Sunday, May 20, 2012

Engineering Wickedness

Engineering faces a host of global problems; what can be called "wicked problems."  Wickedness doesn't pertain to a degree of difficulty - - these problems are difficult because the traditional problem-solving process cannot resolve them.  Wicked engineering problems are messy and reactive - - from climate change to rebuilding our national infrastructure - - there is no single solution.  For problems like climate change and engineering for extreme weather events, defining the parameters of the problem itself is often half the challenge.

The ten characteristics of wicked problems that engineers need to understand are as follows:
  1. There is no definitive formulation of the problem itself.
  2. There is no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
  4. There is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution.
  5. Every solution is a "one-shot operation" in that every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable 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.  (This one is really important.  Take urban planning, for instance.  Look around your city and you will see countless examples of the unintended consequences of a failure to understand a complex system.  Engineering still thinks in terms of the "script" and "silo-planning" - - but never system connections, interfaces, and overlaps.)
  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 [decision maker] has no right to be wrong.
Source - - From Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning by Host Rittel and Melvin Webber, Policy Sciences, Vol 4, Elsevier Publishing, 1973.

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