Monday, July 09, 2012

Covering Wicked Problems » Pressthink:

And that’s what I have for you today: a really juicy puzzle. It begins with a distinction that I have found useful. The distinction is between tame and wicked problems. Now given what’s happened to science writer Jonah Lehrer lately I should tell you that I’ve written about this issue before and since I said it about as well as I could say it then, I am going to say it in a similar way again… okay?

Here is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: it’s impossible to get a cab at 5 pm. The cause is not a mystery: taxi drivers tend to change shifts around 4 to 5 pm. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 o’clock. Now this is a problem for the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it’s easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.