Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 5)


Almost half way through the list of 10 properties of wicked problems. The next is 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. This gets bit tricky as it is not as obvious as many of the other nine. Rittel and Webber say:

In the sciences and in fields like mathematics, chess, puzzle-solving or mechanical engineering design, the problem-solver can try various runs without penalty. . . A lost chess game is seldom consequential for other chess games or for non-chess-players. . . With wicked planning problems, however, every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves "traces" that cannot be undone. One cannot build a freeway to see how it works, and then easily correct it after unsatisfactory performance. Large public-works are effectively irreversible, and the consequences they generate have long half-lives. Many people's lives will have been irreversibly influenced, and large amounts of money will have been spent--another irreversible act. . . Whenever actions are effectively irreversible and whenever the half-lives of the consequences are long, every trial counts. And every attempt to reverse a decision or to correct for the undesired consequences poses another set of wicked problems, which are in turn subject to the same dilemmas.

I do not entirely agree with this point, or at least with the tone of their statement. Almost everything we do in life, other than the most routine acts, as individuals or as agents acting on behalf of others is some form of a one-shot deal. When a single agent is acting, he or she can observe the immediate, proximate consequences of the act, both intended and unintended, and act to correct what has just happened, learning in the process. R & W are pointing to solutions that require significant investment in time and resources. Once the system is in place and ‘turned on,” there is no going back to square one. That part of their description is OK, but the inability to learn seems too harsh a criticism. Learning almost always occurs, but may be of little use because the required resources, real and political, will have been expended. R & W were addressing the planning profession and the failure of many large-scale public programs of that era, which do fit the argument here.

Exceptions do occur. Today the Swiss government announced that all five of their nuclear power plants would be shut down at the end of their current licenses, and no further construction would be allowed. The experience in Japan has provided a learning moment for the Swiss. If the consequences of being wrong are so high that the risk is not worth taking, the option to stop, admit the error of the present plan, and look for another solution to the original problem, which was electricity supply for the country is a form of learning.

The unsustainable course our global society is on is a problem of greater importance that any other. We cannot let concerns with being wrong that might arise from this feature of wicked problems delay action. Knowing that the solution, whether a new set of policies or new technology or any other change in the societal cultural structure, will almost certainly not do exactly what was projected and might even make matter worse could cause risk averse actors to delay action for fear of being held accountable for the inevitable gap between reality and plan. Action is critical now. This property (#5) suggests that relying on large dramatic programs, like geo-engineering, to solve the climate change problem are imprudent. R & W’s warning fits this case. This solution may look good on computer simulations, but these are more like the chess games that are non-consequential.

The alternative is to attempt to get underneath the proximate problem to its roots deep in the culture and try small steps to change behavior to align more with flourishing. Here little steps can be taken with less troublesome consequences. Learning is possible. We know that this is how individuals and organizations learn. Normal routines emerge from small experiments that are successful in solving the problems that are always showing up. Examples of this process in a larger societal sense already are appearing. Experiments in building small-scale local provisioning system, including the use of local currencies, are growing in number and size. These kinds of approaches seem to be able to avoid the severe limitations posed by this property of wicked problems. The transition town concept, preparing for the end of cheap fossil fuel and other irreversible resource patterns, is growing.

With the current popularity of and reliance on big solutions, always the responsibility of someone else, it has been difficult to sell the importance of these smaller culture-changing projects. Technology is still being touted as a way to keep doing what we have been doing in the face of threatening changes in the world. Technology is often a one-shot solution in the sense of this property. We invest heavily in it and then are unwilling to give it up when it no longer satisfies (or never did), and wait for the next innovation that will bring relief. The same can be said of much public policy based on technocratic foundations. The “chess games” economists and other policy planners play on their computers lull them into believing that they have found the answers. They suffer no consequences, except perhaps to reputation, if those answers turn out, as they usually do, to provide less that what was promised. Until we accept that the problems that need attention at the societal or global scale are always wicked problems, we will continue to treat them as tame and continue to make the same mistakes. The properties I have been enumerating in this series of blogs provide, at least to me, compelling evidence that the governance structures now in place have ceased to fit the world of today and cannot deal with the kind of problems that stand between the present unsustainable world and a future full of the promise of sustainability.