Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 10)

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This tenth and final property of wicked problems is quite different from the first nine. The first nine are all related to the nature of wicked problems. This one, 10. The planner has no right to be wrong, addresses the role of the planner or, more generally, anyone designated to “solve” the problem. At first, this rule may appear paradoxical. In solving ordinary or “tame” problems, as Rittel and Webber call them, the correctness of the solution is dictated by the accuracy of the analytic laws and the way they are applied. Presuming that the right choice of rules was made and the application was also correct, the resultant solution is the “right one.” If it fails to produce the desired results, the blame must go to the imperfect models that were used.

The blame lies in the nature of the process by which the models were determined. As R & W point out, the scientific method always creates conditional knowledge. The information gained by applying the “scientific method” take the form of hypotheses that appear to be “proven” by observation. When better tools become available or the boundaries are enlarged, the current set of rules are no longer accepted as “true.” That the world was flat was true until new observations found that it was wrong. Anyone using the current hypothesis made a mistake, but would not have committed an ethical breach. If a sailor expecting to fall off the edge of the Earth was surprised to return home after a trip around the world, the mapmaker was not the one to blame.

With wicked problems and complexity in general, the models and rules cannot be blamed for the failure of a solution to work as predicted. As many of the prior nine properties indicate, it is impossible to completely delineate a wicked problem or the models to use in crafting solutions. The solver cannot point to the outmoded character of the rules he or she used as the culprit. R & W state this case as:

We are thus led to conclude that the problems that planners must deal with are wicked and incorrigible ones, for they defy efforts to delineate their boundaries and to identify their causes, and thus to expose their problematic nature. The planner who works with open systems is caught up in the ambiguity of their causal webs. Moreover, his would-be solutions are confounded by a still further set of dilemmas posed by the growing pluralism of the contemporary publics, whose valuations of his proposals are judged against an array of different and contradicting scales.

The number of “publics” (stakeholders) is very large in issues connected to sustainability. One could argue that in the case of global sustainability, everyone on Earth is a stakeholder and will be affected by the decisions of those delegated to counter the present unsustainable trends. In the case of climate change, several distinct problem solvers have emerged. There are the deniers who would do nothing, except perhaps search for more efficiency in the system. Then, there are the technocrats who would seek innovative technical solutions, perhaps through geo-engineering. Those that would seek to change cultural behaviors constitute another class. If we ever make a social choice on the way to proceed to with climate change, the ones responsible for the new policies and activities will be responsible for the outcomes; they cannot blame the results on the models.

In the current scientistic, technological world, we do blame the people involved, but then excuse them if they can show the just were following the rules or should have known what the rules are. No such excuse can be invoked to absolve them when dealing with wicked problem. Our system of public responsible will continue to look for the guilty party and we will continue to exonerate them if the rules turn out to be insufficiently constituted. We are simply wasting our time and money in most cases.

The objective framework of the processes being used is the real culprit. Wicked problems demand a pragmatic framework in which the results are always understood to be conditional. There is no permanent hypothesis to refute, only the ones used in crafting the solution. If we accept the reality of this, we will begin to put skilled pragmatists in change of solving our big problems instead of people with some form of ideological, technocratic answers to every problem. We will advise these leaders, offering them the learnings from observers at different times, places, and scales, and will expect them to listen. We will base our assessments on them according to the fullness of their continuing attention and willingness to adopt changes.

Sustainability, the wickedest problem of all, demands the wisest of leaders and problem-solvers, not the smartest or most ideological. This doesn’t sound at all like our existing political system or the way our institutions work. It is time, long overdue, to consider how to change the frame for solving problems, the institutions, and stop looking only at the solutions, per se.

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