Transparency, Trust and Agency in Recycling
Mapping a Wicked Problem
As students who recently moved to the city of Pittsburgh, we were confronted by the lack of recycling infrastructure in the city. Despite the legal obligation, several of our landlords are currently not providing recycling for tenants. We began mapping the issue from our perspective, tracing the relationships between landlords and tenants, and then expanding the map to include the larger social and commercial structures that encompass these interactions. This allowed us to identify leverage points in the system, and uncovered greater thematic issues of lack of trust, transparency, and agency.
What we found particularly interesting is that these thematic issues (trust, transparency, and agency) were distributed throughout every category that we explored, from the micro interactions with landlords to the more macro interactions between companies and consumers. This was indicative of the unequal power dynamic between individuals and systems. We found that even after individuals carry out ‘ecologically sound decisions’ there is no feedback loop to visually inform them of their impact on the system. This contributes to the overarching lack of trust on all levels that we explored, and allowed us to locate specific leverage points.
Our Process started from our perspective and needs as a tenant who wishes to recycle. We began by aggregating all the elements that were part of our experiences and spent the bulk of our time debating the benign organization of those concepts.
Organizing and mapping the system raised several questions about the activity and the system itself. As mentioned above, the first of which was deciding how to sort and group the elements of the system. Then, we worked to establish a clear visual hierarchy to ensure that the connection emerged as more prominent than the artificial groupings we had devised. Like any good “wicked” problem, we also struggle to find a good stopping point. It was also a challenge to incorporate the diversity of perspectives present as well as acknowledge the limitations of our own in understanding recycling as a social, cultural, and technical system.
When we presented the map in class, Ahmed Ansari mentioned that we might explore how to make the power dynamics between actors more explicit. By by changing or strengthening power dynamics between players leverage points can be formulated. One thing that was also mentioned during the discussion was that the map highlights the relationship between socio-cultural narratives and technical systems.