Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

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Richard Dudley
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Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by Richard Dudley » Wed Feb 18, 2009 11:59 pm

Jack asks about the term “normative” and I have had the same question.

Well, it sort of means: “everybody has their own view, and there is no single correct view…. It all depends on your perspective” or “this is what ought to be done based on what I think”…. but other approaches may be equally valid.

Thus perhaps defining sustainability is an exercise in futility!

==> But talking about it is still OK! So how can that work? ………

This is, I believe, related to the concept of ‘Wicked Problems’. This was first brought up by (Rittel and Webber, 1973)… a very interesting paper.

I rediscovered this after seeing a recent paper on the difficulties of managing fishery resources (Jentoft and Chuenpagdee). These authors, in a rather philosophical way, propose methods to deal with wicked problems of natural resource management.

Another worthwhile paper, which perhaps more clearly outlines the characteristics of wicked problems in natural resource management is Ludwig (2001). Interestingly, Ludwig early on says:

“I believe that there is ample evidence that systems approaches and management are inappropriate for the complex ("wicked") problems that are most important today.”

However, I don’t believe he was referring to systems approaches as we see them but rather to the inappropriateness of analytical solutions for ‘solving’ complex (wicked) problems.

In fact, all three papers refer to the need to incorporate the views of multiple stakeholders, perspectives, beliefs and values. Thus an important role for system dynamics in addressing wicked problems of natural resource management and sustainability.

These papers are worth reading.

Jentoft, S., Chuenpagdee, R., Fisheries and coastal governance as a wicked problem. Marine Policy In Press, Corrected Proof. (no free link yet)

Ludwig, D., 2001. The Era of Management Is Over. Ecosystems 4, 758-764.
Note: if this link will not work - copy and past into your browser
http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=w ... 4G7xg264ww

Rittel, H.W.J., Webber, M.M., 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-169.
http://www.urban.uiuc.edu/courses/up506 ... oblems.pdf

Jack Harich
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Re: Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by Jack Harich » Sun Feb 22, 2009 12:45 am

Richard,

Several people have pointed me to wicked problems as something to consider as I work on the environmental sustainability problem. Here’s my take on this:

You mention:
In fact, all three papers refer to the need to incorporate the views of multiple stakeholders, perspectives, beliefs and values.
This refers to the first characteristic of a wicked problem, as listed in the above link: “1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.” This means there is no agreement on definition of the problem by various interested parties. But that does not prevent one or a subset of those parties from agreeing on a definition. Part of the problem to solve is the fact that the rest don’t agree on the definition.

This is extremely common. While the group is haggling about what’s going on (what the problem should be defined as), some sharp cookies get going and start solving the problem. They see a reasonably concrete, stable definition and start solving that. If early success occurs, the rest of the group follows the thought leaders.

This indicates that the argument that wicked problems exist depends on oversimplification. We do need to simplify, but not to the point of excluding significant aspects.

I also see a lot of alarmism and academic over-complexity in the concept of wicked problems. There are severe weaknesses in the rest of the list of characteristics, but it’s not worth my time to elaborate.

Still, the concepts in the list of aspects of wicked problems are good for whacking away at the hubris that may be accumulating….



Looking at the first link, The Era of Management Is Over, you quote Donald Ludwig as saying “I believe that there is ample evidence that systems approaches and management are inappropriate for the complex (‘wicked’) problems that are most important today.” My conclusion is the environmental is, by an order of magnitude, the most important problem of today, so let’s see if that’s really a wicked problem and how Ludwig justifies his conclusion. He says “There are several reasons:”
(Reason 1) Problems such as the conservation of world forest resources, the conservation of endangered and threatened species, and global climate change require a complex mixture of considerations.
Yes they do require “a complex mixture of considerations” in the behavior change of the system. But a superficially complex solution can arise out of resolving a small number of root causes.

For example, long ago the non-benevolent ruler problem was rampant. Kings, despots, dictators, war lords, etc made life miserable for serfs, slaves and the masses they ruled. This was solved by resolving two root causes: no benevolent rule feedback loop and allowing slavery. The solution was democracy and outlawing slavery. The very complex governmental mechanisms that emerged out of that relatively simple solution would appear to classify that as a wicked problem that could never be solved. But it was.


(Reason 2) Each problem involves a host of traditional academic disciplines and other sources of knowledge and understanding.”
That doesn’t prevent one field, one organization, or even one person from leading a solution strategy/effort that solves the problem. Business, science and government do this all the time.


(Reason 3) Perhaps most important, they (problems such as conservation of natural resources, etc) cannot be separated from issues of values, equity, and social justice.
Again, the author is trying to create a mountain out of a molehill. They can and are separated all the time, enough to solve the problem. When the acid rain problem hit many industrialized nations, they passed and implemented clean air acts. NONE of the acts addressed the poverty problem, the social justice problem, differences in values, etc. Those problems are still there. All that was accomplished was solving the acid rain problem. Lots of problems that contained issues of values, equity, and social justice HAVE been solved.

The author then throws up an immense smokescreen with:
The ideologies of our time (economism, scientism, and technocracy) support the progressive view that experts, using scientific methods, can manage the world's problems by objective and efficient means; this is the viewpoint that seems to underlie the agenda for this meeting. Several aspects of that view are no longer tenable. These include the notion of an objective and value-free natural science and the idea that economics can be separated from ideology. The role of experts and of management in dealing with wicked problems is quite different from the naive progressive view. Values are determined in practice by the decisions taken rather than the other way around Lindblom (1959), Whittemore (1983). The credibility of scientists as reliable and disinterested technical experts has been eroded in recent years by a series of controversies involving nuclear power, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and genetically modified organisms. Scientists must be prepared to admit their limitations and the role that values play in their recommendations. …
This is an overly complicated argument. It boils down to two assertions: values can’t be reliably controlled by solutions, and the work of scientists is unreliable.

Well, the values that count when solving a social problem CAN be controlled by the solution. These values are an emergent property of the system. They are not instinctual. Examples are thrift, wanting to be less affluent, wanting to catch up with wealthier neighbors, and desired family size. Values like these have been changed to suitable levels in countless cases. See Diamond’s Collapse for a case where an island culture successfully implemented a zero population growth plan for over 400 years.

Of course some of the work of scientists is unreliable. But it does not follow that their work on the sustainability problem will be so unreliable as to cause solution failure.

I didn’t read beyond the first page.



Concerning the second link, to Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, by Rittel and Webber, the abstract says:
The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are "wicked" problems, whereas science has developed to deal with "tame" problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about "optimal solutions" to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no "solutions" in the sense of definitive and objective answers.
My earlier comments have, I believe, already shown why the concept of “wicked problems” is unsound. But I will be glad to offer a few more arguments:

“The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems.” – Really? Hasn’t the world already solve millions of social problems with new policies? Perhaps the author needs to say what type of problems are bound to fail.

“They are ‘wicked’ problems, whereas science has developed to deal with "tame" problems.” – False. Science has been rising to the challenge of complex system problems for as long as science has existed. Look at the complexity of the problems the ancient Greeks tried to address. They had theories on atoms, what ideal forms of government might be, etc. Millions of hypotheses, experiments and theories deal with very complex behavior, rather than “tame” behavior. Just look at the evolutionary algorithm and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, as two examples.

“Policy problems cannot be definitively described.” – They can’t? Aren’t all large problems facing nations policy problems? Didn’t JFK definitively describe one problem as how to put a man on the moon in ten years? When a recession occurs, isn’t the problem definitively described as how to get GDP and/or growth back up to certain levels? Etc, etc.

“…in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good” – Big deal. That has not prevented millions of problems from being solved. Ditto for the rest of the assertions in that sentence.

The rest of the abstract is just as weak. I did not read the paper.

The main reason for invoking the specter of “wicked problems” seems to be as a way to prove (by rationalizing) that certain problems are insolvable. I certainly agree many difficult problems have and do exist. But to say they are impossible to solve because they are wicked problems is fallacious, as well as a bit of a stretch. History has shown that usually, when someone pronounces something as impossible, it soon becomes just the opposite. For example, that why Dr. Wernher von Braun said “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution.”

You must realize that some authors are driven by the need to publish or perish, or burnish their egos. Others are just trying to help solve a problem. That’s the camp I’m in. I feel the same holds for many in SD and environmentalism.

Which is why I’m on this forum.

Thanks,

Jack

Richard Dudley
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Re: Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by Richard Dudley » Sun Feb 22, 2009 9:16 pm

Jack: Thanks for your extended response!

I think you were overstating the case when you imply the various authors were saying that Wicked Problems could not be solved. They are saying merely that old style technical approached where there is a single correct answer are not applicable to this type of problem. That is, there are multiple possible answers sometimes wildly divergent. Methods of analyzing and approaching such wicked (natural resource management) problems need to be adjusted away from old style analytical answers. (e.g. the fishing rate should be xxx because the biological fish stock assessment model says so).

In a sense we can think of this as if we were determining the payoff function to optimize of a model of these problems. How would that function be structured? Of course it can be structured, but the point is that there are many valid structures and the one used is ultimately based on a political or power decision ..... as you say a sub set of those parties will make a determination of the best approach they think is suitable.

My point is that system dynamics is well suited for examining these problems in a way that might narrow down the many possible solutions because peoples beliefs, desires, points of view can usually be made explicit, and the resulting consequences can be examined. This does not solve the problem in a technical sense, but can help lead toward a pragmatic solution.

Thomas Fiddaman
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God, feedback & climate (Re: Wicked Problems)

Post by Thomas Fiddaman » Mon Apr 06, 2009 3:41 pm

Thanks for raising an interesting discussion topic.

Herbert Simon, quoted in Ludwig, hits the nail on the head:
When an issue becomes highly controversial - when it is surrounded by uncertainties and conflicting values - then experness is very hard to come by, and it is no longer easy to legitimate the experts. In these circumstances we find that there are experts for the affirmative and experts for the negative. We cannot settle such issues by turning them over to particular groups of experts. At best, we may convert the controversy into an adversary proceeding in which we, the laymen, listen to the experts but have to judge between them.
Both articles seem to focus more on the clash of values and less on the impact of uncertainty in decision making models or science. I think of both as important. You could divide reality into (yet another dreaded) four quadrants, along dimensions of prediction quality (reliable, uncertain) and value coherence (shared, divergent). Problems with decent predictability (i.e. models that work) and shared values are essentially engineering, and can be solved in the optimizing sense. Problems with some predictability by divergent values (abortion?) get resolved by power politics. Climate is both uncertain and divergent, and thus a mess.

I see the role of models as
a) encapsulating the things that can be agreed upon (reliable, shared quadrant) to that they don't have to be rehashed
b) focusing attention on things that are genuinely uncertain (but not matters of value), so that they can be subject to experimentation and development of policies that are robust to the uncertainty, and
c) making clear the impact of a) and b) on the outcomes valued by stakeholders, so that the remaining value conflicts can be resolved politically
Ideally, part of b) involves confronting results with data, so dumb ideas about the way the world works get weeded out and moved into a). For this to work, models have to have a broad enough policy space to encompass competing viewpoints. (See Saeed, Khalid,Policy Space Considerations for System Dynamics Modeling of Environmental Agenda: An Illustration Revisiting the 'Limits to Growth' Study(September 1998). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=806184 )

I am constantly reminded that there are flaws in this process. First, there is no clear separation of values from theories of how the world works. Often the values that are espoused and contested are really just means to other ends, and thus involve auxiliary theories of how other parts of the world work. There's no hope of modeling everything. Second, a lot of people simply don't relate to models. Third, the values conflict spills into the how-the-world-works conflict; an example, from testimony by Calvin Beisner before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment:
The naturalist, atheistic world view sees Earth and all its ecosystems as the result of chance
processes and therefore inherently unstable and fragile, vulnerable to enormous harm from tiny
causes. The Biblical world view sees Earth and its ecosystems as the effect of a wise God’s creation
and providential preservation and therefore robust, resilient, and self-regulating–like the product of
any good engineer who ensures that the systems he designs have positive and negative feedback
mechanisms to balance each other and prevent small perturbations from setting off a catastrophic
cascade of reactions.
In other words, the Bible trumps science. In such a case, I don't see how you could even agree on the ground rules for model-based resolution of a problem. I don't know how to take on such an extreme paradigm gulf directly. Perhaps my modeling hammer is ill-suited for driving paradigm bolts, but I do think it is possible to make an end-run around such conflicts by focusing on the middle ground, where it's easier to facilitate a resolution among people who aren't entrenched in a position.

Simon's advice is also useful:
Success depends upon our ability to broaden human horizons so that people will take into account, in deciding what is to their interest, a wider range of consequences. It depends on whether all of us come to recognize that our fate is bound up with the fate of the whole world, that there is no enlightened or even viable self-interest that does not look to our living in a harmonious way with our total environment.
Tom

James Thompson
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Re: Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by James Thompson » Wed Apr 08, 2009 5:01 pm

Tom Fiddaman wrote:

I see the role of models as
a) encapsulating the things that can be agreed upon (reliable, shared quadrant) to that they don't have to be rehashed
b) focusing attention on things that are genuinely uncertain (but not matters of value), so that they can be subject to experimentation and development of policies that are robust to the uncertainty, and
c) making clear the impact of a) and b) on the outcomes valued by stakeholders, so that the remaining value conflicts can be resolved politically
Ideally, part of b) involves confronting results with data, so dumb ideas about the way the world works get weeded out and moved into a). For this to work, models have to have a broad enough policy space to encompass competing viewpoints.

I am constantly reminded that there are flaws in this process. First, there is no clear separation of values from theories of how the world works. Often the values that are espoused and contested are really just means to other ends, and thus involve auxiliary theories of how other parts of the world work. There's no hope of modelling everything. Second, a lot of people simply don't relate to models. Third, the values conflict spills into the how-the-world-works conflict....

It is possible to make an end-run around such conflicts by focusing on the middle ground, where it's easier to facilitate a resolution among people who aren't entrenched in a position.


That’s pretty important stuff. The limits to what can be done with and through models apply to more than system dynamics methods.

Herbert Simon* distinguished between model uses as predictive (those that help us to understand when it’s going to rain so that we can take action to stay dry (or get wet)) and prescriptive (those used to help determine better ways to stay dry or get wet when it rains). I think Tom's comments are aimed mostly at predictive models.

In a prescriptive (policy-testing) model context, we might set aside the question of if or when some event is going to happen and focus on what one could do in the event. Then, if we determine that there are things we can do to prepare for and avoid catastrophic conditions, the question might be more about why one would or wouldn’t take those measures. I think that’s what Tom's getting at when he says “focusing on the middle ground”, or am I misinterpreting?

This topic is touched on in my dissertation (on client learning). It would interesting to explore it further—perhaps from the perspective of how people (individuals) learn about and make decisions under dynamic uncertainty.

* Prediction and Prescription in Systems Modeling. Operations Research, 38, 7-14.
Jim Thompson
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Thomas Fiddaman
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Re: Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by Thomas Fiddaman » Tue Apr 14, 2009 3:48 pm

Herbert Simon* distinguished between model uses as predictive (those that help us to understand when it’s going to rain so that we can take action to stay dry (or get wet)) and prescriptive (those used to help determine better ways to stay dry or get wet when it rains). I think Tom's comments are aimed mostly at predictive models.

In a prescriptive (policy-testing) model context, we might set aside the question of if or when some event is going to happen and focus on what one could do in the event. Then, if we determine that there are things we can do to prepare for and avoid catastrophic conditions, the question might be more about why one would or wouldn’t take those measures. I think that’s what Tom's getting at when he says “focusing on the middle ground”, or am I misinterpreting?
The predictive-prescriptive distinction is quite important, but I actually didn't have it in mind (perhaps I should have). By "middle ground" I was actually referring to the following:

In any policy debate, there will be people with a wide variety of viewpoints. Some will simply be unreachable, because they have deeply entrenched interests or mental models. In the extreme, they might reject models and empirical knowledge altogether. However, most people (I hope) are susceptible to reasoned argument, and are unlikely to have committed ideas about a complex subject with which they're unfamiliar. That's the "middle ground" I was thinking of; if you can reach them first, with an educational approach, you're more likely to make progress than by beating your head against the wall of hardened opposition.

Michael Fletcher
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Re: Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by Michael Fletcher » Tue Aug 25, 2009 3:58 pm

The issue with wicked problems is that in most cases no one can even agree what the problem is. Frequently the problem itself is dynamically changing so cannot be tied down. Additionally no one ever spends nearly enough time examining the fundamental assumptions that drive the variety of Points-of-View. The Points-of-View sets the lens by which evidence is evaluated. People reject other's evaluation as 'wrong' (as in logically wrong - conclusion does not follow) when in fact their logic may be perfectly valid, within one Point-of-View, even if that "valid argument" is largely based in implicit heroic assumptions.

There are so many fundamentally challengeable assumptions driving the current debate and a the great majority of the Points-of-View that it is no wonder that that progress is sputtering along.

As I mentioned in the general forum list about year ago, Global Warming is not the problem. It's a symptom of the fundamental assumptions about how we define "Civilization." As I mentioned, no amount of technology will solve human ills unless we change rules and alter the assumptions and norms by which we define human society. Failed actions and failed planning are minor ills compared to the cause of most true human catastrophes - failed thinking.

Humans simply have to face up to the fact that that relatively recent Industrial Model and Economics surrounding it simply don't work. We need to get over that, and start the real conversation: What will a high-tech, low consumption, low energy civilization have to look like for humans to survive indefinitely on the planet?
Spending Billions or Trillions on Fusion or Fuel Cells are solutions that will almost certainly fail, not because the technology won't become available, but simply because the assumptions that drove those "solutions" were fundamentally flawed.

Looking to technology for solutions for everything or waiting for "growth" to solve all our economic ills are such cherished assumptions of the industrial model that few are willing to challenge them. Again, we need to get over that. Looking for more technology to solve the problems largely caused by the flawed and careless application of technology will just get us more of the same.

As Eric Severeid was purported to say: "The Principal cause of Problems is Solutions." Our use of technology has been so careless. Remember Automobiles were the "solution" to Pollution and Traffic Congestion caused by Horses in major cities!

We need to be better at designing our institutions to avoid unintended consequences, because right now several of those unintended consequences can kills us, or at best send civilization spiraling towards some long-term degraded equilibrium.

As Bear Bryant was supposed to have said. "The forward pass can only result in three things, two of which are bad." Overshoot is pretty well understood as a dynamic process. Overshoot can only result in about 4 major classes of outcomes, 3 of which are bad. "Worse before Better" is the very best we can hope for right now in my opinion. We had better start preparing the world to deal with the "worse" and starting designing the world that will comprise the "better," and get people to realize that "worse before better" is a match set and is not sold separately. There are no other items worth buying on the shelf. People better get used to the idea.

Jean-Jacques Lauble

Re: Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by Jean-Jacques Lauble » Wed Aug 26, 2009 4:33 am

Hi Mike
I noticed your reference to the notion of point of views. The more people concerned by a problem the more point of views.
I think that the usefulness of SD will depend on how a minimum of rules are respected.
1. The owners of the problem must be a minimum. The best would be two or three. This is to guarantee that an authentic consensus about the purpose of the model has been reached.
2. The owners of the problem must have full power to decide whether or not to launch the modeling process.
3. The owners of the problem must work hard with the modeler(s) during the modeling process and afterwards during the phase of implementations.
4. The owners of the problem must have full power about the way that policies will be decided and applied.
None of these rules are verified in public questions.
1 and 2. When I vote every two or three years, I share the decision with millions of other people, and it is not on a peculiar subject, but to choose somebody or a group of people that will decide for me for all subjects.
3. Nobody asks me anything until the next election.
4. I do not participate on policies decision and how they will be applied.

This is of course a seemingly pessimistic point of view, but I think that it is realistic, and realism is a prerequisite to an optimistic attitude based on realism.
There are some ways to amend this difficulty.
1. Reduce the number of stakeholders. This is what is accomplished for instance in Switzerland, where each community settles its own taxes and its own budget : everybody minds its own business.
3. Regularly there are referendums which make the Swiss people participate to fundamental decisions between the elections and besides many public mandates are not renewable.
Of course this policy has generated a well managed country with relatively low taxes that has with the time attracted wealthy foreigners and now the badly managed countries with high taxes try to eliminate a dangerous competitor. This is a perverse side effect generated by success.
To my opinion the solution is in the quality of the public institutions and how people have decided to live together (level of decentralization for instance).
Regards.
Jean-Jacques Laublé

Michael Fletcher
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Re: Wicked Problems, Normative Views, and Sustainability

Post by Michael Fletcher » Wed Aug 26, 2009 4:56 pm

Stakeholder analysis is a normal part of any effective problem definition. Everyone is essentially a stakeholder, but some control more "shares" than others. Again very few of the large "shareholders" (those with money power and influence) had adapted their mental models to accept that a "worse" period must precede any "better" future. Fear trumps reason in almost all human debates (the current health care debate in US being a prime example). Fear can lead to policy paralysis, which is one of my biggest concerns. We don't have time for that.

Those who feel they have the most to lose are the least likely to adapt their thinking because of the huge pressure to keep cashing out those that few miserable checks under the worlds current system of governance. But as Jared Diamond commented in "Collapse" - in a failing system the final privilege of the rich is the privilege of starving last. But even the most tight-fisted business person realizes that reinvestment is often necessary for long-term health of any business. In this case, people of that mind need to adapt their thinking. The planet needs at least 30 years of reinvestment where profits might be a little low, before the balance sheets improve again. Starting thinking in terms of different time-constants. 6-month time-horizon thinking, or even 3-5 year thinking, is a major contributor to the state of current events. Business and Government need to add a zero to their planning cycle. (In a real sustainable world-view the planning cycle would add at least two zero's, plus our planning would include the forethought to engineer "slack" into the system. That is, civilization actually has to run a fair amount under the carrying capacity of the planet in order to be sufficiently resilient in the face of exogenous shocks.)

As John Sterman rightly and eloquently commented, this is a matter of education and action at all levels. We have to work under the assumption that there is just enough time.

The other issue is that I did a little thinking about the actual number of possible Reference Modes of Overshoot that I mentioned in the last post. I actually came up with roughly seven, two of which are really not possible given the realities. I'll save the details for another day except to say that there will be dip into worse - the only question is if there will be a "better" where the slope goes positive again at some point, or if some lower equilibrium establishes itself for an indefinite period of time.

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