Travis Wall

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

Location: Sydney, Australia

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.

Michel Callon An essay on framing and overflowing: economic externalities revisited by sociology 1998

This concept of framing is easily applied to the interactions that interest economists, whether in the form of classic commercial transactions or contract negotiations. To negotiate a contract or perform a commercial transaction etTectively presupposes a framing of the action without which it would be impossible to reach an agreement, in the same way that in order to play a game of chess, two players must agree to submit to the rules and sit down at a chessboard which physically circumscribes the world within which the action will take place.

Michel Callon Actor-network theory - the market test 1999

Economists invented the notion of externality to denote all the connections, relations and effects which agents do not take into account in the calculations when entering into a market transaction. If, for example, a chemical plant pollutes the river into which it pumps its toxic products, it produces a negative externality. The interests of fishermen, bathers and other users are harmed and in order to continue their activities they will have to make investments for which they will receive no compensation. The factor calculates its decisions without taking into account the effects on the fishermen’s activities. The externalities are not necessarily negative, they may also be positive. Take the case of a pharmaceutical company which wants to develop a new molecule. To protect itself it files a patent. However, in so doing it divulges information which becomes freely available to competitors and can be used by them to shape their own R&D.

Granovetter—and on this point he is at one with ANT—reminds us that any entity is caught up in a network of relations, in a flow of intermediaries which circulate, connect, link and reconstitute identities (Gallon, 1991). What the notion of externality shows, in the negative, is all the work that has to be done, all the investments that have to be made in order to make relations calculable in the network. This consists of framing the actors and their relations. Framing is an operation used to define individual agents clearly distinct and dissociated from one another. It also allows for the definition of objects, goods and merchandise which are perfectly identifiable and can be separated not only from other goods, but also from the actors involved, for example in their conception, production, drculation or use. It is owing to this framing that the market can exist, that is to say, that distinct agents and distinct goods can be brought into play since all these entities are independent, unrelated and unattached to one another.

What economists say when they study externalities is precisely that this work of cleansing, of disconnection, in short, of framing, is never over and that in reality it is impossible to take it to a conclusion. There are always relations which defy framing. It is for these relations which remain outside the frame that economists reserve the tenn externalities. The latter denotes everything which the agents do not take into account and which enables them to conclude their calculations. But one needs to go further than that. When, after having identified them, the agents, in keeping with the predictions of Coase’s famous theorem, decide to reframe them—in other words to internalize the externalities—other externalities appear. I would suggest the term ‘overflowing’ to denote this impossibility of total framing. Any frame is necessarily subject to overflowing. It is by framing its property rights by means of a publie patent that a pharmaceutical firm produces externalities and creates overflowing. It is by purifying the products that it markets that a chemical firm creates the by-products which escape its control.

Michel Callon An Essay on the Growing Contribution of Economic Markets to the Proliferation of the Social 2007

Relying upon the anthropology of science and technology, we can define economic markets as socio-technical arrangements or agencements (STA) whose functioning is based on a set of framings concerning not only goods and agencies but also price-setting mechanisms. Market framing constitutes powerful mechanisms of exclusion, for to frame means to select, to sever links and finally to make some trajectories (at least temporarily) irreversible. Certain worlds, with their goods, agents and attachments, are chosen above others which are consequently threatened with extinction. This is the first source of matters of concern. Since framings are never completely successful, overflowings occur, which constitute a second possible source. To illustrate the proposed approach, I am now going to consider each of these two sources of matters of concern in turn, limiting myself in each case to a few significant examples.

The framings required by the functioning of market STAs are multiple (Callon, 1998; Callon and Caliskan, in preparation; Callon and Muniesa, 2005). Some maintain a strict (ontological) divide between, on the one hand, entities transformed into (passive) goods susceptible to valuation and pricing and, on the other, the agencies capable of performing those valua- tions. Other framings concern the agencies themselves: for instance, they define their geometry (individual and collective) or the motives and equip- ment (cognitive, emotional, instrumental) enabling them to engage in operations of valuation. Finally, there are framings which organize encoun- ters between goods and agencies.

A complete analysis would require us to examine all of these framings and to identify the exclusions and matters of concern that they generated. Since the aim of this article is to present and illustrate an approach, I will simply consider two cases of framing responsible for significant exclusions.

The mutual reinforcement of the different framings mentioned earlier, which results in the provisional stabilization of technologies, rules of the game, conventions, laws, training, competencies and skills, leads sometimes to what economists have called socio- technological lock-in. Everyone knows Paul David’s famous example of the QWERTY keyboard, chosen for the sake of technical efficiency related to the first typewriters’ design (David, 1984). This option ended up becoming a standard that it is now quite impossible to change. More generally, when a new socio-technical activity emerges, several options compete for a while. Yet fairly quickly one (or a few) of them prevails, and not necessarily the best one from a technical or even an economic point of view. Paul David has proposed the term enraged orphans for those consumers who chose a technological option that was eventually eliminated for reasons not directly related to its technical qualities or initial relative costs.

Granovetter and McGuire (1998) generalize Paul David’s argument in a superb analysis of the trajectory of the North American electricity industry. They show how the choice of frequencies and the priority given to the centralization of units of electricity production gradually created irre- versibilities. Certain options were rejected and, along with them, related projects and demands. As a result of social networks, institutions, policies implemented by government authorities and research undertaken by labora- tories, a technology and the world matching it were permanently imposed. The orphan groups that had bet on other options or that would have liked alternatives to be developed were thus left on the side of the road.

This is a general mechanism. Due to increasing returns resulting from adoption and production, the dynamic of markets produces huge exclusions. Of all potential worlds, only a small number are explored and exploited. Certain demands, expectations or needs end up being ignored. We can agree to use the term orphan groups for all these groups excluded from techno- logical and economic development. Orphan groups are not necessarily enraged. Some can avoid giving in to resentment. They can choose to engage in a strategy of construction of the worlds in which they want to live, by developing the research and innovation potential that will make them even stronger and more effective.

Richard Buchanan Wicked Problems in Design Thinking 1993

Individual designers often possess a personal set of placements, developed and tested by experience. The inventivess of the designer lies in a natural or cultivated and artful ability to return to those placements and apply them to a new situation, discovering aspects of the situation that affect the final design. What is regarded as the designer’s style, then, is sometimes more than just a personal preference for certain types of visual forms, materials or techniques: it is a characteristic way of seeing possibilities through conceptual placements.