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  • Anna Snel VUCA Academy

Corona as a Wicked Problem (5/11): Did we do the right thing?


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 5.


Did we do the right thing?

Property 4: There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 163)

Yesterday's post showed that there are no binary right/wrong or true/false answers to wicked problems. Proposed solutions can only be deemed good or bad, better or worse than some alternative. This requires a different kind of evaluation of solutions, as anyone with experience in qualitative research will know. But something else complicates things even further according to Rittel and Webber.


If you want to test the answer or solution to a tame problem, you can do that on the spot, immediately. You have criteria and rules that tell you whether it was correct or true and based on these you can check the result then and there, immediately. And if the rules were followed correctly the test will be ultimate: there is no need for discussing the results; as anyone following the rules correctly should arrive at the same judgment. No such luck for wicked problems...


No immediate test

Wicked problems are gifts that keep on giving. Results and solutions will generate waves of consequences like ripples on a pond. So you can't know immediately whether your solution was good or bad because you have to wait for the ripples to play out and that takes time. And not just time as in that every time we take Corona measures or loosen restrictions we have to wait for the effects because of the incubation time, but also in the longer term.


There are people making all sorts of predictions of how the way different countries handle the crisis (e.g. complete, 'intelligent' or no lockdowns, masks or no masks, schools and restaurants open or closed, and so on) is going to work out: What we shouldn't forget is that for an immediate test we need rules, data, criteria, evidence, based on which we can test what worked and what didn't. But we're only creating evidence now to be able to make evidence-based decisions later. There is no immediate test (yet) and we'll have to see where the ripples will go.


People are also making all sorts of predictions on the consequences of the Corona-crisis. 34 Big thinkers' ideas were even gathered under the title "Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here's how." I think more modesty is in place here. Yes, it's very likely that we will face economic consequences. But to what degree and where these consequences will be felt most and who is going to suffer and who is going to benefit from the crisis: we don't know. Yes, this period (the length of which we can't even predict) will probably have an influence on our behaviour. But for how long and in what ways exactly? We have no idea yet. These are ripples. And ripples take time. There is no immediate test.


How will the virus continue to spread later in the curve or even beyond the curves we are focusing on? Will it die out? Will it mutate and become a yearly thing like the flu? What will be the consequences for our daily lives? Will we keep up the social distance rule (in the Netherlands we are preparing for a 'one-meter-and-a-half economy' (anderhalve-meter-economie)) and become much more hygiene-focused? Will we be more physical than ever after the isolation is over? How about our healthcare system? Will healthcare workers be paid more in the future? Will other priorities take over? How about crime? Are all the burglars who are out of work now training to be cyber specialists? Is there a risk that the drama in Lombardy tightens the grip on society of the Mafia in South Italy? What will the ripples look like for politics? For schools? For the generation that will be born in this period, 'Generation C'? For our habits? For cultures? For ...?


We will discover in time, and we shouldn't forget: we also create the consequences with our own behaviour of course. We are the ones who interpret what is happening and how we are going to react. One of my favourite quotes on experience still is:

Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him. It is a gift for dealing with the accidents of existence, not the accidents themselves (Huxley, 1932, p.5)

There is no immediate test for the way we deal with this situation because in part we have to wait for where the ripples take us and, let's never forget this, where we take the ripples.


No ultimate test

Besides: the ripples may change your mind. There may be very undesirable consequences in the future that may make your once seemingly brilliant plan and intentions into a catastrophe, or the other way around: decisions that in the short term have very negative consequences may end up having been a stroke of genius.


This seems to be puzzling people at the moment, 2-3 weeks into social isolation. Because yes, in terms of flattening the curve, diminishing pressure on ICUs and protecting the vulnerable elderly and sick (and obese as some are discovering now), social isolation and lockdowns etcetera are a good idea in the minds of many experts. But even if we succeed in attaining these goals we can't be certain that we have passed some ultimate test of how to deal with this crisis.


For example, social isolation also leads to loneliness, which in itself could lead to all sorts of health problems, even death, depression, OCD, or agoraphobia. It's not trivial that social isolation is a very severe type of punishment in prison. Or what about civil liberties? Yes, for the sake of containment of the virus we may accept the tracking of everyone’s movement, travel restrictions, the forbidding of all group gatherings, police going around to check whether you are allowed to be outside and otherwise sending you back home, but would we accept these things to become permanent? (more on this in the edition of tomorrow)

We have to make some hard decisions for which we have no ultimate test. Eisenstein gives an example:

"Most would agree that a month without social interaction for all those children a reasonable sacrifice to save a million lives. But how about to save 100,000 lives? And what if the sacrifice is not for a month but for a year? Five years?" (Eisenstein, 2020, np)

These are value problems for which there is no ultimate test. Eisenstein sees a "million forking paths" before us, so we should be aware of the choices we make and why. Prioritizing health and safety now will create ripples for other human values in the future so we should reflect on what ripples we want to see and act on this. For Corona to really become 'The Big Reset', 'an enormous reset' or a 'blank page for a new beginning' we must continue to reflect on the choices we make.

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