Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 3)


Continuing the discussion of Rittel and Webber’s article about wicked problems, the third property is 3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. This follows directly from property 1 which argues that there is no definite way of formulating a wicked problem. If we cannot reduce a wicked problem to a set of analytic relationships, then there is no way of testing the truth of the solution. R & W say:

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgments are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections. Their assessments of proposed solutions are expressed as "good" or "bad" or, more likely, as "better or worse" or "satisfying" or "good enough."

This reads to me as a plug for pragmatic approaches. Try something sensible based on whatever understanding exists at present and see how the system behaves. Does it appear to be changing in the right direction? The way most economists work is quite the opposite. They act as if economics is a science in the same sense as physics. The Nobel prize for economics only reinforces the idea of analytic purity. Their equations can only predict the way money appears and flows through the economic system. We can measure that outcome of their solutions and decide whether the models on which the solutions are based are true or false, but that’s is as far as we can go. Economic systems provide more than money; they also result is the distribution of wealth and a sense of security, confidence and trust in the system. These latter outcomes are emergent, not analytically driven.

Here, as this property indicates, assessments o the solutions taken can only be qualitative; is the world better (good) or have things declined or stayed the same (bad). This is the essence of pragmatism. Truth as pragmatically defines is tied to the success of deliberate actions taken to produce a desired future state relative to an unsatisfactory present. Further, since the context of real complex systems tends to change continually truths are ephemeral and the system operators or planners must similarly continue to test their solutions via the same criterion of goodness, not analytic correctness.

Sustainability as flourishing is an emergent quality of the Earth system and demands a pragmatic framework to address is absence. That doesn’t happen in our current technocratic mode of operating. We turn to the scientists and engineers (economists and political scientists included) for the solutions to the problems behind unsustainability. The basis of these disciplines is analytic purity or controlled hypothesis testing. No single discipline contains adequate knowledge to fully characterize the system and the root of the problems that exist. Coordination among disciplines is always problematic because the models and jargon are unique to each one.

I believe that many people in high places understand this fundamental limitation of disciplinary knowledge when seeking to “solve” wicked problems, but cannot voice their beliefs in the present political economic climate. Everything we do to muck around in the political economy has to be the one right way to go. Simplicity trumps complexity. This framing won’t take us far in solving the perplexing (that is complex) problems of most importance. What is desperately needed is the application of phronesis (prudence), the form of knowledge the Greek claimed was needed for governing the polis. Prudence is another way of speaking about pragmatism, using understanding acquired through experience and observation to intervene in the affairs of the city. I am not at all sanguine about the possibility that wisdom (another name for the understanding gleaned from experience) can find a place in major institutions. Without more wisdom and less “truths,” sustainability and its primary manifestation, flourishing, is unlikely to appear even on the horizon.