by Tom Fuller,
Let’s start with proper attribution of Wikipedia’s definition: ““Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”
The first example cited is global climate change. Sigh. Others include AIDS, international drug trafficking and urban decay.
How wicked is the problem of global climate change?
In 1973, again according to Wikipedia, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber listed 10 characteristics of ‘wicked problems’:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is a problem).
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
- Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
- The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
Personally, I think the field of study of ‘wicked problems’ needs a bit of work, based on the above. Is international drug trafficking, one of their examples, unique? Is it not similar to human trafficking, cigarette smuggling, small arms smuggling? I don’t think wicked problems need to be unique.
Similarly, planners have been wrong repeatedly on wicked issues in the past, and many of them suffered no consequences, or were ‘rehabilitated’ to positions of power following their mistakes.
And wicked problems are not alone in being subsets of other problems–ask any 4-year-old endlessly repeating ‘why?’ All problems have causes, and many times the causes are actually solutions to previous problems.
The first item on their list involves the difficulty of definition. But I don’t think that’s a correct definition of the definition problem. I think the real difficulty is getting various actors to agree on one of competing definitions.
Okay, so a blogger somewhere on the internet doesn’t like what a contributor to Wikipedia wrote about ‘wicked problems.’ Where is this going?
I would approach ‘wicked problems’ in the following manner:
- Do we understand the problem enough to define it to all parties’ satisfaction?
- Can we scope the problem adequately in terms of its consequences and the resources needed to address it?
- Do we know what a solution or solutions might look like?
- Do we know a time frame for best results of any solution we implement?
- Are solutions to elements of the problem available?
- Will solving one part of the problem significantly change the scope of the remainder?
- Is there time dependency of both parts of the problem and parts of the solutions?
Wicked problems may be tough, but I think we humans have the tendency (and the incentives) to make them seem tougher than in fact they are. So let’s see how wicked the problem of global climate change really is.
Have we properly defined the problem? Not without rewording. The problem according to the activist community appears to be, “global climate change caused by human emissions of CO2.” Which is clearer, but I think wrong.
I think a better definition would be, “the future and unwelcome extension of warming that has persisted for over a century, caused by human activities that include emissions of various greenhouse gases.”
There may be better definitions. But if we cannot agree on the definition, then by definition we will not agree on its scope or possible solutions.
Have we defined its scope? No. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has offered a variety of scenarios with different paths to the future, but has not ranked them in order of probability. Economists trying to measure the possible damage caused by global warming cannot even agree on terms of reference, let alone the right number of zeros in the answer. The IPCC is incredibly relaxed about its wide range for atmospheric sensitivity to a doubling of the concentrations of CO2. As of today, their position translates to ‘it either will be a big problem or not much of one.’ That’s the difference between a sensitivity of 1.5 and 4.5.
The wild-eyed fantasies of 20-foot sea level rises and 10 degree temperature rises are a direct result of this laxity–without tight boundaries, things go bump in the night.
Do we know what a solution or solutions might look like? Surprisingly, yes–but we are not even discussing the most obvious and complete solution. We could solve climate change as a problem by constructing an adequate number of nuclear power facilities to provide electricity as our primary source of energy. We then would convert to electric vehicles and use electricity for other work currently performed by fossil fuels.
People may say they don’t like nuclear power and are concerned about waste or terrorism–and that’s perfectly legitimate. I’m more concerned about the quality of construction, and possible leaks, myself. But nobody can say with a straight face that the cure would be worse than the disease the activists imagine.
Do we know a time frame for optimum achievement of a solution? Surprisingly, demographics does give us an answer–some time before 2075, when human population peaks at 9 billion souls.
Are solutions to elements of the problem available? Again, yes. Energy efficiency, such as more combined heat and power, waste-to-energy plants, higher mileage automobiles and hybrids, a higher commitment to public transportation, a smart grid and HVDC transfer of electricity, etc., etc. Continued work on renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric, solar and geothermal. (I think wind has surrendered its pride of place at this point.) Research and deployment of pumped hydro storage and compressed air energy storage.
Will solving one part of the problem change the scope of the remaining portions dramatically? Yes. A commitment to build as much nuclear power as needed will without doubt change the level of urgency surrounding all remaining elements of global climate change.
Is there time dependency? Yes. We need to have inexpensive and readily available energy for those people getting ready to be born and those people climbing the development (and energy) ladders. We need to do something now, regardless of the accuracy or correctness of our definition of climate change.
Too simplistic? Maybe. But that’s not an argument against the solution. It’s an argument that some are so invested in the idea of climate change being insoluble that they do not wish to acknowledge that solutions are possible.
And I would add this: A truly wicked problem would demand a Plan B. One exists for climate change–geoengineering. Those who would prohibit examination of our alternatives in this area are obviously indifferent to any solution, and have other reasons for participating in this debate.
And also this: For the many who disagree with the reality of the definition above, replacing it with a similarly worded expression of the energy needs of this planet going forward would leave us pretty much in the same situation.
In fact, I would slyly acknowledge skeptic concerns by saying–It is feasible to imagine draconian solutions to global climate change that do not adequately address our energy concerns. However, if we solve our energy concerns responsibly and ethically, we will without doubt solve the issue of global climate change.
Not so wicked.