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Synthesize: Are Wicked Problems Solvable?

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010 | Posted by Jon Kolko

[Background: I'm in Sweden, acting as the Entrepreneur in Residence at Malmo University]

We had a successful first Synthesize discussion at MEDEA, in which we asked and attempted to answer: Are Wicked Problems Solvable?

The conversation identified that there are a number of ways of addressing Wicked Problems, and because of the scope and scale of these problems, it is likely a combination of approaches that will offer the most benefit. Designers are drawn to these problems likely because of the long relationship between design and problem solving; many designers consider themselves problem solvers first and stylists second. There are several design-specific commonalities of wicked problems that distinguish these from more typical artifact-based design problems (“design a chair” or “design a new website”).

  1. In wicked problems, the number of stakeholders are larger, and frequently, these stakeholders have competing (and often illogical) goals. For example, consider a seemingly positive activity like bringing computing power to African students – something at the heart of the OLPC project. The solution of OLPC touches at least the following stakeholders: the governments of each country involved (in Africa, this includes Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, and South Africa); the World Economic Forum; Quanta Computers (the ODM for the computer); the UN Development Program; fuse-project (the designer of the hardware); Pentagram (the designer of the software); MIT Media Lab (the originating educational research institution); Fedora/Red Hat (the operating system); and many, many more. The likelihood of alignment between these agencies is low without a tremendous amount of facilitation, project management, and personal appeasement by a centralized coordinating agency.
  2. The content is politically charged. The OLPC is an example of a placement-shift, where the expected and obvious form of the solution is purposefully altered. One assumes that, in countries with massive poverty, the best forms of aid are water and food. Yet the OLPC project ignores both of these, characterizing them as short-term solutions to larger problems. Instead, education is necessary in order to drive self-sufficiency; it’s the “teach a man to fish” adage, embodied in silicon. This is, obviously, highly controversial. In fact, the OLPC site has an entire section on their website dedicated to refuting what they call a myth that “You’re forcing this on poverty stricken areas that need food, water and housing rather than a laptop“; in their refutation, they state that “It is difficult to argue that education is not a necessary component to poverty reduction, probably being more effective than food donations or development aid; it is even more difficult to argue that children can be taught without books.” Negroponte addresses this directly in an interview with 60 Minutes:

    Leslie Stahl: You go into countries in which there may not be enough food, where the children may not have good enough education to even teach them to read; why a laptop? It almost sounds like a luxury for these people who need so much more than that.Nicholas Negroponte: Let me take two countries: Pakistan and Nigeria. 50% of the children in both those countries are not in school.Leslie Stahl: At all?Nicholas Negroponte: At all. They have no schools, they don’t even have trees under which a teacher might stand.Leslie Stahl: You’re saying give them a laptop even if they don’t go to school?Nicholas Negroponte: Especially if they don’t go to school! If they don’t go to school, this is school in a box.

  3. There are more significant repercussions of both good and bad actions. Speaking directly to design judgment, this becomes a barometer to gauge impact. By designing coffee mugs and shoes and cars, we design behavior implicitly and in a diffused fashion. By designing for impact and addressing wicked problems, we design behavior explicitly and in a direct manner.

I look forward to unpacking this a bit more on Friday, at my MEDEA talk this Friday, and then throughout the remainder of the discussion series. The next discussion is scheduled for Tuesday, May 11th, at 1pm. The topic will be “What is the role of prototyping in the context of a large-scale social problem?

See you there :)

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[Crosspost to the MEDEA Blog]

There are a number of ways of addressing Wicked Problems, and because of the scope and scale of these problems, it is likely a combination of approaches that will offer the most benefit. Designers are drawn to these problems likely because of the long relationship between design and problem solving; many designers consider themselves problem solvers first and stylists second. There are several design-specific commonalities of wicked problems that distinguish these from more typical artifact-based design problems (“design a chair” or “design a new website”).

1. In wicked problems, the number of stakeholders are larger, and frequently, these stakeholders have competing (and often illogical) goals. For example, consider a seemingly positive activity like bringing computing power to African students – something at the heart of the OLPC project. The solution of OLPC touches at least the following stakeholders: the governments of each country involved (in Africa, this includes Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique, and South Africa); the World Economic Forum; Quanta Computers (the ODM for the computer); the UN Development Program; fuse-project (the designer of the hardware); Pentagram (the designer of the software); MIT Media Lab (the originating educational research institution); Fedora/Red Hat (the operating system); and many, many more. The likelihood of alignment between these agencies is low without a tremendous amount of facilitation, project management, and personal appeasement by a centralized coordinating agency.

2. The content is politically charged. The OLPC is an example of a placement-shift, where the expected and obvious form of the solution is purposefully altered. One assumes that, in countries with massive poverty, the best forms of aid are water and food. Yet the OLPC project ignores both of these, characterizing them as short-term solutions to larger problems. Instead, education is necessary in order to drive self-sufficiency; it’s the “teach a man to fish” adage, embodied in silicon. This is, obviously, highly controversial. In fact, the OLPC site has an entire section on their website dedicated to refuting what they call a myth that “You’re forcing this on poverty stricken areas that need food, water and housing rather than a laptop”; in their refutation, they state that “It is difficult to argue that education is not a necessary component to poverty reduction, probably being more effective than food donations or development aid; it is even more difficult to argue that children can be taught without books.” [http://wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_myths#You.27re_forcing_this_on_poverty_stricken_areas_that_need_food.2C_water_and_housing_rather_than_a_laptop.] Negroponte addresses this directly in an interview with 60 Minutes:

Leslie Stahl: You go into countries in which there may not be enough food, where the children may not have good enough education to even teach them to read; why a laptop? It almost sounds like a luxury for these people who need so much more than that.

Nicholas Negroponte: Let me take two countries: Pakistan and Nigeria. 50% of the children in both those countries are not in school.

Leslie Stahl: At all?

Nicholas Negroponte: At all. They have no schools, they don’t even have trees under which a teacher might stand.

Leslie Stahl: You’re saying give them a laptop even if they don’t go to school?

Nicholas Negroponte: Especially if they don’t go to school! If they don’t go to school, this is school in a box.

[http://www.olpctalks.com/nicholas_negroponte/olpc_60_minutes_interview.html]

3. There are more significant repercussions of both good and bad actions. Speaking directly to design judgment, this becomes a barometer to gauge impact. By designing coffee mugs and shoes and cars, we design behavior implicitly and in a diffused fashion. By designing for impact and addressing wicked problems, we design behavior explicitly and in a direct manner.

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