A few weeks ago after stumbling onto an event during a Google search, I found myself attending a  free symposium at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design on “Wicked Problems.” I was pretty excited about going as I’m more and more interested in working on design problems  with social and environmental impact.

My understanding of the idea had simply arisen out of being in the design space and from a cursory glance at Jon Koklo’s Wicked Problems Worth Solving. I had no historical grounding in the origin or evolution of the model but an awareness of its popularity as a way to frame today’s complex environmental and social problems. For me it was simply part of the lexicon of contemporary design.  I mean design thinking, wicked problems and user-centered design as far as I knew grew up out of Silicon Valley, IDEO and Stanford’s Dschool over the last 15 years or so, right?

As usual I blame my lack of knowledge on the fact that I didn’t go to design school, however after chatting with colleagues who did go the formal academic route it’s evident that I’m not the only one not in the know. And that’s not to say we can’t derive value from the tools and methods without historical grounding but it gives the model greater depth and power when we understand the context of its development.

Well it turns out, IDEO and the Dschool have done an amazing job at branding and popularizing ideas and methods some of whose origins date back first to Ulm than Berkeley in the seventies. I know some of you are shaking your head at my ignorance but secretly a few of you are leaning in closer because you didn’t know either and where afraid to ask!

So I spent the day learning about Horst Rittel and  Melvin Webber, both professors in the urban planning department at UC Berkeley who developed the theory defining wicked problems.

Below is a list of the 10 characteristics of wicked problems (Wikipedia).

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e.: Planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).”

There was some debate at the symposium if tame problems (those with true or false outcome as one attribute) truly existed or if all problems are wicked. My perspective is that all problems are ultimately wicked if you’re willing to go deep enough. Solve a simple “fast fashion” ecommerce flow problem but scratch the surface of the business model and you’re looking at horrendous working conditions and a tragic factory fire in Bangladesh. It’s all connected in a big tangled mess.

The next logical thought for me from this realization was also echoed at the symposium, in that all design is politics. Choosing what you give your time and energy to is a political act. This paradigm really resonates for me and is one of the main reasons I love consulting as it allows me to filter the projects I engage with through my values.

Other interesting ideas that struck me from the day included:

  •  Design as argument or rhetoric
  • Wicked problems have resolutions but not absolute solutions
  • Language as a design tool/prototyping medium (from Terry Winograd)
  • Innovation happens when people learn skills outside their discipline, be an amateur (From Eric Paulos)

Overall the day left me energized and excited to apply thinking around wicked problems to my current focus, healthcare, as well as with a long list of topics to explore further and of coursing  fantasizing once again about the return to academia for a PhD. Sigh…

Image Typhone Haiyan – AP Photo