Preparing for 2017 — The Taxonomy of Challenges

As this disastrous year staggers to its conclusion and with 2017 in sight, OregonPEN turns to consider 2017 and the menu of choices for the year ahead. The upcoming Legislative session is already looming, and it is clear that the year ahead will be exceptionally difficult for Oregon.

Because of the exceptional difficulty ahead, OregonPEN, which is oriented towards solutions (when such exist) will inevitably spend a lot of time and effort discussing “situations” that need a smarter approach. Since OregonPEN is now approaching its second anniversary and is preparing for the next phase of growth and change, this is an opportune time to adopt a consistent way of talking about the “situations” Oregon faces that need attention. Imagine a number line, with each “situation” falling somewhere on the line according to the difficulty, with issues being the easiest to address, and predicaments at the far other end.

The purpose of adopting these terms is to provide a way to discuss the barriers to solutions, or let us talk about why “solutions” are not even available.

Here is the taxonomy:

Issues — these are things that we know we must tackle, and that we know how to tackle, and that when addressed, resolve properly about the way we might expect.

Challenges — these are issues where doing what needs to be done creates, at the least, a number of issues that have to be addressed. As a result of their tendency to spin off into issues, challenges are harder to address. But a difficulty is still only a challenge if, when all is said and done, everyone is better off, or at least no worse off, when the challenge is resolved. Dealing with challenges is the basic task of democratic governance — helping interest groups recognize the advantages of working together to resolve challenges, even when it means that they might have some issues to deal with that they didn’t before.

Problems — these are challenges on steroids, and they become problems rather than remaining just challenges because the solution involves getting some group or set of groups to accept being made worse off in order that the population as a whole be made better off. The ability to resolve problems is the core test of whether a democratic state is resilient enough to function. If, in trying to develop a resolution to a problem, the system locks up such that interest groups can block any proposals that might make those groups worse off, no matter how much benefit the blocked solutions would provide to society as a whole, To get an idea of just how serious problems are, and how much of a mortal test they can pose to a democracy, consider environmental problems such as the destruction of the Earth’s ozone layer by chloroflorocarbons or most localized environmental problems such as pollution from a factory or mine. Had the countries of the world not joined together to slash production and emission of ozone-destroying chemicals, the resulting catastrophic destruction of the Earth’s protective ozone layer would have made the Biblical plagues of Moses seem mild in comparison.

It seems clear in retrospect that not destroying the Earth’s ability to provide habitat for people is a win for humanity as a whole, even if it imposed some costs on a few industries. And yet, there was strong opposition to the Montreal Treaty! Because humans are hard-wired to be much more sensitive to losses than to gains (we exhibit a consistent bias that discounts possible gains, a bias that causes us to be more conservative in our decisions than rationality would dictate), the interest groups that will be made worse off by resolving a problem are often able to hijack the levers of power to prevent solutions from being imposed that, considered across society as a whole, have enormous positive benefits over costs. The interest groups can do this because they are easily organized. Moreover, because the interest group members are few relative to the population as a whole, they are intensely motivated by the loss that they will experience, while the mass of the population is only mildly motivated by the slight gain that each person will enjoy on a per capita basis — even from a policy with overwhelmingly more benefits than costs.

Everyone agrees that problems are not all the same, and that some problems are easier than others, and some are harder. In policy terms, a problem is harder to the extent that there are lot of interest groups who have to be made somewhat worse off for everyone to be better off, or that some of the interest groups are exceedingly powerful.

Oregon and America are struggling to solve problems. Our core democratic governance features, in an environment of new technologies (media, especially) and collapsed barriers against corporate takeover of partisan politics, are increasingly hobbled and rendered irrelevant. The increasing struggles of the public sphere to deal with problems effectively creates a positive feedback loop, where the public struggles further fuel the attacks on the idea of democratic policymaking by interests who wish to promote further expansion of the private power (power proportional to wealth) over public power (one person, one vote).

And problems aren’t even the worst of it — there are two even tougher categories to go.

Wicked Problems — Described by the Austin Center for Design (AC4D) thus:

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.

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.
Last, if wicked problems weren’t bad enough, we finally come to

Predicaments — These are often mistaken for wicked problems, or even just serious problems, but predicaments are not problems at all. Predicaments are inherent features of a situation, and can be thought of as conditions that spawn problems and wicked problems abundantly, but since they are not problems, they cannot be “solved” by even the most creative designers or most brilliant thinkers or most dedicated engineers.

The archtypical human predicament — perhaps the ur-predicament, the source of all others — is the mismatch between our fundamental maximizing nature as humans — which was hard-wired into us by our evolution in the primeval world of scarcity — and the finite world, which will not bend to accommodate our desire for infinite growth (greater and greater consumption by more and more people).