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Corona as a wicked problem (6/11): This is not a dress rehearsal.

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 6.

This is not a dress rehearsal

Property 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” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 163)

Let's first try something out. Most of you will be familiar with this experiment right?

If not: first check out this video.

Now, whether you already knew this trick or you just saw it for the first time: can you watch the video without seeing the gorilla? Nope. Once you have seen it you can't unsee it. This is what Rittel and Webber are hinting at with this property. There are permanent traces which cannot simply be deleted or undone.

Dress rehearsals are meant for tame problems. You can tinker, improvise, experiment, and if it turns out that it didn't work? No problem! Start over and try something else. There is no penalty in trying out different things when you're working with tame problems. If you lose a game of cards or Monopoly, this is seldom consequential for subsequent games (except for the humiliation that follows, or is that just in my family? ;-)). If you didn't pass the exam? There is a resit. No (real) harm done.

However, with wicked problems every try is consequential and leaves permanent traces that can't be undone. Just as once you've seen the gorilla, the trick doesn't work on you anymore, you have changed. When dealing with wicked problems people's lives are affected and money is spent that cannot be spent on other things. Actions are effectively irreversible and the half-lives of the consequences are long. I usually take the example of highways.

Remember the pre-Corona traffic jams? Well, let's say we have decided to expand our 3-lane highways and make them into 8-lane highways. We buy the land that we need, buy out the farmers that have their barns, fields and cattle there and buy out the people that live in houses on the land that we need. If we discover that our new highway didn't solve the problem, we cannot just turn everything back to what it was before to try some other idea. The implementation of our first idea has had consequences. People have had to move, farmers have had to relocate their company, land has been covered with asphalt, tax money has been spent. Rittel and Webber themselves take the example of a factory: "you cannot set up a factory, see how it works, demolish it and rebuild it over again until it works" (1972, p.393). Things leave traces.

Hinsliff (2020) gives two interesting examples of how things that were tried in response to an event, left traces we even experience nowadays:

"Women taking over men’s work in factories and offices was meant to be a sticking plaster solution to get us through the second world war, but when the fighting was over women balked at returning to narrow domestic lives. Rationing was just a pragmatic response to food shortages but it accidentally created a giant control group of children all raised on the same diet, whose health outcomes obesity researchers would study for decades to come."

Every experiment, every idea you implement to deal with wicked problems, leaves traces, just think of the permanent consequences that current measures may have for:

  • people who lose a loved one in this period, whether that's caused by Corona or not

  • entrepreneurs who go bankrupt despite the financial help of governments

  • people in abusive relationships/families who live in that situation all day now

  • children whose parents aren't able to do homeschooling

  • people whose surgery or therapy has been postponed due to the influx of Corona-patients.

If we follow Rittel and Webber we can only learn to understand wicked problems by dealing with them, but everything we try may leave unpredictable and irreversible consequences. A huge responsibility for decision makers, and a huge opportunity. We had already noticed that there would be ripples, but according to this property we have to take a longer term perspective and be aware of the fact that some ripples may cause permanent change, either negative or positive. Dealing with wicked problems is not a dress rehearsal, these are not inconsequential tryouts, what you choose to do matters because the traces you leave may be permanent.

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