When a small project turns into a Wicked Problem

Share with others

It all started with a rant about local and organic food.  Well, finding it, specifically.  Being immersed in the land that spawned the 100-mile diet, you do kind of feel compelled to source “unevil” foods. I’ve sleuthed down all sorts of venues, markets, shops, and random farm stands (often just sheds with a jar to put your money before you take the goods) in my quest for tasty local goods.  But there is no one comprehensive source to find the information about all of these places, so a lot of time much be invested just to purchase your “unevil” goods. And as my leisure time has taken a significant dent lately, my rant was born. 

And then there are the rules.  Oh, the rules – Which fish is evil? Which organic fruit is worth its absurd price tag? Which one is better for you? Which organization is more credible? And on and on and on…one needs an encyclopedia just to go grocery shopping.

So a work compadre and I decided to tackle it head on.  We’d make something to get more people eating local and making better food choices.  Affect a bit of change. What more, we’d combine it with mobile. Something we’re always dying to do, but rarely have the chance to.  We’d create our dream project, knock it off quickly and bask in the glow of a job well done.

But we found a small thread and pulled.  Affecting change meant we had to really think hard about what we were trying to solve.  And with something like food, when you start asking questions, the next thing you know, you’re down the rabbit hole, Alice.

As I spiralled into a myriad of thoughts and questions about how food is made/harvested/caught/butchered, who buys these products and why, and how these choices are made, the hole just got wider and wider.  And the more I read, the more complex and contradictory it became.  Was it simply about organic? About local? Were these things even really that important? About the pesicides and chemicals? About erosion? About future sustainability?  About reducing the carbon footprint?  About food security?  Because really everything was tangled up in everything else. 

Ai yi yi…what we had innocently opened here was a Wicked Problem, my friends.  I felt waves of grad school recollections set upon me.  Rittel and Webber’s definition:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule, or criteria upon which to determine “solving”
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false; they can only be good or bad
  4. There are no complete list of applicable “moves” for a solution to a wicked problem
  5. There are always more than one explanation for a wicked problem, with the appropriateness of the explanation depending greatly on the individual perspective of the designer
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem
  7. No solution of a wicked problem has a definitive, scientific test
  8. Solving a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort, as a significant solution changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error
  9. Every wicked problem is unique
  10. A designer attempting to solve a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions

But now back down to earth…As a consumer, or end user, what you really want to know is, what are the one or two small things I can do that will actually make a difference?  Is that too much to ask, or design, for?

I’m not sure I have an answer, but I’m hoping some quick ideation and prototyping will help us discover some possibilities.  Stay tuned…

Interested in Wicked Problems? See:

The Austin Center for Design

Book — The Idea of Design

Design Thinking at DesignUnconference (in Vancouver)



Share with others