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.
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.
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.
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:
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.