Wicked Problems Filtered Through Design

The twenty-first century finds itself in the middle of more rapid changes and technological leaps than ever before.   While many of these changes have lead to solutions in medicine, science, and business, none has yet moved humanity closer to solving the complex problems of basic human rights in areas such as healthcare and education.  This paper examines the nature of solving complex problems in the world of these complex systems and explores how design might better move society closer toward answers to these issues.

According to computer scientist Herb Simon, there are two types of problems in the world, well-structured problems (WSP) and ill-structured problems (ISP).  Well-structured problems cannot be concretely defined.  To be classified as well-structured, a problem must meet the six criteria Simon spells out in his article “The Structure of Ill Structured Problems.”  Among these are the ability to test a solution, the presence of a problem space, legal moves, knowledge with the context of one problem space, and a requirement that information needed for a solution is practically obtainable.  In simplistic terms, if a computer can look at all possible choices for a solution and solve that solution in a reasonable amount of time, the problem is well-structured.  A simple math problem, 2+2, meets the criteria for being a well-structured problem with a well-defined solution.  However, when one leaps to theoretical math and the world of proofs and theorems, a seemingly simple, well-defined problem becomes anything but.  At the outset, theorems or a chess game would “appear to offer the best examples of well-structuredness” (Simon 185).  The problem, however, lies in the fact that the problem space remains undefined.  For example in chess, a computer player cannot practically play out every possible move scenario.  The computational power needed exceeds current computer capabilities.  Instead, the computer chooses the best move out of many random options.  To play a chess game “require[s] immense numbers of applications of operators and tests for their solution, so that the total amount of computation required may be impractical” (Simon 184).  To be a WSP, a problem must be conceivably computational, and a chess game is not. With each move, the problem space is continually redefined, violating the requirement of a well-structured problem of one problem space.

In a WSP, the problem solver cannot introduce new resources to the problem space while trying to solve the problem.  If the solver does, the problem is at once ill-structured.  Similarly, when a problem solver uses knowledge from outside of a solution space, the problem becomes ill-structured.  For example, if one had a sheet of paper with all the names and shapes of the countries of the world and had the task of labeling all of the countries, a problem solver needs to gain knowledge from another space, namely a map or a globe.  Information from another problem space violates the principle of a WSP.   Simon goes on to say that “problems presented to problem solvers by the world are best regarded as ISPs” and that there are not WSP, but rather “ISPs that have been formalized for problem solvers.”

However, with that claim, Simon examines possibilities in which ill-structured problems might have solutions.  Indeed, it would appear that problems in our world do actually get solved.  If, like Chris Pacione claims in “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy” every problem is an ISP, then surely ill-structured problems must be tackled in the real world.  People manage to live productively. Simon proposes the example of an architect.  The nature of building a house is an ill-structured problem.  There is no way to test a proposed solution.  There is no definitive problem space because it would be impossible to look at all the possible structures imaginable using all imaginable materials.  The architect faces an ISP, and yet houses are built.  How?  The answer lies in adding constraints to the problem.  There are the internal constraints of the architect, the memory of what one desires to build and the architect’s stylistic choices.  External constraints also exist, for instance a budget and a timetable.  Once these constraints are in place, the architect breaks down the larger problem of building a house to small parts, for instance, a house is made up of a structure plus utilities.  A structure is made up of a frame and a foundation. A foundation is made up of concrete and steel reinforcement, etc.  This reductive process occurs until an architect has, in effect, a WSP.  The architect sees “the problem is well-structured in the small, but ill-structured in the large” (Simon 190).

Richard Buchanan adds a third category of problems, wicked problems, an idea borrowed from Rittel.  This category really is a subset of the ill-structured problem.  According to Rittle, wicked problems are 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 in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”  The aforementioned architect had the skills necessary to take an ill-structured problem and make it structured in the small, allowing the architect to end up building a house.  Wicked problems are more complex in that they involve social systems, people, which are inherently dynamic.  As soon as a designer defines a problems space and set of problems, the problem space has changed due to the social, people-centric nature of the space.  Whereas with a house, the architect knows when they have reached their goal and finished, in a wicked problem, the problem solver can never know that a problem is solved or if a solution is good or bad.  When is poverty eliminated?  Is not the poverty line merely a relative term based on one’s relation to the whole?  How then can these problems be approached?  Buchanan points out that these wicked problems are just an “amusing description of what confronts designers in every situation.”

What a designer really does is organize information and see new ways in which a problem can be framed using placements, repositioning an idea in a new light.  Looking at the world differently through a new placement is how a designer “intuitively or deliberately shapes a design situation, identifying the views of all participants, the issues which concern them, and the invention that will serve as a working hypothesis for exploration and development” (Buchanan 17).  What designers are paid for is their organization of information and their ability to frame a problem in their chosen subject matter.  This is a skill vital to solving the complex problems facing the world.  There is more information than ever on poverty, education, and healthcare, but information itself solves nothing.  It is in framing that information, discerning what is relevant and useful and then deciding how to approach a problem that is needed.  These are the exact skills that a designer brings to the table, and this is why design should be something everyone knows how to do.   If one cannot think critically about one’s world and know how to engage the information overloaded culture in a way that limits and frames problems, they will not succeed.  The ability to properly constrain a problem yet remain open to new ideas is a fundamental skill in the Post-Information Age.  Design is as fundamental as math and reading in the 21st century, and should therefore be included as a basic
liberal art.

To more clearly see why design is a liberal art of the 21st century requires an understanding of the concept of liberal arts.  Traditionally, liberal arts were essential subjects that needed to be learned for an individual to think critically about their world.  Richard Buchanan observes that “at their peak…these subject matters provided an integrated understanding of human experience and the array of available knowledge” (Buchanan 5).  Upon further reflection into the nature of liberal arts, their purpose is to frame the world in such a way that it can be reflected upon and analyzed.  For example, a core liberal art, philosophy, asks fundamental questions about life and the world, questions that are currently unsolvable and therefore wicked problems.  Over the centuries, many different philosophies have attempted to answer these questions.  It is interesting to note, however, that the liberal arts cannot be studied on their own.  Attempting to understand the recent philosophical trends of Deconstructionalism requires a grounding in intellectual history.  In fact, without an understanding of the context in which Derrida’s ideas of Deconstructionism emerged, it is impossible to understand his critique of the world.  Philosophy is irrelevant outside of its historical context.  Similarly, to even begin to understand Derrida’s deconstructionalist view of the world into signs and signifiers requires that one understand language’s structure in the first place.  Therefore, a foundation in another liberal art, here language, is required to understand and think about the world.  Not only that, but thinking in one liberal art enhances and informs thinking in another.  All of the liberal arts depend on one another, and while separated into different subjects and disciplines, at their core, liberal arts are the basic tools to think critically about the world and provide a context through which to approach problems.

Seen through the lens of problem solving, design emerges as a liberal art of the “Contextual Age.”  The sheer pervasiveness of technology demands that one have the ability to think critically about it and approach complex problems deeply intertwined in technological systems.  Design, like history or philosophy or language, provides another frame through which to look at the world, another way to frame the problem.  While no one has definitely solved humanity’s philosophical quandaries and definitively solved philosophical problems such as life’s meaning, the liberal arts have allowed for a reframing of the question, a way to understand it, to break it down into more manageable chunks.  The liberal arts have allowed us to approach the world more thoughtfully, more aware, more engaged, and more alive.  Similarly, while no one knows the answer to whether the wicked problems of the world like education, healthcare, and poverty will be solved, design offers new possibilities and skills to examine those problems, to enrich our understanding not only of solutions, but of thinking about the problems.  It is in this richness and approach that design finds itself the emerging liberal art in the “Conceptual Age.” Even though design may not solve these wicked problems, it makes life richer and provides new ways of looking at the world through placement.  The hope is that maybe, new perspectives on wicked problems, informed by the new liberal art of design, produce new solutions.  After all, no one can know what solutions and hope may emerge in the future, for the future is a new problem space.

6 thoughts on “Wicked Problems Filtered Through Design”

Buchanan was in savannah for two conferences, he uses two words to describe wicked problems. “they are essentially contexted.” in addition, bob(my professor at scad) illustrated a diagram putting down none wicked problem to wicked problem, and small problem to big problem. It was an interesting platform to explore.

Yushi – Might you have a copy of that diagram or could you sketch it out? I’d be interested in seeing this visual representation.

Can you unpack “essentially contexted”? By this was Buchanan meaning they can be solved within certain contexts? What would the criteria for that be?

Kat, I believe that you can make significant progress on wicked problems by constraining them. Then you make incremental progress(es) by solving aspects of the wicked problems. That is essentially what I think by context. Thorough context, any problem can be defined as wicked or well-defined. If you compare the structure, you see that the well-defined problem structure has constraints to plug in holes. Maybe well-defined problems are in a way subsets of wicked problems. Good paper.


Saranyan – You wrote “you can make significant progress on wicked problems by constraining them.” If the problem is wicked, how can you judge if any progress has been made?

That is my point – you have to constrain the problem to a reasonable leave and then judge the progress. Progress is tough to evaluate unless we know what the closure is.

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