Transparency, Trust and Agency in Recycling

Mapping a Wicked Problem

Lisa Otto
Lisa Otto
Jan 19, 2016 · 3 min read

Map & Summary by Lisa Otto, Sarah Foley, Hannah Rosenfeld, and catherineoldershaw.

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.

Image for post
Image for post


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.

Transition Design

Discussions, explorations, and reflections.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store