Friday, December 17, 2010

Regarding solving problems...

A dear friend and colleague pointed me towards something very intriguing yesterday. It has to do with Horst W.J. Rittel (1930-1990, Professor of the Science of Design within the Architecture program at Berkeley) and the concept of 'wicked problems'...and I'm not talking Valley-speak, here.

Rittel introduced several fundamental ideas:
  • Simple problems (problems which are already defined) are easy to solve, because defining a problem inherently defines a solution.
  • The definition of a problem is subjective; it comes from a point of view. Thus, when defining problems, all stake-holders, experts, and designers are equally knowledgeable (or unknowledgeable).
  • Some problems cannot be solved, because stake-holders cannot agree on the definition. These problems are called wicked, but sometimes they can be tamed.
  • Solving simple problems may lead to improvement—but not innovation. For innovation, we need to re-frame wicked problems.
  • Because one person cannot possibly remember or keep track of all the variables (of both existing and desired states) in a wicked problem, taming wicked problems requires many people.
  • These people have to talk to each other; they have to deliberate; they have to argue.
  • To tame a wicked problem, they have to agree on goals and actions for reaching them. This requires knowledge about actions, not just facts.
  • Science is concerned with factual knowledge (what-is); design is concerned with instrumental knowledge (how what-is relates to what-ought-to-be), how actions can meet goals.
  • The process of argumentation is the key and perhaps the only method of taming wicked problems.
  • This process is political.
  • Design is political.
Having become convinced design is argument, Rittel set out to develop ways to support and enhance the development and tracking of arguments during the design process. (He hoped these systems might also make both the design process and the political process more transparent.) He introduced Issues Based Information Systems (IBIS) first in analog (paper) form and later in digital (computer) form. His efforts, while cumbersome, form the basis of an on-going line of inquiry within computer science known as design rationale. To date, over 1000 papers have been written on this subject. Many reference Rittel, and he is widely regarded as a seminal figure in the field.
In sum, Rittel remains significant to designers for two reasons. First, he articulated the relationship between science and design, specifically the limitations of design processes based on the 19th century rational view of science. (Never-the-less, the rationalist “problem-solving” view of design remains a widely held popular belief.) Second, he proposed principles for dealing with these limitations. (Unfortunately, these principles are not widely taught.)

Further to this, a fascinating paper entitled 'Wicked Problems and Social Complexity' by Jeff Conklin, PhD.

One of the most impactful notions presented in the materials is this:

"Some problems cannot be solved, because stake-holders cannot agree on the definition."

Isn't that depressing? That even if you have an assortment of informed, qualified opinions, if you cannot agree on the definition of the problem, you're fuckled.

Surely this is the sort of stuff that all who are looking at solving problems in local governance should be aware of.

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I'm always interested in feedback, differing opinions, even contrarian long as they're delivered with decorum...with panache and flair always helping.