Archive for July, 2021

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!