Wicked Problems

Issue 5 and Volume 110.

By David C. Wagman, Managing Editor

Picture this heavyweight prize-fight match up: engineering’s logical and rational approach to problem solving versus the sometimes-street brawling style of public policy development. Put the two in a ring and let them duke it out over issues related to power and energy: coal vs. gas; domestic vs. imported fuel; centralized generation vs. distributed power; transmission lines vs. NIMBY.

While the two problem solving approaches are not entirely incompatible, there are times when Venus and Mars might have more in common.

Engineering’s beauty lies in its cool logical and rational approach to problem solving. Applied to the power industry, engineering solutions have built a reliable, generally well-run network of power plants, transmission lines and distribution facilities.

But the power industry, and the broader energy industry, are two places where concepts such as “cool”, “rational” and “logical” can run afoul of raucous public policy debates, bottom-line economic practicalities and high-stakes global politics. Some days it seems the route to solving a power industry problem is circuitous (some might say tortuous) at best. Rather than follow a straight-line from problem definition to solution selection and implementation, the route more closely resembles a seismograph needle mid-earthquake: problem definition to solution to problem definition to selection parameters, back to problem definition and so on.

Thirty years ago two urban planning professors at the University of California at Berkeley tried to describe and characterize just this kind of highly complex and fluid problem. Straight-line problem-solving didn’t mesh well with the kinds of public-policy problems they were seeing. Following a step-like approach from problem definition to solution design, selection and implementation failed to work when applied to certain types of problems. The two named these problems “wicked.” They include many of the problems the power industry faces today.

To illustrate, think how hard it is to know in advance how a new freeway will affect a community, city or region. The solution to relieving traffic congestion may appear straightforward to an engineer. But the full social, economic and environmental consequences of building a road cannot be known until after the project is finished. In the meantime, years will pass and players and social factors will change. By the time the highway (or the power plant) opens both the problem and its solution may have changed radically.

Many issues facing the power industry are similarly “wicked.” Few “easy” solutions remain to be adopted. Likewise, few of the most pressing challenges that lie ahead have straightforward answers.

The Berkeley researchers, Horst Ritttel and Melvin Webber, identified 10 traits common to wicked problems. Many, if not most, speak to current power industry dilemmas.

  1. No concrete approach exists to formulate a wicked problem. Framing the problem and solving it are largely the same thing. What’s maddening is that each stab at finding a solution changes how the problem is viewed. In the end, the problem can never be fully defined.
  2. Because the problem cannot be fully defined, it’s all but impossible to know when it has been solved. Instead, the process ends when cash and other resources run out, when stakeholders lose interest or when political realities change.
  3. Wicked problems have no “right” or “wrong” answers. Instead, outcomes are either “good” or “bad.” Things either improve or they grow worse. Not surprisingly, finding agreement among diverse stakeholders as to what is “good” or “bad” can be tough. If you doubt this, ask a group of renewable energy advocates to debate the merits of large-scale hydro.
  4. Just as an earthquake produces aftershocks, so a solution to a wicked problem throws off waves of consequences. What these consequences are and how they may play out are impossible to know. Few people saw the Enron debacle as an outcome of deregulation.
  5. Sorry, Dorothy, you can’t go back to Kansas. Ruby slippers don’t exist to undo a solution. As power market deregulation showed in California, once a solution is implemented, returning to some “pre-solution” mode is impossible.
  6. Stakeholders have different and often conflicting views of what makes a solution acceptable. In the power industry, one group may see renewables as solving the “energy problem.” Another may support increased coal use. A third may advocate natural gas. All three address the “energy problem.” Their fundamentally opposing views of what makes an acceptable solution keeps stakeholders far apart.
  7. Wicked problems are essentially unique. Ask someone for directions to the airport and the answer-although potentially complex-can be replicated almost anywhere. The solution follows a straight line from problem definition (“where’s the airport?”) to solution (“take the freeway three exits, turn left and you’re there”). Ask someone how to electrify the airport and the solutions broaden considerably. The solution set also changes depending on where you are and your point of view. What this means is that no “class” of solution can be applied to a wicked problem with success.
  8. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. That’s because wicked problems are a set of closely meshed issues and barriers, all of which change over time. What’s more these issues and barriers are part of a much broader social context.
  9. A wicked problem may be explained in more than one way. Again, stakeholders have widely different and often opposing ideas about the problem, its causes and its resolution.
  10. In hard science researchers are expected to toss off hypotheses that later may be trashed. No penalty exists for being “wrong.” With wicked problems, no such luxury exists. Because the aim is to improve people’s lives those who create solutions are also liable for their consequences.

Next time a problem seems beyond resolving, think back to these 10 indicators. You just might be in the ring slugging it out with a wicked problem.