November 28, 2011
Over the summer I revisited Doug Schuler’s book “Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution” (MIT Press, 2008, see website here). The book is wonderful to read on the train, or anywhere where you might have 15-20 minute intervals to ponder a concept.
Following a model used in architecture and also software development, “Liberating Voices” provides patterns related to communications – that is, short descriptions of common issues and best practices for tackling them, or best practice models or methods and why they’re important. That is, the patterns give big picture overviews of ways to think about problems. Read more about the concept of pattern languages, here.
I particularly appreciated the book’s description of the concept of wicked problems (read it, here), and also have been finding this concept quite useful in terms of framing a book Dharma and I are working on.
In short, a wicked problem is a problem that is very challenging or not possible to solve because of the contradictory, incomplete, or shifting requirements that are many times difficult to distinguish. Due to complex inter-dependencies, attempting to solve one facet of a wicked problem can expose or create other problems (Rittel and Webber 1973). So, while the “official” problem may appear simple, there are many additional issues – often less visible, or sometimes less solvable, that contribute to our inability to overcome the problem.
As an exercise to explore the concept of wicked problems I made a series of sketches related to policy issues I’m familiar with beginning with the “big” problem (the one that’s usually talked about) and moving deeper to map sub-issues. For example, doing this exercise in terms of the issue of hunger in the US, it became clear that:
1. The ‘solutions’ to this problem (food banks, food stamps, cheap processed food, etc.) create some problems of their own. This is characteristic of wicked problems.
2. This single issue has elements that relate to many types of policy – e.g. not just food & agriculture policy, but also financial policy, educational policy, health policy, and social welfare policy.
A rough sketch of the wicked problem of hunger in the US:
And, perhaps even more challenging:
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