Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

Jon Kolko

171 pages, Austin Center for Design, 2012

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A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping.

Horst Rittel, one of the first to formalize a theory of wicked problems, cites ten characteristics of these complicated social issues:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. The problem of poverty in Texas is grossly similar but discretely different from poverty in Nairobi, so no practical characteristics describe “poverty.”
  2. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another, unlike the boundaries of traditional design problems that can be articulated or defined.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false. There is no idealized end state to arrive at, and so approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide. Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
  5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem, with the appropriateness of the explanation depending greatly on the individual perspective of the designer.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. The interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems illustrates how, for example, a change in education will cause new behavior in nutrition.
  7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  8. Offering a “solution” to a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.1

Based on these characteristics, not all hard-to-solve problems are wicked, only those with an indeterminate scope and scale. So most social problems—such as inequality, political instability, death, disease, or famine—are wicked. They can’t be “fixed.” But because of the role of design in developing infrastructure, designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions. This mitigation is not an easy, quick, or solitary exercise. While traditional circles of entrepreneurship focus on speed and agility, designing for impact is about staying the course through methodical, rigorous iteration. Due to the system qualities of these large problems, knowledge of science, economics, statistics, technology, medicine, politics, and more are necessary for effective change. This demands interdisciplinary collaboration, and most importantly, perseverance.

A Large-Scale Distraction

Why don’t we already focus our efforts on wicked problems? It seems that our powerful companies and consultancies have become distracted by a different type of problem: differentiation. Innovation describes some form of differentiation or newness. But in product design and product development, tiered releases and differentiation often replace innovation, although they often are claimed as such. Consider the automotive industry, where vehicles in an existing brand are introduced each year with only subtle aesthetic or feature changes. For example, except for slight interior changes and a few new safety features, the 2012 Ford F-150 is the same as the vehicle offered the year before.2 This phenomenon also is true of other industries, such as toys, appliances, consumer electronics, fashion, even foods, beverages, and services.

This idea of constant but meaningless change drives a machine of consumption, where advertisers pressure those with extra purchasing power into unnecessary upgrades through a fear of being left behind. Consultants and product managers craft product roadmaps that describe the progressive qualities of incremental changes. In fact, it’s considered a best practice and a standard operating procedure to launch subsequent releases of the same product—with minor cosmetic changes—in subsequent months after the original product’s launch. For example, between its 1990 launch and the end of 2004, Canon released 11 versions of its Rebel camera (in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999, February and September of 2002, March and September of 2003, April and September of 2004).3 And Apple has released a new version of the iPod every year since its 2001 launch.4

This constant push is characterized as a “release cycle”—the amount of time between versions of a product reaching the market. For most of industrialized history, a release cycle for a product was a year or more; complicated offerings like vehicles typically took three or more years from product conception to launch. But technology has afforded advances not only in our products but in the way we make them, so the release cycle has shrunk—a lot. Advances in tooling and manufacturing, the influx of cheap and generic pre-made components, and the ability for software-based firmware upgrades have accelerated product release cycles to three to six months.

Tooling ensures only incremental design change. It describes the process of creating individual, giant machines that will cut, grind, injection-mold, and robotically create a particular product. The tools used to produce an Apple computer are unique to (and probably owned by) Apple, and their production is one of the most expensive parts of the product development process. For example, a simple, small die-cast tool to produce 50,000 low-quality aluminum objects may cost $25,000. It’s in the company’s best interest to use the tool as many times as possible before it begins to fall apart, so the tool begins to act as a design constraint for future product releases. Put another way, if our tool was designed to produce 50,000 objects, and we’ve only made and sold 25,000, it makes financial sense for the next version of our product to use the same tool.

Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) contributes to the increased speed of product cycles and is another deterrent to quality and innovation. These are generic parts that manufacturers can use rather than producing their own, decreasing the time to market by skipping the tooling process. For example, a camera company can select OEM camera bezels and internal components. After adding the logo to the sourced materials, this hypothetical company can begin shipping cameras. The company can then differentiate its OEM parts by investing time in software, adding digital features and functions to physical products to distinguish these products.

The primary driver behind incremental, mostly cosmetic innovation and a constant push of releases that leverage OEM parts is simple: quarterly profits. Every three months, Fortune 500 companies report their earnings to investors. If a company reports losses—or even less-than-expected gains—the price of a stock drops, investors lose money, and those with the most shares lose the most money. So stockholders want the company to make as much money as possible in three-month increments. And these short increments constrain any activities and initiatives that take longer than three months. Revolutionary products usually take much, much longer than three months to conceive, design, and build. Unlike a Version 3 product that can leverage an existing manufacturing plant, process, and supply and distribution chains, a new product’s infrastructure must be built from scratch.

People who work at big companies try to create these revolutionary products. But each time profits are reported, the inevitable reorganization occurs—management’s attempt to show investors increased productivity, refined or repositioned strategy, and controlled spending. This reorganization can literally move people to another area of a company or to another company altogether, and in this movement, product development initiatives are lost. Witness the early death of Microsoft Kin or HP’s TouchPad—products that internal reorganizations removed from the marketplace before they could prove their efficacy. The Kin barely lasted forty-eight days on the market5, while TouchPad was canceled after seven weeks6; discussions of their death typically focus on internal fighting, misalignment with a given market strategy, cost minimization, or confusion about the products’ position within the brand—rather than on the products themselves.

Ultimately, then, companies and individuals engaged in mass production are incented to drive prices down, produce the same thing over and over, innovate slowly, create differentiation in product lines only through cosmetic changes and minor feature augmentations, and to relentlessly keep making stuff. If we look to major brands and corporations to manage the negative consequences resulting from their work or even to drive social change and innovation, we’ll be discouraged. Social change requires companies to escape the constant drive towards quarterly profits. Even those who find profitability in the social sector—and there are countless examples—require a longer iteration period than three months, so social change is destined to be ignored by the large, publically traded corporations that possess most of the wealth and capability.

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