A very wicked problem indeed — PERS

Last week’s OregonPEN included a taxonomy of challenges, describing the kinds of difficulties we will face in 2017 and beyond. A taxonomy is helpful because recognizing the sort of situation you are dealing with is a useful step towards formulating the right sort of response.

Policy thinkers have come to describe the worst sort of situations as “wicked problems.” These are not just harder problems — they are harder in ways that make them nearly intractable to solutions in the same way that rapidly mutating viruses can be all but impossible to contain.

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on.

These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping.

[The website for an Oroville, California community college, Butte College describes abductive reasoning as “taking your best shot:” “Abductive reasoning typically begins with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the set. Abductive reasoning yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information at hand, which often is incomplete.”]

Horst Rittel, one of the first to formalize a theory of wicked problems, cites ten characteristics of these complicated social issues:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. The problem of poverty in Texas is grossly similar but discretely different from poverty in Nairobi, so no practical characteristics describe “poverty.”
  2. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another, unlike the boundaries of traditional design problems that can be articulated or defined.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false. There is no idealized end state to arrive at, and so approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide. Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
  5. There is 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. The interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems illustrates how, for example, a change in education will cause new behavior in nutrition.
  7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  8. Offering a “solution” to a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.
This issue of OregonPEN begins an exploration of perhaps the wickedest problem Oregon faces that, at least in theory, might still have something like a solution. The problem is PERS, the acronym for Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System, which might be thought of as the distilled essence of wishful thinking, short-term thinking, problem avoidance, and the human weakness for discounting, where we tell ourselves we can enjoy cake today because we severely discount the costs that having the cake today will cause for us in the future.