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Corona as a Wicked Problem (3/11): When does it end?

Almost half a century ago, Horst Rittel en Melvin Webber, both professors at the Berkeley University of California, coined the term ‘Wicked Problems’. Their description of wicked problems may help in shedding some light on the current Corona-situation, which is why I have decided to create a series of posts on this topic. This is part 3.

When does it end? 

Property 2: “Wicked problems have no stopping rule” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 162)

When you're dealing with a tame problem, you know when you're done. You know when you've solved it. The logic of the problem itself will tell you when you're done.

We know when we've solved the math problem '2+2 = ...'.

We know when we've solved our domestic problem that the 'garbage bag is full'.

These problems are quite binary. You either win or lose, you succeed or fail, you live or die. They are also quite trivial, because we are so used to this way of dealing with problems. You as the problem-solver know what your job is and you can tell when you are done with it.

Not so for wicked problems. In part 2 we already saw that there is no definitive formulation of what the problem is and therefore of what 'the solution' would be. Every definition would point in the direction of different ways of tackling the problem. So if we don't know what is the problem or the solution: how can we know when we're done?

When are we done with Corona?

  • When SARS-CoV-2 has been eradicated? And on what scale? National? Global?

  • When we have a vaccine? Perhaps combined with herd immunity? And what if this thing mutates?

  • Or are you done when you are immune as an individual?

  • Is it when there are treatments and drugs that help alleviate the pressure on ICUs that we can declare that the worst is over?

  • Is it when our lives are back to normal again? (and what does that even mean?)

  • Is it never and do we permanently have to get used to (periodically) distancing ourselves?

We just don't know. Wicked problems have no stopping-rule.

If by dealing with the problem we are learning more about it and getting to understand it better, this means that we can always invest more effort, money, time, energy or attention to find better solutions. And nothing inherent in the wicked problem will tell us when we are done. We're not playing Monopoly here, where the rules, i.e. the logic, of the game determine who wins. We're not doing our maths homework, where the laws, i.e. the logic, of mathematics determine what the solution of an equation is (more on the right- and wrongness of proposed solutions in the next part by the way).

The logic of a wicked problem can't tell you whether you're done: you have to decide when enough is enough.

Ok, of course, #StayAtHome, but when is the transmission-rate low enough? When has this whole social isolation/quarantine-situation taken long enough?

#FlattenTheCurve. Absolutely. But when is the curve flat enough?

When are enough people immune to be able to speak of herd-immunity?

When have bars and restaurants been closed long enough?

What is enough in this context? What does it mean? And who decides? Based on what?

If you Google "when does a pandemic end?" you get all sorts of articles and studies. I've read many and surprise surprise: not one has an answer. Of course not, because we don't know. Wicked problems have no stopping-rule. It's only for kids that we can act as if they did...

To be continued.

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