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
Abductive thinking and Sensemaking were terms that I had been struggling with until I stumbled upon Jon Kolko’s writing that has begun to put it all into context. Thanks Jon, my mind is gently being blown. Jon is prolific and appears to be in the process of completing the design trifecta: worked at frog, spoke at TED, and now in the education as as a founder and director of the Austin Center for Design.
In an article written for Core77 and then published in The Alpine Review – a delightful critical thinking and art mag that I am currently obsessing over – Jon outlines why systems thinking is crucial and how “sensemaking” is a bona fide practice of generating tangible actions out of large and often incongruous observations.
As I begin to explore more of his writing, I am seeing an obsession with “synthesis” as a design activity that needs further unpacking, development and practice with clear purpose. This is so deeply aligned with questions I have been bouncing around that it proves to me that designers are all trapped inside a singular brain space, like some kind of weird black t-shirt, jeans wearing ant colony.
Jon defines “sensemaking” as:
“the ability to synthesize large quantities of often incomplete or conflicting information… connecting discrete insights… depth of thinking, rigor of connections and strategic and creative reasoning.”
More specifically the challenge is bringing clarity to messy investigations that are a natural outcome of any systems research.
The internet is a wonderful and bizarre thing. I received a lovely mail today saying that someone “liked” my blog post. With my ego getting a little bit of encouragement I went and investigated. It turns out that Stefanie Di Russo is a PhD candidate at my old university (that I didn’t graduate from) in Melbourne. Wow that is a small world.
Even better it turns out that Stef produces enormous quantities of excellent, thoughtful content all with wonderful illustrations. I may have had a very good coffee this morning, because I just spend the last hour scouring her blog and writing many rambling comments. I thoroughly recommend you to explore her site, with a couple of entry points that may be of key value:
It is not an exaggeration to say that there is an enormous array of different design methodologies, processes and tools. On this blog I have diagrammed and experimented with a bunch of ideas, and may have mentioned that I have a library full of resources on the subject. What I discovered last night has quite literally blown me away. Hugh Dobberly, a new discovery and possible a new passion of mine, has assembled a remarkable PDF of over 100 pages of design methodologies. It is nothing less than superb.
Click here to download and absorb the wild diversity, that is the never ending obsession of understanding how creative people work…
For more writing by Hugh Dobberly, his website is an incredible resource, which I have just begun to explore: