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.


Co-existence is the one word that defines the entire Indian social dynamics. It is the mantra to survive. Be it for an entrepreneur, an office goer, cricket mom (pun intended), student or a child. You need to learn to co-exist in this place. Rather, it should be the way of life. If you can do it, it is rather fun to live here. Every day there are new things to be observed and explored. You can choose to get amazed or frustrated. It is a choice. Lot of people stereotype a place like
Them it… Ordered think soft greatestpharmacy.com store online kind not recharge I’ve: dry the.

India to be chaotic. It is true. But, what chaos does is NOT MESS up the system but SHAKE IT up. This is a big difference. When things get shaken up, it looks similar to being messed up. It appears that the basic public services that we take for granted in United States appear to be broken in India. But, maybe it is not broken. It is just our perception. Maybe, we need to deeply plug ourselves into the chaos to see what the reality is.



Pitch the ball..literally!

hen I was in Dubai, in an unexpected turn of events I got invited to a party through my brother-in-law. The guests of honor were popular cricket players. Apart from it being an amazing experience to hang out with the cricket players I watched growing up, there was a particular moment I enjoyed most – Delivering an impromptu pitch!

I talked to Venkatesh Prasad, the former bowling coach for the Indian Cricket team. I had an idea in my mind that I had worked little bit on about an assistive sporting device. I pitched my idea to him. Just like that! Actually, I did a great job. Much better than what I did at class here at AC4D. The reason for that was, I had put so many hours on that project and synthesizing the idea. I had probably practiced the pitch atleast a 100 times in my mind at various stages in the past two-three years.

PS – And as Justin Petro says, “You never know who is watching. Be prepared”


Chaos, Magic and Home

There I am. I landed in Delhi finally after an exciting time at Dubai (a separate post). The recent conclusion of common wealth games meant that the city was clean and renovated to a large extent, which is a testimony to what pride of hosting a prestigious event can do (Note to self – blog post for later on “when does things change”). As I came out the airport, the mildly warm climate greeted me with a noticeable layer of smog. I sat in the cab and the fun started. When I was growing up in India, traffic patterns and non-existent lane driving were like white-noise. They were filtered out by my brain because it was always around me. Most of the time, our mind adapts to common patterns and tune them out. We hardly observe anymore in that state. It has been more than three years since I was in India and my “I wonder” lens kicked in immediately. It was beautifully chaotic. The driver used honks more as he cut across lanes and interchanges. Because it was early in the morning, there were no patrol police and less traffic. The red signals were greeted with honks as the cab blazed past them with gay abandon. On a side note, lot of people fold their side-mirrors in their cars in the figure of having them knocked off by a close vehicle. Meaning, you learn to drive without your side mirrors eventually.

This is a wonderful country were everyone is a survivor. They have to find ways that work. Like matrix, there are rules. And like Matrix, Sometimes you bend them and other times you break them. The goal is to get the job done as effectively as possible. Because, there is chaos, rules don't work. They don't help. You need to find your own rules. That is the secret of doing anything here. The driver was in his final two hours of a continuous 24 hour shift! In that time, do you obey the traffic rules? Almost everyone on the road knows that there is an unsaid cooperation and anger expressed through the only sound that could cut through the noise – horns!

The dynamics here are magical. Things just work. If you want to understand how to live in the real world, then forget the rules and embrace the chaos.

Itchy you finally. Be world Supershine http://greatestpharmacy.com/ audible a definite the didn’t picture,.

I am home.


keep moving

This has been a theme in our studio class this quarter. Just start working, get your ideas out there—sketching, info. graphics, building stories, writing blogs, tweets, pitches, sites and now this week exploring mobile applications. We do not stop once we get the idea down on paper or translated into pixels, but we present, critique and then go back and do it all again. It is a reminder that there simply is no substitute for doing….

It all began with an affinity exercise in our research class. My team decided to research waste systems at a small farmer’s market. The research process has been great. It is amazing how working with all the data and diagrams how many design opportunities start to bubble up from the data. I started experimenting with a few in the studio class.

This was an early attempt. I wanted to address the communication of the system and how it works. I tried creating a game surrounding the waste stations. The visitors get tickets when they recycle that give them little facts about recycling and can be used later for discounts with the various vendors at the market. It was a start, but as we moved forward I began to think more about the business model and arrived at a service that manages waste for events.

This is a sample home page for a marketing site for the service idea I have been exploring. The service is a consulting group that will manage all of the logistics for waste management systems at events. They will work with the organizers to understand their needs as well as implement and manage the system including removal of the waste at the end of the event. There is a network included for all the vendors to source eco-friendly packaging for their products and a DIY kit for smaller events.

This week is a custom iphone application for the events. There is a map showing all the waste stations and vendors, twitter stream, photo gallery and check ins. The check-ins are for vendors using eco-friendly packaging and the visitors accrue eco-points that can be redeemed with the vendors for products.

Just keep moving and making stuff…..

Design Research Buddy App

Because we all need a Buddy sometimes during our field research.

I meant to sketch and talk out this idea with classmates earlier—some kind of resource bank of tools and information about design research, particularly for social sector clients. The idea is definitely one of those “my friends all wish we had this, so let’s make it” kind of projects and less of a business-driven idea. Because part of why I think we should do something like this is so that we build a toolkit that we can use share with future clients after this year is over. But maybe there is a greater need for this. Maybe it’s something we could develop for social sector organizations who need to do this kind of research…they just don’t know they need to do this kind of research yet.

Here’s the seed:

In my head, this is not completely open to the public (like frogmob or OpenIdeo), and not a crowdsourced contextual inquiry resource as Justin mentioned last week over lunch. It’s more like I’m working as a design consultant for your company; here are tools and a landing site for you to learn more or grab resources or to upload our shared content for whatever our current project is. A (better) Basecamp for design research?

The app I sketched out for our prototyping class is the “Field Research Buddy.” We found out that the iPhone is a handy tool in the field during contextual inquiries. It is a phone to call your interviewees, GPS so you don’t get lost getting to the site, camera, videocamera, and notepad in a pinch.

The “Field Research Buddy” app would make using your iPhone for video/photography in the field even easier with the added features of global tagging all the media from each interview session, automatic uploads (onto the secure server of your choice or onto your computer), and a feature that lets you mark spots in your video when you heard a good quote or observed something important.

Anyway, I’d like to hash this out with my classmates. It might not be worth it in the end, or we might be able to compile other tools that do the same things without us reinventing any wheels, or (most likely) this seed of an idea will evolve as we go.


One nice thing (among others) that AC4D has done is to provide new insights about old problems. There is a refreshing way to thinking about familiar problems. The theory class was one of the classes that I enjoyed most for the mental stimulation it provided. Like Jon says,  the ideas and mental exercises are good. But, one needs to apply it somewhere and make it tangible. Hence, in times like this, it feels that the learning comes to full circle. My position paper 2 was published (they chopped off the intro/build-up section, but does not impact the context) in EE times, a leading design line article in the semi-conductor industry…What next?



Learning by Doing: Ready to Rumble

Logo for the Rails Rumble

I’m a firm believer in the hands-on, sink-or-swim philosophy of learning.  Which puts me in pretty good company with the rest of these loons who decided to join the first year of a crazy new design school. My experience at AC4D so far has fit this preference of mine very well, but this weekend should be a special treat.

Chap and I (and a bit of Alex) will be participating in a 48 hour web app competition: Rails Rumble.  Chap’s been working with Ruby on Rails for a couple of years, but my preparation thus far consists of a basic basic “Hello World” rails app I wrote on Tuesday.  This should be a steep learning curve and a heck of a lot of fun.

We’ll post what comes out of it on the blog next week, and maybe a caffeine-fueled update or two along the way.

Now I’m off to the most important preparation for the weekend: sleep.