I sense a theme.
I've been reading a lot of blog posts, and comments to same, that highlight the seemingly intractable quality of current world problems. This recent post by Steelweaver is a great example. So are a lot of the comments to my previous "Beyond Prediction" post. Steelweaver in particular hits the nail on the head with the idea that "people no longer inhabit a single reality. ... Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue." This is definitely the case when you examine the cultural and political dialogues arising around the Greek and U.S. debt crises, or global warming.
--And this is a brilliantly insightful idea, but it's a little bit sad, too, because it seems as though a lot of people are just discovering this problem, and yet it's been well known for decades.
I spend a lot of time with people who have a very particular way of looking at problems: define it, decompose and scope it, solve it, implement it. A lot of engineers, scientists, and programmers of my acquaintance take this approach. And they sometimes get very, very angry when faced with real-world problems that can't be approached this way; in fact, I keep ending up in circular arguments with technologists who insist on using this approach on, eg., climate change. Or the debt crises. (Encountered angry trolls in any comment threads lately? Do they tend to make sweeping generalizations about the nature of problems, their causes, and their solutions? Hmmm...)
But often, in the human sphere, there are what're called "wicked" problems. In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined a wicked problem this way:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked 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 social planner who tackles a wicked problem has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
It is not the case that wicked problems are simply problems that have been incompletely analyzed; there really is no 'right' formulation and no 'right' answer. These are problems that cannot be engineered. The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way, if only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/denialists didn't keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren't aware that there are wicked problems, they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand 'the real situation.' But they're not going to do that, and granted that they won't, the solutions you work on have to incorporate their points-of-view as well as your own, or they're non-starters. This, of course, is mind-bogglingly difficult.
Our most important problems are wicked problems. Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn't use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult--but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope.
Here's my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society--or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.
What we need, in other words, is a Facebook for collaborative decision-making: an app built to compensate for the most egregious cognitive biases and behaviours that derail us when we get together to think in groups. Decision-support, stakeholder analysis, bias filtering, collaborative scratch-pads and, most importantly, mechanisms to extract commitments to action from those that use these tools. I have zero interest in yet another open-source copy of a commercial application, and zero interest in yet another Tetris game for Android. But a Wikipedia's worth of work on this stuff could transform the world.
If Google+ can attract millions of people in just a few days to an app that does little more than let them drag pictures of people into circles, surely we can build a simple app that everybody can use that does even one useful thing, like, say, mitigate the Erroneous Priorities Effect when you're attending a meeting.
Next, in Wicked (2): What a Wikipedia's worth of work would get us.