Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Wicked Problems Defy Solution or Even Definition -- Until You Approach Them Differently

Written by: Gary Dirks

The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?

In May of 2018 a child in Paris was hanging from the rail of a fourth floor balcony. In a manner reminiscent of a comic book super hero, an athletic young man scaled the building from balcony to balcony until he reached and rescued the child.

The solution was unorthodox, but the problem was solved.

As someone with a deep interest in sustainability, I spend much time thinking about problems and solutions – especially those that lie ahead.  In the main the whole effort can be pretty mundane.  Though not always. 

Problems come in the full spectrum from the tiresomely vexing, to the so-called “wicked” problems.   Those not only lack solutions but often lack a good problem definition.

As I write this, the future of a major telescope project in Hawaii remains in doubt.  An international collaboration to install it on the gigantic dormant volcano Maunakea on the “big island” of Hawaii was proceeding as they’d planned.   Then a well-organized group of native Hawaiians blocked their way physically and legally.  To the collaboration and their supporters, the telescope is a great opportunity.  It will contribute meaningfully to the advancement of astronomy and benefit very substantially the economy of Hawaii.  To the native Hawaiians the scope desecrates a sacred mountain that is already desecrated by other telescopes.  To one group the project is an opportunity, to the other a threat.  The Dakota Access Pipeline controversy had the same characteristics.

In considering a sustainable future and how design concepts can shape that future, we will encounter many such situations. So much so that the idea of a solution needs deeper consideration. To this end, I offer a personal definition of a solution:

A solution is a collection of objects, processes, relationships and narratives that enable stakeholders to better articulate and govern opportunities and challenges.

The core to this definition is the iterative process of articulation and design of governance.  Hard problems eventually morph.   Society’s views on them evolve.  Immigration, climate change, abortion, gay rights and gun control all have this character.  Meanwhile, values that animate differences persist.  There is no quick resolution, only governance – an envelope of rules that form the boundaries of an uneasy peace that evolves as the views of generations evolve. 

Whether a situation is mundane or wicked, the approach to a solution has a structure.   It consists of objects, processes, relationships and narratives.  We live in an era where leaders tend to gravitate toward objects and processes as the solution elements of choice.  By objects I mean especially technologies and infrastructure.   By processes, think the methodologies of government, business, civil society and the academy.

While these are powerful tools that have served us well, wicked problems aren’t about objects and processes.  They are about how we relate and the stories we tell.  Without abandoning what has served us well, the focus of solutions needs to open up to new relationships and the stories they bring with them.

The human future as design space becomes a natural opportunity to do so.


 About Gary Dirks

Gary is director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and director of LightWorks®, which capitalizes on ASU’s strengths in solar energy and other light-inspired research. He is also the Julie Wrigley Chair of Sustainable Practices.   Before joining ASU, Dirks was the president of BP Asia-Pacific and the president of BP China. In China, he grew BP from an operation with fewer than 30 employees and no revenue to more than 1,300 employees and revenues of about $4 billion in 2008.  Dirks has served on the boards of the India Council for Sustainable Development, the U.S. China Center for Sustainable Development, and the China Business Council for Sustainable Development, and currently is a member of the Science Advisory Board of Conservation International. In 2008 he was recognized by the People's Daily as one of the 10 most influential multinational company leaders of China’s previous 30 years. Dirks received his Ph.D. in chemistry from ASU in 1980. He was the first doctoral student to work in the Center for the Study of Early Events in Photosynthesis (now the Center for Bioenergy and Photosynthesis).