Facing Complexity: Wicked Design Problems

In his seminal article ‘Wicked Problems in Design Thinking’, Richard Buchanan emphasized that designers often engage in conceiving and planning “what does not yet exist, and this occurs in the context of indeterminacy of wicked problems” (Buchanan, 1995, p.17). He calls design thinking the “new liberal art of technological culture” (Buchanan, 1995, p.3) and points towards its potential in integrating the knowledge of the natural, social and humanistic sciences into adequate solutions to the wicked problems of design.

Richard Buchanan (Image not in PhD)

Based on the work of Horst Rittel in the 1960s (see Kunz & Rittel, 1970, Rittel and Weber, 1973), Buchanan suggests that most of the problems faced by designers are such wicked problems, defined by Rittel as “a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications of the whole system are thoroughly confusing” (in Buchanan, 1995, p.14).

I would expand that definition to include not only social system problems in isolation, but also the problems associated with the reciprocal effects between social systems and natural systems that provide the basis for their existence. Since the only true constant in natural process is change, social and ecological manifestations of this process are also subject to constant transformation and adaptation.

This graphic is not from my PhD thesis, but I added it here as it offers a visual summary of the complexity of wicked problems. (Source: CMU Transition Design, Irwin & Kossoff based on Rittle & Webber 1973)

Sustainability will therefore have to be based on a constant process of locally adapted, community based learning. Both, how we think about and relate to reality, as well as the resulting social and ecological interactions and relationships we engage in are aspects that need to be addressed when dealing with the wicked problems of design.

In other words, wicked problems are real world problems that acknowledge the complex interdependence of diverse factors and stakeholders, rather than simplistic, linear cause and effect abstractions that isolate the product of design from its context.

When we face up to the magnificent complexity of the natural processes that contains culture and all human design, and begin to search for the appropriate and sustainable way to participate in such complexity, all design decisions are recognized as wicked problems. While Rittel may initially have used the term wicked problems mainly in the context of human social systems, it is necessary to extend this terminology from how humans relate with each other to include how they relate to natural processes and the wider community of life.

Richard Coyne (Image not in PhD)

To do so effectively we have to also acknowledge that different epistemological and ontological positions may frame a different view of the wicked problems we face. While different worldviews and value-systems may lead people to argue from seemingly opposing positions, the most appropriate strategy to respond to wicked problems is to aim for integral solutions that transcend and include a wide variety of different perspectives. Richard Coyne recently reviewed a number of different intellectual positions influencing design, in ‘Wicked problems revisited’ (Coyne, 2005).

Wicked problems persist, and are subject to redefinition and resolution in different ways over time. Wicked problems are not objectively given but their formulation already depends on the viewpoint of those presenting them. There is no ultimate test of the validity of solutions to a wicked problem. The testing of solutions takes place in some practical context, and the solutions are not easily undone. — Richard Coyne, 2005, p.6

Among the emerging holistic sciences, the theory of complex dynamic systems has come furthest in providing an appropriate metaphorical framework that can be used to gain a deeper understanding of the wickedly complex dynamics of richly connected systems. Any system with more than three interacting variables is such a complex system. All of them are characterized by fundamental unpredictability and uncontrollability beyond a very limited temporal and spatial scale.

Later, I will discuss the extent to which sustainable design can be informed, in part, by a theoretical foundation provided by the holistic sciences. At this point the issue is simply to recognize that some design practitioners and theorists are beginning to explore how design can proceed in full recognition of unpredictability and uncontrollability in a wickedly complex and fundamentally interconnected context (e.g. Jonas. 2003; Wahl, 2005b).

If design solutions are understood within the wider social and ecological context provided by the complex dynamic systems, like communities, ecosystems or political organizations, in which they participate, it becomes possible to appreciate the indeterminacy of the diverse effects a design solution may have in these systems.

Identifying design as the activity that structures experience and expresses human intention through interactions and relationships, both materially and immaterially, can help us to become more conscious of the effects of our actions. It also emphasizes the omni-presence of either conscious or un-aware design in everything we do. Such an understanding can provide a point of departure from which we can begin the long process of learning how to participate appropriately in the natural processes that maintain the health of the biosphere and therefore are preconditions for a sustainable human culture. Design has both the power and responsibility of shaping the future experiences of humanity.

Prof. Wolfgang Jonas (image not in PhD thesis)

The German design theoretician Professor Wolfgang Jonas suggested a “new role for design: more modest and more arrogant” in response to being faced with “the paradox situation of increasing manipulative power through science and technology and, at the same time, decreasing prognostic control of its social consequences” (Jonas, 2003).

My response: “More arrogant, as we expand the concept of design to encompass all human decision making and action and thereby recognize its creative power … ; and more modest, in the sense that we abandon the arrogance of believing that human ingenuity empowered by science and technology, will provide designers with the tools to fix even the gravest mistakes. Lost cultures and lost ecosystems are gone forever, plutonium stays carcinogenic for 40,000 years, lost topsoil takes millennia to regenerate [sic.2017 I now know better, see Terra Preta and activated biochar etc], and changes in the atmospheric composition affect climate patterns for millions of years” (Wahl, 2005b).

Jonas suggests that faced with unpredictability and uncontrollability design needs to fully accept the limits of the knowable and “instead of expanding the islands of apparent scientific rationality (which frequently turn out to be unsafe), we [need to] cross the border from knowing to not-knowing. And, on this side of the border, we can determine (with scientific underpinning!) the areas of safe non-predictability” (Jonas, 2003).

To give an example: While it is impossible to predict at what atmospheric concentration of CO2 the associated climate change would make the planet uninhabitable for human beings, a reasonable estimate for an island of safe non-predictability would be to reduce emissions to stabilize concentrations at less than twice those observed prior to the Industrial Revolution [sic. 2017: I have learned a lot since and am now conviced that we can return to preindustrial ppm of CO2 in the Atmosphere in less than 70 years if we apply Project Drawdown techniques and a general biosequestration, soil remediation and reforestation programm adapted to local conditions every where … see also oxalate asisted carbon burial].

In a recent paper presented at the European Academy of Design Conference on Design System Evolution in Bremen, I have suggested that Jonas’ statement above “could be regarded as the essence of the precautionary principle that should guide science, design and politics alike.” I described this precautionary principle as follows:

If we cannot predict the outcome of a certain action, but the possibility remains that it may have potentially disastrous side effects, we should refrain from that action, or, at the very least, experiment on a scale and with the appropriate measures of protection that would keep negative effects to an absolute minimum. It is time to drop old habits of indiscriminate and worldwide application of what is technically possible and economically marketable. — Daniel Wahl, 2005b, p.6

Precaution cannot always lead to inactivity in the face of fundamental uncontrollability and unpredictability. Jonas is right in pointing out that there are situations in which we will have to act despite the fact that we cannot predict with certainty that our actions will not have negative effects (personal comment, 2004).

In learning to find design solutions to wicked problems with all their social and ecological interconnectedness, we will have to carefully establish guidelines of risk management. These have to be informed by a holistic perspective that encompasses possibly conflicting viewpoints of many different disciplines and sectors of society. Such a trans- disciplinary dialogue-based perspective negotiates the tension between advance and precaution.

Science, albeit a crucially important informant for sustainable decision-making, can not simultaneously act as arbiter and ultimate authority, since the interdependence of social, ecological, ethical and spiritual considerations of survival value to the human species may otherwise be overlooked. The same holds for economics. Reductionist science and economics are extremely quantity-biased in their perception and assessment of situations and often miss important qualitative aspects of existence.

By reducing complex patterns of interactions to a set of analytically measurable variables, they often over-simplify the true complexity of the processes in which we participate and disregard the pattern that connects the local with the global, or economic with ecological and social concerns. Unfortunately, both science and economics have adopted a strategy of discrediting quality focused knowledge systems in favour of a purely analytical, quantifiable and measurable, and thus necessarily limited understanding of reality. To rely solely on input from within the reductionist scientific or economic worldview is bad meta-design, and will not yield sustainable solutions!

Design offers both a process of tentatively and carefully finding solutions, and a methodology of basing such solutions on as widely and inclusively informed a knowledge base as possible. At the nexus of values, attitudes, needs and action, the designer, or more precisely the process of designing offers the potential for acting as a transdisciplinary integrator and facilitator.

Community- and studio-based, participatory ‘designing for real’ can serve to integrate the concerns and contributions of diverse stakeholders and disciplines and acknowledge the valid contributions that can be made from within different epistemological positions. As we are beginning to face up to the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the complex systems in which we participate, the certainty of being either right or wrong that turns dialogue into argument dissolves into the collective search for appropriate participation and the avoidance of inappropriate actions that limit our options in the future.

One way to manage the risk of taking socially or ecologically disruptive design decisions is to pay more attention to the complex interconnectedness that characterizes life in the 21st century. All designs have to be considered in a much wider spatial and temporal context. With everything we do, we have to become aware that we are simultaneously affecting change at both the global and the local scale, and that our actions do not always have immediate effects but nevertheless may reverberate their effects over generations and in far away regions of the planet.

To give an example: Designing a new energy infrastructure based on nuclear power will result in an exponential growth in nuclear waste-production and the accumulation of materials that are damaging to most life forms over many millennia. Considering the issue in too limited a context may persuade people that nuclear power could slow down climate change, yet this would be another short-sighted and irresponsible design suggestion (see chapter five). Human beings can learn to become conscious and responsible co-designers of the world in which they participate, through increasing their awareness of the multi-causal and time-delayed effects of any action in a universe where everything is connected to everything else.

Tony Fry (Image not in PhD)

Tony Fry has pointed out that we have not paid enough attention to the fact that “every design decision and form has an ongoing directional outcome — the designed always goes on designing.” He emphasizes that our materialized designs of the present map the future “usually by a noninterrogated reoccurrence”(Fry, 1995, p.191).

The ecological, social and economic limits of a planet with finite resources and a human population approaching seven billion will force us to re-consider a large part of the design decisions that have shaped modern society, including the meta-design of our values and attitudes towards each other and nature.

Many of the design decisions of the past are still contributing to the design of our world today, but they do so in a thoroughly unsustainable way. We have to carefully reconsider even the most ingrained design habits in the light of their sustainability and in the context of all the scales of design from local to global, and over a variety of time scales.

In a brilliant article, entitled ‘How Not To Parachute More Cats’, Hunter and Amory Lovins (Lovins & Lovins, 1995) warn that one of the crucial lessons for decision makers and designers of any kind is to understand the interconnectedness and interactions between the various challenges that are facing us. Not to pay attention to the possible feed-back loops and vicious and virtuous cycles that connect culture and nature into one complex dynamic process can lead us to propose solutions that turn out to be the root causes of even graver problems in the future.

To illustrate this point, Lovins and Lovins tell the story of an attempt made by strategic planners of the World Health Organization to eradicate malaria in the region of the Dayak people on Borneo. The initial ‘solution’ was to spray the toxin DDT over large areas in order to kill the mosquitoes that carry the plasmodium parasite which causes malaria. This led to a brief success, the cases of malaria reduced drastically after the mosquito population died. But, a series of side effects began to spiral out of control. First, the roofs of people’s houses collapsed as the DDT had also killed a certain parasitic wasp, which had prayed on thatch-eating caterpillars. Then, as the DDT poison began to accumulate up the food chain, all the cats in the area died due to feeding on geckoes, which had eaten the DDT-poisoned insects. This in turn lead to a rapid increase in the populations of rats in the region and the Dayak people were suddenly faced with a severe threat of sylvatic plague and typhus. This forced the World Health Organization to take the rather grotesque measure of dropping 14,000 live cats by parachute over the forests of Borneo (Lovins & Lovins, 1995, p.3).

This story can be considered a metaphorical warning for all designers: Consider the effects of your actions well, and be prepared for surprises. Design has to face up to the complex dynamics of natural process that includes all cultural process, which in turn includes the complex dynamics of social processes and human participation in local and global ecosystems.

Fritjof Capra (Image not in PhD)

Fritjof Capra suggests: “The main task in this century will be to apply our ecological knowledge and systemic thinking to the fundamental redesign of our technologies and social institutions, so as to bridge the gap between human design and the ecologically sustainable systems of nature” (Capra, 2001, p.40). Natural, ecological, and salutogenic design tries to learn from nature how to integrate more effectively into nature’s natural process (see chapter three).

Victor Margolin (Image not in PhD)

Design is neither science nor is it art, but in its integrative role it can act as and be informed by either. Victor Margolin suggests “design occupies a strategic position between the sphere of dispositional ethics and the sphere of social change.” He argues: “design is the activity that generates plans, projects, and products. It produces tangible results that can serve as demonstrations of or arguments for how we might live. Design is continuously inventing its subject matter, so it is not limited by outworn categories of products. The world expects new things from designers. That is the nature of design” (Margolin, 2002, p.88).

It is time for designers — and all humans are designers to some extent — to think out of the box and assume responsibility of the effects or their actions. I thoroughly agree with Victor Margolin in that design is critically placed to shift society towards more sustainable practices. This thesis hopes to provide at least a partial reply to the following challenge posed by Margolin:

The question we face is how to widen design’s traditional sphere of action from manufacture to a more proactive involvement with the problematíque of the Club of Rome and other groups who are concerned with the world situation. By following this course, designers can seek through the art of demonstration to reconcile the best aspects of the sustainability and expansion models and thereby make an important contribution to the fruitful continuance of life on Planet Earth (Margolin, 2002, p.89).

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

This is not in my thesis, but it is to the point. (image)

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Daniel Christian Wahl

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Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors