Wicked Problems

First, let's pick an issue.

Gun violence in America, for instance. Now, quick, name the different sides in this issue. What are the different stances people take?

How many sides were you able to come up with?

Probably two, maybe three. You may have considered advocates of gun control versus those who support the right to bear arms. Maybe you thought about the role of the media or mental health in the issue.

Take another look at the issue of gun violence in the America. Could you think of other sides to the issue? Try to come up with four or five different ways. It’s a bit trickier. Our brains really like sets of two, like good-versus-evil or us-versus-them. When it comes to making decisions, it’s easy to think there are right and wrong answers. However, many of the issues we face are a lot more complicated.

Wicked Problems

We call these kinds of issues wicked problems. They’re wicked because, unlike fixing a toaster, there are multiple attitudes, values, and opinions that have to be taken into consideration. Sometimes solutions fail, despite good design decisions, because those impacted by a decision weren’t part of the process. Here’s an example.

The well-intentioned flop

An office wants to reduce the amount of electricity they’re using. To solve the problem, they install new light switches in the bathroom that are on a timer. Now, when someone uses the bathroom they press the button, selecting the amount of time they’d like the light turned on. That way the light will automatically shut after five or ten minutes.

However, most employees have ended up selecting the option that keeps the lights on for an hour before automatically shutting off. They’re afraid of having the lights shut off in the middle of their bathroom break, leaving them in the dark. They also are frustrated, because before the lights were always on and now pushing a button seems unhygienic.

Like many problems, this one is more complicated than a simple design fix. Cleanliness, efficiency, safety, and comfort are just some of the values that have to be taken into consideration.

In fact, wicked problems cannot be solved. At least not in the traditional sense. That’s because every wicked problem includes key tensions. These tensions often come up when people have to choose between two (or more) good things, like safety and convenience. We’ll never be able to decide that one is important and the other is not, so we’ll have to continue to balance both in our decision-making.

Tough Choices

Thinking about issues as wicked helps us to reframe how to solve them. When we think about a topic like airport security, there are very few people who are just pro- or anti- airport security. However, when an issue comes up, we might think of someone as anti-safety or anti-equality. This helps us feel good when we see the other side as evil. If we reframe this situation, however, we can consider the various values that play into security design, including:

  • Safety
  • Equality
  • Convenience
  • Privacy
  • Efficiency
  • Trustworthiness
  • Affordability
  • Justice

Weighing the tradeoffs

While all these values are positive, having more of one can mean less of another. Taking off your shoes and emptying your water bottle may increase safety, but it’s definitely less convenient. Including a whole-body imaging device may make the process more efficient, but lowers everyone’s sense of privacy. Deliberation works to help groups understand the key values and tensions that influence problem. Facilitators get community members to understand one another’s perspectives and make tough choices.