Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 7) and More on Complexity

insoluble At the same time I have been feeding back the wisdom in Rittel and Webber’s thinking, I have continued to read and think about complexity broadly. The more I read, the more I believe that it is critical that we begin to appreciate the omnipresence of complexity and quickly learn how to deal with it. We have relegated the idea and its ramifications to a curio shop, relying only on “the sciences” to provide us with the knowledge needed to run our individual and collective lives. Real systems thinking must incorporate complexity as the basic way of framing every non-trivial problem.

An article entitled, “Restricted Complexity, General Complexity," by the French sociologist Edgar Morin makes a strong argument for putting complexity ahead of the reductionist frame we have come to take for granted as the proper way to get to know the world. Morin argues that every system is complex because it is always a part of other systems. We are blind to this because we only know how to find truths by dissecting systems into their component parts. I would not recommend to paper without qualification. It is written in the most awkward English I have seen in a while, but the central ideas are sound and compelling.

Perhaps it is because I have been saying much the same thing, not so elegantly (even in his stilted English) that I was drawn to the article. Morin eventually argues that our whole system of education must be reformed so a new “fundamental culture” can replace the current set of beliefs and norms. It would stand the central tenets of modernity on their heads. [Positive] knowledge, instead of being the gold standard, would be recognized “as a source of error or illusion.” In a practical sense, the consequences of ignoring this are the creation of unintended consequences which have destroyed or threaten to destroy the societies that counted on their knowledge to lead them to some promised land.

Rationality comes next because, he says, we know that acting rationally can be perverse, but choose to ignore what we see. Science, the source of knowledge, is a flawed program. The fundamental scientific epistemology cannot deal with complexity. The important features of connectedness, holism, emergence cannot be found in its methodologies. In the place of these basic concepts of modernity, Morin adds that we must teach complexity from the start and abandon the hegemony of the disciplines. Disciplines are constituted by the reductionist need to examine smaller and smaller pieces of the world and are incapable of grasping the fundaments of complexity.

Many have already pointed to the inadequacy of the objective lens. Morin refers to the “spirit” as a Kantian-like sense that enables us to know anything at all.

The objective knowledge which is its [science’s] idea, resulted in the need of eliminating subjectivity, i.e. the emotional part inherent to each observer, to each scientist, but it also comprised the elimination of the subject, i.e. the being which conceives and knows. However, any knowledge, including objective, is at the same time a cerebral translation starting from data of the external world and a mental reconstruction, starting from certain organizing potentialities of the spirit. It is certain that the idea of a pure objectivity is utopian. Scientific objectivity is produced by beings who are subjects, within given historical conditions, starting from the rules of the scientific game. The great contribution of Kant was to show that the object of knowledge is co-constructed by our spirit. He indicated us that it is necessary to know knowledge to know its possibilities and limits. The knowledge of knowledge is a requirement of the complex thinking.

Knowledge produced without consideration of the complexity that surrounds every isolated objective system is decontextualized. That is the reason we can generalize, but always lose something in the process.

Take for example the economy, the most advanced social science from a mathematical point of view, but which is isolated from human, social, historic, and sociologic contexts: its prediction power is extremely weak because the economy does not function in isolation: its forecasts need to be unceasingly revised, which indicates us the disability of a science that is very advanced but too closed.
That’s enough to get a flavor of this very intriguing and thoughtful article. His thinking envelops the notion of wicked problems and their properties. R & W use the idea of uniqueness to reflect the decontextualization that inevitably is in the background whenever we apply normal methodologies and call on the knowledge they have generated. The next property of wicked problems is 7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. R & W continue,
Of course, for any two problems at least one distinguishing property can be found (just as any number of properties can be found which they share in common), and each of them is therefore unique in a trivial sense. But by "'essentially unique" we mean that, despite long lists of similarities between a current problem and a previous one, there always might be an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance. Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply. . . Despite seeming similarities among wicked problems, one can never be certain that the particulars of a problem do not override its commonalities with other problems already dealt with.

“Essentially unique” is equivalent to Morin’s assertion that all systems are complex. R & W are less assertive than he is by their use of the conditional “might.” The implications are that we cannot generalize among classes of problems that are defined by a closed set of characteristics. Are Keynes’s or Krugman’s or any economist's solutions to our current economic malaise the right way to go? Maybe, but we should not expect the outcome to turn out exactly as they predict, The world of the Great Depression is not the same as today’s. The context is different.

Again, pragmatism enters the scene. We should certainly pay attention to those wise persons who have tempered their knowledge with a sense of history and context, but we should never expect their prognostications and remedies to be certain. Complexity and pragmatism are inextricably interconnected. Complexity is the fundamental state of the world. It follows that pragmatism is the proper frame for governance, certainly of the “big” systems problems we face.

Morin, near the end of his article, warns of dire consequences of ignoring complexity, but adds a positive note based on the creative possibilities of a living (complex) system.

The probabilities of a global future are extremely alarming: our spaceship is pulled by four engines without any control: science, technology, economy, and the search for profit—all this under conditions of chaos since the techno-civilizational unification of the planet, under the Western push, causes singular cultural resistances and cultural and religious re-closings. The planet is in crisis with all the possibilities, ones regressive and destructive, others stimulant and fertile, such as invention, creation, new solutions.
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