in premature judgments must be seen in the many different forms of aggregating both personal and group judgments into decision guides or indicators — they should not even be called and misused as ‘decision criteria’.

Requirements for acceptance: training, education

Even with the best efforts for making the basic framework as simple and understandable to lay participants as possible, the variety of possible attitudes, expectations, assumptions and corresponding techniques and tools raises the question of accessibility for as many segments of communities as may be affected by planning projects and the problems they aim to address. How can the average person comfortably participate in the planning discourse if the concepts, language, tools and needed procedural agreements are unfamiliar and thus confusing? Even this ‘average’ expression is ‘wrong’: don’t crises and emergencies tend to affect and hurt poorer, less educated people more than even the ‘average’ members of the community? But it is the information of those people that is needed to properly address their concerns.

Traditionally, a main task of public education is to prepare citizens for the planning and political discourse. It is not likely that the needed understanding and skills required for even basic participation in the kind of online asynchronous planning and policy-making process sketched out in the proposed planning discourse platform and its provisions for evaluation are offered by current education systems. And the prospect of getting the bureaucracies of all the world’s education systems, whether public or private, to include this material in its curricula itself looks like a planning project of unprecedented magnitude and complexity. So it seems that the task of education and training all potential users as well as the needed staff for the platform calls for radically new approaches. Would an online ‘planning game’, based on a simple version of the process, run on cellphones that are increasingly available even in poor communities be a better step towards this task? (This idea was tentatively explored in a paper on The challenge of education and training itself might be the first project serving as the necessary test case and experiment, fueled and funded by not much more than all the consultant’s competitive desire to have their approach included in the ‘tool kit’ of a simple common overall platform and process.