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  • Anna Snel VUCA Academy

Corona as a Wicked Problem (7/11): Keeping your options open


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 7.


Keeping your options open

Property 6: "Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan." (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 164)

Let's start with a question: How can you solve the problem of street robbery? What options do you have?


If you are anything like the participants of workshops I've asked this question you will probably have thought of some options. Maybe you would increase penalties for this crime, have more police surveilling the streets, forbid people to walk around with purses/bags, warn people for robbers. Or you may also have thought of teaching ethics courses in schools and prisons, implementing a basic income or installing parenting camps. Or maybe you would propose cutting off robbers' hands or decriminalising robbery, that would reduce crime ratings in a different manner.


You may be frowning now because of some of these ideas but they are ideas. Am I a proponent of corporal punishment? Nope, but when deciding how to deal with a wicked problem (since we've established that solving it won't be possible) I'd rather have as many ideas on the table as possible so we have something to discuss about and choose from. If we just have a small toolbox with a fixed set of ideas, we're just constraining our potential.


For tame problems, this usually is not a problem. There are rules or standards for deciding how to solve the problem. A game has rules that determine what you can and cannot do. A washing machine with an error has a manual that tells you what options you have. Even for an appendectomy there are strict procedures and the doctors performing it know which tools they have at their disposal.


Not so for a wicked problem like the current Corona situation. Because who knows how big our toolbox is and what the potential choices can be? When do we know whether we have found and considered all possible options? Who decides? When do we stop searching? The size of our toolbox depends on us. Our perseverance, our perspective, our knowledge, our imagination, our attitude (an optimist will probably keep searching for longer than a pessimist) and our access to other people. Whose ideas should we listen to and look for?


Now the positive news is that there is in fact a HUGE amount of creative ideas everywhere. People are sowing mouth masks so that the official medical (scarce) ones can be used where they are most needed. People have adapted recreative snorkel masks to use them as protective masks, the military is 3D printing protective face masks and others are printing respiratory valves for ICUs. Distilleries and producers of beer have reshaped their production processes in order to produce hand sanitiser. People meet online for meetings, choir practice, drinks, pub quizzes, class, webinars, bingo, you name it. New business models are popping up everywhere.


There is a lot of creativity and to find out what works and what doesn't it's good to get as much of this creative potential on the table as possible. Because these contain our options to deal with this wicked problem. "In coherency, humanity’s creative powers are boundless. A few months ago, a proposal to halt commercial air travel would have seemed preposterous. Likewise for the radical changes we are making in our social behavior, economy, and the role of government in our lives" (Eisenstein, 2020). I stopped counting how many times I've read and heard the sentence 'never waste a good crisis' in the last weeks. But it's true: crises make everything liquid. Things that were unimaginable once (not even so long ago) are reality now.


So who can predict how the whole situation will evolve? No one knows what the future will hold, but we can look at the present, and I see two very relevant characteristics that could be helpful in developing more creative ideas: the first is surrealism, the second is boredom.


The situation is bizarre and surreal, which forces us out of our habits. Eisenstein said it brilliantly: the situation is "like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice" (2020). We are forced to break with many of our habits, which were invisible to us up to now. Now that we are becoming aware of them we can also try to see whether these habits actually helped or hindered us. And in the space where we once had that habit, we now have space for new choices and ideas, for new potential that may enlarge our toolbox.


The second thing is boredom. Also the boredom of social isolation can be a blessing. And not just in the sense of TikTok dances and challenges or musical performances from balconies, but boredom itself can help in becoming more creative. In 'The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good' Sandi Mann (2016) explains why in the until recently fast-paced hectic and dynamic information age people have become so used to being stimulated and kept busy all the time, that they can't tolerate the routine and repetitive sides of life anymore. As soon as there is only a slight chance of boredom we find a way to avoid it. While boredom is a very good way of giving the brain the chance to come up with creative ideas. And some of those ideas might actually be useful in figuring out what to do in order to deal with the current Corona wicked problem.


Yet another perfect reason to #blijfthuis, #stayhome, #restaacasa, #bleibzuhause, #quedateencasa, #blijfinuwkot, should you still need one.

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