Exploring Wicked Problems with Design Thinking
Last year, along with Jonathan Hoss and Karen Maxwell, I looked into the topic of flooding in Australia. The project was focused on using design thinking to identify and begin to solve wicked problems that were arising through climate change.
Wicked problems are deeply complex problems where the stakes are high enough that it is dangerous to be wrong, and yet no solution is possible without raising a further “higher level” problem. Richard Buchanan defines them (read the full article here) with specific properties where there is always more than one explanation for why the problem exists and that there is no opportunity for prototyping potential solutions, therefore only a one shot opportunity for intervention.
The paper is fantastic as it discusses why designers tend to be drawn to these particular solutions, possibly actively revealing them through design thinking methodologies.
Wicked Problems Caused by Environmental Disasters
For the project Jon, Karen and I ended up exploring insurance, strange but true, as a topic where large issues were being raised that were placing pressure on a wide variety of stakeholders. As you can see in the presentation below that sets up the project, specific regions in Queensland; Roma and Emerald, were so heavily affected by the floods that the insurance company that paid out the most claims, Suncorp, then decided they would no longer support ongoing coverage without mitigation against future damage being developed. A wicked problem emerged as tensions between Government, Insurance Companies, Residents affected by the drought, and other Taxpayers where all at conflict over responsibility and appropriate calls to action.
The results include individuals with damaged homes being repaired at their own expense, all at high risk of repeat damage with no course for preventing it.
Fast forward a year from the project, and there are only now beginning to be stirrings of a solution to the problem. The insurance embargo placed on the region has said to have worked, according to the insurance companies, by forcing the government to act. While nothing specific has happened just yet, it is very intriguing to be able to watch the issues arise when trying to solve a specific wicked problem.
Parallel to our project, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New York, causing far more damage economically. But the problems that arose have never quite scaled to the level of a wicked problem that could not be solved. While much debate is under way still about how best to manage future scenarios, clear action is being taken to mitigate future damage, whilst previous damage is being resolved. While I understand there are many homes yet to be fully repaired, and families still struggling to recover, there is a tremendous amount of proactive work being done to prevent future damage. Visit the USGS website and there is plenty of information about how data gathered will be used to predict storms and ultimately inform future projects.
Visually Communicating Context for Wicked Problems
Ecosystem services are integrated into all of the most fundamental concepts of sustainable or ecological thinking, and yet are probably poorly understood by most designers. “Ecosystem service” is a broad label used to describe, and anyone out there correct me if I’m wrong, the tangible resources and processes provided by any given natural location. These may include capturing and processing water, converting sunlight to energy, and the many nutrient cycles, such as carbon and nitrogen. But even this is a very simplistic view, as researchers are developing global models that highlight ecosystem services that effect the world wide temperature, hydrological and air flows, and more.
For most designers this an overwhelming array of information. How and where to start using this information is extraordinarily difficult. But how to find it is even harder. Some approaches have started by monetizing the intangible effects of ecological services, but I’ll focus on that in a later post. What I want to share in this post a resource that I found that is developing tangible tools for measuring the services of ecosystems and the impact design actions will have.
ARIES – ARtificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services
What to do with the forgotten spaces in a city? Too small for maintenance, but too abundant to ignore? Why not develop software to scan, categorize and experiment with all these spaces?
Imagine this software, meshed with genius of place. Ecosystem performance could be achieved in distributed sites around the city, and as the video below shows, these different sites add up very, very quickly.
See below for a project overview:
The Welikia Project traces the historical ecology of New York. It is an incredible, and ambitious project that is exquisitely executed. The result of which is a google map of Manhattan 400 years ago (Mannahatta as it was known through the indigenous Lenape people). You can even enter in specific locations to learn what natural ecosystem likely existed 400 years before. Warning: this can be oddly addictive, and there is an enormous amount of content available.
and… now what?
Genius of Place, or the horribly political sounding GofP, is a concept in biomimicry of learning from “nature’s genius” in a specific location. It can be used in reference to the exploration of integrating nature back into a location, habitat restoration, understanding what nature would want to naturally do if humans were not in the way and then removing those barriers and assisting in natural growth.
Or it can be used, within a design process, to identify natural principles of an location that can be replicated in design. Architecture and urban planning, disciplines that are directly associated with a specific location, are the most obvious examples of where this has value.