Wholesome Design for Wicked Problems (82)

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Horst Rittel coined the term "wicked problem" as a corrective to the rationalist approach to planning and design of large-scale systems. This approach can be summarized as the process of fully and explicitly laying out goals, assumptions, and constraints of a problem situation, generating and evaluating alternative solutions, and expecting that the preferred solution will emerge clearly, backed by good reasons. The hope was that objective, data-driven analytical approaches would provide a broadly applicable toolkit for solving large-scale social and environmental problems. Rittel saw that this hope was doomed, because the problem situations could not be defined in agreed, unchanging ways. These problems are intrinsically ill-defined, and attempts to define them are already actions which reshape the problem and inevitably commit the analyst to a course of problem-solving which omits legitimate alternatives. There are, however, ways forward. The first is to shift the goal of action on significant problems from "solution" to "intervention." Instead of seeking just the right moves to eliminate a problem once and for all, one should recognize that actions occur in an ongoing process, in which further actions will be needed. The intervention mentality recognizes that situations tend to continue, even if their form changes radically. Text & Image: Rob Knapp