Wicked Problems

insoluble After my post yesterday, I got a comment that my argument that pragmatism is the only framework for dealing with the always messy problems of real life is mistaken. Mike argued that pragmatism can lead only to fallible truths or propositions and any absolute-sounding such as I made is self-contradictory in this sense. I agree, but only on the surface. It does sound paradoxical, but I still believe it is true in a pragmatic sense. For me, I cannot see a better way to go. Pragmatism does work in complex situations. Any other formulation or philosophical basis I know about always comes back to being a form of pragmatism, methodologically (proceeding on the basis of relevant experience) and accepting the contingency and fallibility of any resultant knowledge.

The title of this post comes from a classic 1973 article by two planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. They introduced the phrase, “wicked problems,” and provided a procedure to deal with them. (I posted a series starting here on this subject in 2011.) One of the key aspects of their arguments is that wicked problems are always part of a larger context,and that any solution is contingent. They never used the word, pragmatism, but it is there at the heart of the paper. Russell Ackoff wrote extensively about “messes,” similarly to Rittel and Webber, and argued that research was essential to dealing with them. Research was his phrase for an inquiry another key feature of pragmatic problem solving. The most widely acclaimed and copied manufacturing methodology, the Toyota Production System, is pragmatic at heart.

I have not done any deep digging to respond to Mike’s comment, but the systemic methodologies for dealing with complexity I know are all adaptations of or other names for pragmatism. David Brooks, in his column today (10/26/12) in the New York Times serendipitously offers yet another variant. He writes about being a political “moderate” and what that means. I can substitute the word “pragmatism” at virtually every place “moderate” is used without changing anything.

Here are a few parts of his column. I have bolded the places where it is tightly aligned with pragmatic concepts.:

Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books [the role of experience], not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.

This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.

The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension.

… Moderation is also a distinct ethical disposition. Just as the moderate suspects imbalance in the country, so she suspects it in herself. She distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity and admires self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise.

I thank Brooks for his attempt to de-stigmatize moderation in political life. His central theme is what I referred to yesterday as meliorism belief that we can intervene in the real world with the objective to move toward the ends we value. He is helping the cause of pragmatism whether he is aware of that or not. Pragmatism, whatever word is used, shows up in many quarters of life without any stigma given to it by extremists. Extremist is just another word for someone completely driven by their ideological beliefs.

I can point to many example of pragmatism in action. A few follow. “Pragmatic planning,” has been an important theme in that field ever since “wicked problems” changed the tenor away for technocratic programs. Technocratic is an ideological approach at heart, arguing that scientifically derived solutions will provide the optimal outcome. Maybe for small problems, but not for the complex world of cities and similar contexts. We hear a lot about experiential learning as an alternative to the generally didactic framework of our schools. Again pragmatism in another suit of clothes. There’s lots more. Political talk and policy-making entail these complex situations and others, but generally fails to incorporate “pragmatic truths” that are aimed at action and success. Too bad for us.

| | Comments (1)

« Previous Entry   Next Entry »

1 Comments

Mike Tennant said:

hi John,
I'm very much in agreement with you that pragmatism is the best way to deal with these issues. Of course, applying pragmatism to that sentence we have to say "the best way so far" and admit the possibility that it ain't necessarily so.

This, I believe, is the key challenge for pragmatism and for us as pragmatists. Our Westernised world is by and large inured to desire Truth, or timeless solutions to issues that have no easily discernible root causes. To propose a democratically negotiated solution that, to the best of our knowledge, should result in a better way forward, is hence a tricky proposition. The response that one of my students gave me, on appreciating the consequences of framing sustainability and social issues as wicked problems, was "I want my money back!" (as I haven't been sued yet, I realise that he was joking...)

When Dewey wrote about "creative democracy" he saw a world where people should hold different views and should come together in productive debate with others holding opposing views. People actively wanting to engage with others in public dialogue and negotiate a world that is "less cruel", as Rorty adds. I believe that this is the challenge of our time: not necessarily to be a moderate, but to appreciate that the best way forward is together while holding individual beliefs that could, and probably should, be drastically different.

Mike