Travis Wall

(Sometimes Graphic) Designer. Working on a PhD: Design Thinking +/= Heterogeneous Engineering. General flâneur. Chronic knowledge gatherer.

Location: Sydney, Australia

The Problem Temperature Spectrum: From Tame/Wicked to Cold/Hot

What if we thought of the 'wickedness' of problems in terms of temperature instead? The 'wicked problems' concept was first created by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in the early 1970s through their study of the structure of governmental policy and planning problems, finding them as structurally different to problems found in sciences. Wicked problems were argued to be more unstable, complex and subjective than a typical science problem (a tame problem), and therefore require a method of dealing with them different than typical scientific enquiry. Richard Buchanan then successfully imported the idea into conversation around creating material objects, arguing that the built environment and technological culture has become so embedded in human existence that the kinds of problems people creating material objects deal with have the same structure as wicked problems. Things may not be this simple though - using Michel Callon’s concept of integrated socio-technical structures and economic analysis to the tame/wicked model suggests categorising problems might be better considered on a spectrum - cold to hot. Building this new direction on top of Rittel and Webber's original concept handles the messy reality of problems, and provides a helpful jumping off point for further exploration and development.

In the 1960s in fields such as artificial intelligence, computation and engineering, people started attempting to deeply understand the processes people use to create artificial objects and systems. Various kinds of attempts at ‘scientisation’ of this process were made, with the most notorious coming Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial (1969). A significant step development in this conversation occurred when discussion moved from the process to the structure of problems people were responding to, which created the idea of the wicked problem.

Enter wicked problems

The foundation text in this linage of thinking is Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber’s ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning‘ (1973). The authors are talking in the context of social policy and planning issues, conceptualising problems in this space as a special kind of complex problem different from the kinds of problems dealt with in scientific disciplines. They argue that scientists have a clearly marked problem space, and inside it they work aiming for a particular achievement or to uncover an existing unknown. The type of problems in social policy are different, because they require creating something in response to a complicated set of circumstances:

“The problems that scientists and [some classes of] engineers have usually focused upon are mostly “tame” or “benign” ones. As an example, consider a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation; or the task of an organic chemist in analysing the structure of some unknown compound; of that of the chess player attempting to accomplish checkmate in five moves. For each the mission is clear. It is clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.

Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits and the invalid nearly all public policy issues – whether the question concerns the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime” (p160).

The structure, or to put things a better way, lack of structure, makes these problems “wicked”, a term Rittel and Webber are not using in an ethical sense, but are using to describe the frustratingly ungraspable nature of the problem (p160). In a wicked problem, there are too many things to consider to conclusively define a problem space to work in or conclusively solve the problem1:

“Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions in the sense of definitive and objective answers”.

With this, Rittel and Webber have set up a clear categorisation of problems: scientific “tame” problems (p160) and the unstructured “wicked” problems:

Tame Wicked
Problem space
Where are we working?
Chess (p161) – set rules, set playing space.
Chemistry (p161) – specified compound composed of a fixed but unknown structure.
Poverty (p161) – How to define poverty? Is there a problem of skills in labour force? Is there an issue in physical and mental health? Geographic disadvantage? Is it a combination of all these factors?
Tame problems – fixed boundaries and options. Wicked problems – could be anywhere and dealt with in multiple ways.
Conclusion
We work until we get where?
Chess (p161) – checkmate achieved within set of rules.
Chemistry (p161) – unknown structure is defined.
Poverty (p161) – when is poverty declared over? If the labour force has been educated with a skill set, what happens if change occurs and new skills for new industries are required? If the health system is changed and prosperity occurs, what kind of new health problems are generated by prosperity? If geography is a hindrance, can people move, or generate technology to make transport easier? If people move and gain new skill sets, do they replace people in the new location and cause new poverty there?
Checkmate is true or false, and when it is true it cannot become false. A chemical compound cannot be unfound. But poverty could be solved and then become unsolved, or moved, and the goalposts for measuring poverty are self erected and can be moved any time.

So what do these problems look like? With this premise, Rittel and Webber list “at least ten distinguishing” characteristics of a “wicked problem”2:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
  5. 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.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into  the plan
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong

Wicked problems place us outside the typical paradigm of a scientific problem and into a space of endless options: there are no longer truths or solutions3, only offerings of resolutions which are one of many potential options that are guided by self imposed measurements of achievement, and the main activity is always swirling around defining a space to work (p161).

Richard Buchanan’s determinate/indeterminate model

Richard Buchanan’s ‘Wicked problems in Design Thinking‘ (1993) is a landmark text in the evolution of the wicked problems idea, importing it directly into thinking around creating material objects. Buchanan argues that the built environment and technological culture has become complex and embedded in human existence to such an extent that the kinds of problems dealt with by people who create material objects are wicked. Technological culture has evoloved to a point of complexity and ubiquity in human existence that problems of creating material objects are structurally similar to Rittel and Webber’s wicked problems. Buchanan argues that disciplines like graphic design or industrial design are not isolated in their own problems and processes, but have realised they create objects within a complex system of things, both material and non-material. For example, graphic designers are creating objects of visual communication, but need to consider the object will work in the context of a material and social system of “signs, things, actions and thoughts” (p10).

Buchanan illustrates this with an example of a retail store finding that customers were having trouble navigating stores to find products. Graphic design was used to create navigational signage, but easier navigation requires the designer to consider and place the problem in the surrounding system of other material items, such as the building architecture, positioning of shelving, lighting etc. Further investigation of the placement of the problem found that behavioural habits of the customers were also a factor, resulting in adjusting placement of the problem to include material and human factors (p12). Although the problem of store signage location is much more trivial than poverty, it is structurally similar: the wicked problem of poverty is difficult to place, and can possibly reside in any combination of locations, such as education, health, geographic or otherwise, and in the same way, the problem of efficient store navigation is difficult to place and can reside in any combination of visual signage, store layout, human behaviour, or something otherwise. This problem is also difficult to conclude for the same reasons as poverty: when is poverty declared over? When do we declare maximum store navigation ease achieved?

Buchanan also iterates Rittel and Webber’s tame and wicked categorisation, evolving them into a model of determinate (tame) and indeterminate (wicked) problems. Tame problems are determinate, from the space the problem exists in to the point of conclusion (p15). A wicked problem on the other hand, is indeterminate in its location and end point (pp15-16). Indeterminate problems are fundamentally a problem of placements (pp8-14): a problem can exist in multiple places of technological culture simultaneously and grappling with the scenario requires looking in multiple places at once and trying to figure out the places where the problem exists, and where the best places to attack might be. Following mixing Buchanan’s model into conceptualising problems, the wicked problems table can be modified like so:

Tame/Determinate Wicked/Indeterminate
Problem space
Where are we working?
Chess (p161) – set rules, set playing space.
Chemistry (p161) – specified compound composed of a fixed but unknown structure.
Poverty (p161) – How to define poverty? Is there a problem of skills in labour force? Is there an issue in physical and mental health? Geographic disadvantage? Is it a combination of all these factors?Retail store navigation ease – Add visual signage? Change store layout? Misunderstanding of human behavior? Is it a combination of all these factors?
Tame problems have determinate fixed boundaries and options. Wicked problems have indeterminate boundaries and multiple options for placement.
Conclusion
We work until we get where?
Chess (p161) – checkmate achieved within set of rules.
Chemistry (p161) – unknown structure is defined.
Poverty (p161) – when is poverty declared over? What do we change in the education system and how long will that change stay relevant? If the health system is changed and prosperity occurs, what kind of new health problems are generated by prosperity? If geography is a hindrance, can people move, or generate technology to make transport easier? If people move and gain new skill sets, do they replace people in the new location and cause new poverty there? And so on…Retail store navigation ease – When is maximum store navigation ease achieved? If we add bigger signs, how will that change the store aesthetic? If we change product layout, how will that effect product sales? And so on…
The end of a tame problem is determinate. Checkmate is true or false, and when it is true it cannot become false. A chemical compound cannot be unfound. Wicked problems have indeterminate end points. Poverty or retail store navigation ease could be solved and then become unsolved as factors change, or are moved, and the goalposts for measuring poverty or store navigation efficiency are self erected and can be moved any time.

Michel Callon’s cold/hot model

Observing these two approaches, both writings are circling around the idea of location of factors involved in the scenario4. This provides an opportunity to import another perspective of considering these situations by Michel Callon in ‘An essay in framing and overflowing‘ (1998). Callon is speaking in the context of economics, and the particular difficultly of figuring out how to definitively frame economic transactions and generate conclusive contracts between parties involved in economic exchange. He echoes Buchanan’s observations of technological culture, attributing the difficulty of framing these scenarios to the way that technological culture has embedded itself into human existence and created a dense web of complexity of human and non-human in all societal situations:

“The first relates to the growing complexity of industrialised societies, a level of sophistication due in large part to the movements of the technosciences, which are causing connections and interdependencies to proliferate … The current situation is the result of the intertwining of a while series of decisions and interrelated actions, initially autonomous but gradually weaving a web over time that is proving very difficult to pick apart in retrospect. so numerous and heterogeneous are the elements bound up within it” (p261).

Callon reaches for a problem categorisation model in the same way as Buchanan, but instead of using determinate and indeterminate, he uses temperature. In this model, a situation is considered hot when the parameters are difficult to set and unstable, and cold if parameters are certain and stable:

In “hot situations everything becomes controversial: the identification of intermediaries and overflows, the distribution of source and target agents, the way effects are measured. These controversies, which indicate the absence of a stabilised knowledge base, usually involve a wide variety of actors. The actual list of actors, as well as their identities, will fluctuate in the course of the controversy itself and they will put forward mutually incompatible descriptions of future world states” (p260).

“In ‘cold’ situations, on the other hand, agreement regarding ongoing overflows is swiftly achieved. Actors are identified, interests are stabilised, preferences can be expressed, responsibilities are acknowledged and accepted. The possible world states are already known or easy to identify: calculated decisions can be taken” (p260).

The interesting part of Callon’s approach in terms of conceptualising wicked problems is how he moves consideration of these situations beyond a binary classification of tame/determinate-wicked/indeterminate into a scale of cold to hot. This is a significant change in the way of dealing with things: Rittel and Webber, and Buchanan both hint at possibilities of degrees of “wickedness” or “determinacy”, but Callon’s approach fundamentally abandons definite categorisation and provides only a world of scale5. Given this, we can evolve our graph to be a scale of tame/determinate/cold to wicked/determinate/hot, with problems being sitting anywhere along the spectrum:

Tame/Determinate/Cool
Wicked/Indeterminate/Hot
Problem space
Where are we working?
Chess (p161) – set rules, set playing space.
Chemistry (p161) – specified compound composed of a fixed but unknown structure.
Poverty (p161) – How to define poverty? Is there a problem of skills in labour force? Is there an issue in physical and mental health? Geographic disadvantage? Is it a combination of all these factors?Retail store navigation ease – Add visual signage? Change store layout? Misunderstanding of human behavior? Is it a combination of all these factors?
As boundaries become determinate, problems cool. Indeterminate problems have bleeding externalities and multiple options for placement, causing them to heat.
Problem space
Where are we working?
Chess (p161) – checkmate achieved within set of rules.
Chemistry (p161) – unknown structure is defined.
Poverty (p161) – when is poverty declared over? What do we change in the education system and how long will that change stay relevant? If the health system is changed and prosperity occurs, what kind of new health problems are generated by prosperity? If geography is a hindrance, can people move, or generate technology to make transport easier? If people move and gain new skill sets, do they replace people in the new location and cause new poverty there? And so on…Retail store navigation ease – When is maximum store navigation ease achieved? If we add bigger signs, how will that change the store aesthetic? If we change product layout, how will that effect product sales? And so on…
Determinate boundaries mean a problem can become and stay completely cool. Addressing a wicked problem tends to create new externalities, so they have indeterminate end points because they can never completely cool. The goalposts for measuring poverty or store navigation efficiency are self imposed and can be moved any time.

This makes the most sense because it pragmatically deals with the messy reality of problems: most problems will be evolving tangles of tame and wicked problems6: for example, poverty is placed in geography, because it has been discovered that harsh conditions make agriculture difficult. New technology to generate successful agriculture is then proposed to meet a measurement that will declare a definition of poverty solved, and then the solving of poverty becomes a much more tame technological engineering problem! It might then be discovered that the tame engineering problem contains properties that will be extremely difficult and expensive to overcome, making it unviable and eliminating it from the options of placement (unless funding can be sourced, which then becomes its own problem to place). Then the problem heats up again, because now a new set placements has to be figured out7.

The problem seems to be best thought of as a space containing both hot and cold situations, which collectively make up an overall temperature of the problem. The addition of the determinate or indeterminate components move it along the scale of coolness, and the more determinate factors making up the overall space, the further cooler the problem becomes. This is the best way of dealing with the world of pluralities set up by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, and Richard Buchanan – there are many potential ways to deal with the situation with different cooling/heating effects, and the challenge is to pick one that pushes the situation to the cool end of the spectrum the furthest, and with the most stability.

Notes

  1. These problems are only really “wicked”, or especially problematic, when considered within a scientific paradigm. As a quick exercise, consider the concept of a wicked problem as a wicked problem – where does the wickedness lies? Is it in the structure of the problems, or is it in the rigid structure we’re accustomed to in scientific enquiry? This is the fundamental point Rittel and Webber are trying to communicate – application of a rigid scientific process is not appropriate for these kind of problems (p161). The problem is not the problem, the problem is trying to grasp the problem it in a scientific way. Rittel and Webber also amusingly play with this in the sense of the use of the term wicked, suggesting it might be “morally objectionable for the planner to treat a wicked problem as though it were a tame one” (p161).
  2. Rittel and Webber’s attempt to develop a defined set of symptoms indicating existence of a type of problem where a structured definition is impossible is an interesting approach. Richard Buchanan notes that Rittel was initially influenced by the neo-positivist approach popular in the 1960s which sought to develop a scientific process of creating, but his “wicked problems” idea was a change in his conceptualisation of these problems to a more pluralist position (p16). The structured format of defining a wicked problem presented still carries the character of a scientific approach though. This also appears in Rittel and Webber’s attempt to create clear categorisations of tame and wicked problems. The challenge of clearly conceptualising something as fluid as a wicked problem without falling into the trap of scientific rigidity is difficult. The other extreme of this situation is the vagueness around the idea of design thinking popular from the mid 2000s onwards, which completely avoids any kind of structure and in turn manages to achieve very little in terms of clarity of concept.
  3. Expanding on 2, the problem goes beyond the broad incompatibility of the scientific paradigm to these kinds of unstructured problems, and seems to get more specifically at the concept of solution.
  4. This presents opportunity to enter territory of observations around “problem frames”, a design concept best captured by Kees Dorst and Bec Paton’s (2011) study of how design professionals frame and iteratively re-frame problems.
  5. This takes us deep into the heart of actor-network theory, which makes the most seemingly scientific activities become intensely complicated and layered outcomes of social and technological factors. Even the very instruments used to do science become entanglements and embodiments of a performative set of heterogeneous actors (Latour and Woolgar, 1979).
  6. As noted above, neo-positivism has been a trap of design theorists since the earliest publications of Herbert Simon and his contemporaries. Buchanan particularly notes how design theory has often lent towards a neo-positivist approach, in tension with the pluralist and pragmatic reality of design practice (p6). Even 25 years on from Buchanan’s text, attempts at building frameworks and models are common (almost always awkwardly attempting to retain an element of pluralism as part of the framework). An actor-network kind of approach to thinking about design is a much better way of dealing with these issues – it is a theoretical way of dealing with things that is in alignment with the reality of plurality in design practice.
  7. See 4.

References

Herbert Simon (1969), The Sciences of the Artificial.

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber (1973), ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’.

Richard Buchanan (1992), ‘Wicked problems in Design Thinking’.

Michel Callon (1998), ‘An essay in framing and overflowing’.

Bec Paton and Kees Dorst (2011), ‘Briefing and reframing: A situated practice’.

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar (1979), Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts.

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