Universal education in design thinking is essential for effectively tackling wicked problems

Complex problems facing us today come in all shapes and forms. Herb Simon provided a powerful framework of dividing these problems into well structured (WSP) and ill structured (ISP) problems. We will proceed to think about complex problems with the help of illustrations to understand better challenges that face us while trying to solve complex problems. For example, mapping the Human Genome is a WSP while designing the road network of a city is an ISP.

Criterion of a Well Structured Problem Human Genome Project Designing Road Network of a city
Definite Criterion for testing any proposed solution
The problem state, the goal state and transient states
“Legal moves” can be defined
Knowledge acquired can be represented
Solution moves take into account real world constraints
Solution requires practicable amounts of problem-solving ability

The biggest problems facing humanity today like health, energy, food security, waste management etc, are special forms of ISPs which Horst Rittel has termed as Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are different from standard ISPs in that they also have added dimensions of conflicting stake holder intentions/value systems and dynamic dimensions, constraints and success criteria. As an example, the problem of primary education in poorer communities has no definitive criteria for testing the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. The issue is further confounded by the varied and potentially conflicting goals and values of parents, students, teachers and state officials.

As a society we have been focused on building professionals like lawyers, engineers, accountants, doctors, designers, teachers etc with their formative universal education comprising purely science and arts. Such professionals are what Pacione defines as masters who are production literate, good at execution, proof-based deductive thinking and perfecting algorithms. They are very well equipped to take on WSPs which as expressed by Simon can generally be “automatically” solved by brute-force approaches or through more optimized problem solving approaches like search, sort and other algorithmic methods. However, wicked problems are elusive with numerous possible approaches and require understanding of qualitative, subjective and often changing criterion of success. When faced with indeterminate problems like this, our traditional way of creating professionals sets us up for failure.

As rightly observed by Buchanan, design thinking tends to be universal in scope and it can be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, one must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with disciplines of science which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing problems that are more fully determinate. Thus we believe when design thinking is incorporated into universal education with other subjects like maths, science, history, language, literature and philosophy rather than just being specialized professional training at varsity levels as it exists right now, we will empower the professionals we create as a society with much better capacity to tackle wicked problems facing us.
For example, traditional methods of education used in lower income communities have resulted in very low enrolment, high dropout rates, limited literacy and large populations of unskilled labour. In more recent years, private individuals who are not traditional educators have made significant inroads into delivery of education to the ones who need it the most. These include Ben Dublin-Thaler who designed a carbon-neutral BioBus which brings science lessons to communities that do not have the proper equipment to teach the subject matter, The Khan Academy which has delivered 81 million lessons covering multiple areas of focus and is now supported by Bill Gates, and Savera which provides classes tailored for the working children in the slums of Ahmedabad, India. Such approaches would not have been possible without the application of design thinking.

Success achieved by these non-educators in the field of education points to the value of Including design thinking as an essential component of universal education which will enable our society to tackle complex problems with greater competence. This resonates Paciione’s feelings on design being too important to be just left to just designers as practitioners.

– Written by Samir and Ben

Complex problems facing us today come in all shapes and forms. Herb Simon provided a powerful framework of dividing these problems into well structured (WSP) and ill structured (ISP) problems. We will proceed to think about complex problems with the help of illustrations to understand better challenges that face us while trying to solve complex problems. For example, mapping the Human Genome is a WSP while designing the road network of a city is an ISP.

Criterion of a Well Structured Problem Human Genome Project Designing Road Network of a city
Definite Criterion for testing any proposed solution
The problem state, the goal state and transient states
“Legal moves” can be defined
Knowledge acquired can be represented
Solution moves take into account real world constraints
Solution requires practicable amounts of problem-solving ability

The biggest problems facing humanity today like health, energy, food security, waste management etc, are special forms of ISPs which Horst Rittel has termed as Wicked Problems (WPs). WPs are different from standard ISPs in that they also have added dimensions of conflicting stake holder intentions/value systems and dynamic dimensions, constraints and success criteria. As an example, the problem of primary education in poorer communities has no definitive criteria for testing the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. The issue is further confounded by the varied and potentially conflicting goals and values of parents, students, teachers and state officials.

As a society we have been focused on building professionals like lawyers, engineers, accountants, doctors, designers, teachers etc with their formative universal education comprising purely science and arts. Such professionals are what Pacione defines as masters who are production literate, good at execution, proof-based deductive thinking and perfecting algorithms. They are very well equipped to take on WSPs which as expressed by Simon can generally be “automatically” solved by brute-force approaches or through more optimized problem solving approaches like search, sort and other algorithmic methods. However, wicked problems are elusive with numerous possible approaches and require understanding of qualitative, subjective and often changing criterion of success. When faced with indeterminate problems like this, our traditional way of creating professionals sets us up for failure.

As rightly observed by Buchanan, design thinking tends to be universal in scope and it can be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, one must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with disciplines of science which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing problems that are more fully determinate. Thus we believe when design thinking is incorporated into universal education with other subjects like maths, science, history, language, literature and philosophy rather than just being specialized professional training at varsity levels as it exists right now, we will empower the professionals we create as a society with much better capacity to tackle wicked problems facing us.

For example, traditional methods of education used in lower income communities have resulted in very low enrolment, high dropout rates, limited literacy and large populations of unskilled labour. In more recent years, private individuals who are not traditional educators have made significant inroads into delivery of education to the ones who need it the most. These include Ben Dublin-Thaler who designed a carbon-neutral BioBus which brings science lessons to communities that do not have the proper equipment to teach the subject matter, The Khan Academy which has delivered 81 million lessons covering multiple areas of focus and is now supported by Bill Gates, and Savera which provides classes tailored for the working children in the slums of Ahmedabad, India. Such approaches would not have been possible without the application of design thinking.

Success achieved by these non-educators in the field of education points to the value of Including design thinking as an essential component of universal education which will enable our society to tackle complex problems with greater competence. This resonates Paciione’s feelings on design being too important to be just left to just designers as practitioners.