Steam billows from my mouth as the pealing of the bells from the fairest, goodliest and most famous parish church in England reverberates around the Georgian architecture of the square.
The vibration makes it through my coat and gently rattles my ribcage -like speakers at a really polite concert.
Sunday morning. It’s a ghost town.
I have been walking around for half an hour, unsuccessfully trying to find someone to sell me some coffee whilst falling in love with Bristol again.
Ever since moving back into London from Bristol it’s a place I have spent years unsuccessfully trying to return to.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
Either my partner gets a job and I can’t, the commute is too long to be feasible, is Bath close enough to be considered or should we just stay put? Do I really want to move to Bristol or just move out of London and how can I test that without actually doing it?
To be clear, Wicked Problems aren’t just really complicated problems. You can navigate your way through complicated problems with divination. No. You know those times where you spread the cards and all you get back is… goo? Even seemingly uncomplicated questions like “the possibility of moving to Bristol”…goo?
It’s not a question of incomplete analysis. It’s hitting a problem that literally has no ‘right’ formulation:
The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way, if only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/denialists didn’t keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren’t aware that there are wicked problems, they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand ‘the real situation.’
Minimising the impact of our food supply on the environment is an example. Localising our food supply would require more carbon to grow the same quantity of food because we’d lose scale efficiencies.
(Sidebar: It’s good to see that the negligible carbon cost of food transport is highlighted because this often gets sidelined however I disagree with the flimsy assumption that we’d simply grow the same things closer to home rather than a dizzying variety of hitherto unavailable products that would then be exchanged -potentially literally bartered- in a hyperlocal environment. But then my deranged, personal local food utopia looks a lot like Tyler Durden’s dystopia if you replace kudzu vines with cucumbers:
“We wanted to blast the world free of history…. picture yourself planting radishes and seed potatoes on the fifteenth green of a forgotten golf course. You’ll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five degree angle. We’ll paint the skyscrapers with huge totem faces and goblin tikis, and every evening what’s left of mankind will retreat to empty zoos and lock itself in cages as protection against the bears and big cats and wolves that pace and watch us from outside the cage bars at night…you’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you’ll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.”
Of course, I’d survive precisely forty minutes in my own local food utopia. I can’t even find coffee in a settlement that’s been inhabited for 60,000 years. Extra sidebar: Hey, I think this was my longest sidebar!)
How to ‘solve’ a Wicked Problem
- Identification. Be aware of repeated ‘goo’ readings for questions that you wouldn’t think would have them. ‘Goo’ is the ectoplasm of the Wicked Problem.
- Look up and look down. Wicked Problems are nested. Localising food is only a Wicked Problem because of extreme population growth… itself a Wicked Problem. One way or another you’re going to have to ‘leap without looking’ when tangling with a Wicked Problem… but you can make it easier for yourself for picking the least worst one to tangle with. (Do I want to move to Bristol or do I just want to move out of London?)
- Leap without looking. Sometimes I wish the fifteenth Tarot trump was a tower supported by all manner of beams, scaffolding and retaining walls. (The British economy has currently drawn this hypothetical trump.) It would really drive home the message of the sixteenth… sometimes those towers need to come down, sometimes the life support needs to be switched off.
- If you can’t test the waters, learn how to swim really fast. Enchanting your way through a Wicked Problem is unlikely to see you end up in a better situation… just a different one. Reboot as necessary. There’s a certain goldilocks element to this.
Fancy writing a book?
If you ask me, the future of the publishing industry isn’t a Wicked Problem but then I would say that. This is me “experiencing the failure to solve a major, complex world issue as the failure of some particular group to understand the ‘real situation’.”
With that in mind, have a listen to this fascinating interview with the wonderful Seth Godin on the future of publishing as he sees it.
Wicked. Starbucks must be open by now. Are they selling Tarot cards yet? There’s something I need to check.