What is a “Problem,” Really? The Wickedness of Problem Systems

Peter JonesSocial Systems Design, Systemic Design

Adapted from a new article:  Jones, P.H. (2014). Systemic design principles for complex social systems. In G. Metcalf (ed.), Social Systems and Design, Volume 1 of the Translational Systems Science Series, pp 91-128. Springer Japan.

“Problems,” as we naively designate them, are essentially social agreements to name a salient concern shared within a culture. We learn to describe an observed phenomenon or anticipated possible outcome as a normative deficiency, and we expect a listener to accept the “problem” as a shared object of concern.  But what is a “problem” really?  The designation of concern (Latour, 2008) reflects a thoughtful presentation of the social value of the meaning ascribed to problems as experienced. Latour distinguishes between matters of fact (believed to be objectively determined) and matters of concern (about which we share associated values, and experience care, entanglement, and investment).   Matters of concern are issues relevant to our motivation for design for social betterment. Design theorists often prefer “fuzzy” or “ill-formed situation” as a rhetorical means to distanciate the social concerns embedded in the situation that could inhibit generative ideation or creative resolution. In other words, better design results when we keep ourselves from becoming too attached to the “problem as stated” or the desired sponsor outcomes.

I will adhere to the common meaning of problem as a perceived deficiency or negative value state sufficiently significant to compel social agreement to repair or restore the source at issue. And I will attempt to shed light on the meaning of “problem” itself, as many have done before.

Significant societal or global problems (such as global poverty, hunger, sociopolitical violence, climate change) originally emerge from multiple root causes and become interconnected over time. As with designed systems, “problems” are situations that favor some constituents and cause unforeseen consequences to others. Problems are maintained by social agreement and tend to reinforce conditions over time, and they begin to resemble autonomous, complex adaptive systems. These co-occurring problematic manifestations can be termed problem systems. Problem systems demonstrate the whole-part identity of a system of systems, the interdependency of component systems, and the endurance of ultra-stable systems.

Problems Exist in Language

It is incorrect to speak of solving wicked problems, as there are no agreed or effective evaluation measures that would justify the claim. The idea of dissolving wicked problems by design thinking has a popular resonance, but little empirical meaning. According to social systems theorists, the so-called wicked problem does not exist in the world with definable boundaries. Warfield (2001) asserted that all problems we define, as human constructs, can be described as problem sets, with each distinct problem merely a component of a set or problem system.

Warfield (2001) stated that all complexity exists in the minds of perceivers, not in the system believed to be the subject of description. The frustration that occurs when observers find themselves unable to define and understand a situation leads to the explanation that the system is inherently complex. Stakeholders are unable to recognize that their own cognitive limitations explain the majority of the complexity. Also, most socially complex problem constructions contain objectively complex subsystems, multiple relationships and feedback interactions that require analysis and domain expertise to unravel. Likewise, in any problem definition stakeholders underconceptualize the factors and therefore the field of designable options (or possibilities for innovation).

While this feature of complexity has been considered an argument for systems thinking, the necessity for variety and multiple reasoning pathways strengthens the argument for a strong design approach instead. Warfield’s axiom, taken seriously, reveals the flaws of a hard systems analysis for optimization and problem definition. Design, or effective intervention, in complex systems requires deliberate variety enhancement and refraining from early closure. System designers identify and reconfigure boundaries as ways of sensemaking with others, to evaluate design strategies, and to produce descriptive scenarios.

A Problematic Identity

Problems only “exist” when declared by social agreement. The identity of a problem does not exist until expressed in language, communicated in some way. The notion of deficiency is normative and a matter of shared understanding, not an objective fact. Even a devastating, and observable measurable situation such as “ocean acidification” is not registered as a problem until expressed as a deficiency, and with agreement from others that such is the case. The pH levels and measures may exist otherwise, but not a “problem” unless languaged.

For design in a systemic context, we are not only handed problems as matters of fact, but are given complex, socially-contested issues which may be descriptions of deficiencies we can only begin to make sense of. These don’t “exist” in a real sense, they are socially constructed and the designation of problem is a way in which we organize meaning and move toward appropriate action.

Every stakeholder invested in a situation will be primarily concerned with relationships that occur within the problem system perceived as significant to their interests or values. This differentiation of care results in agreements not based on common understanding of a social system, but on individual concerns for possible outcomes and opportunities understood as individually meaningful.  Different stakeholders will find salience in aspects of the situation they care about, which are compelling to their experience, giving them an actual stake in the problem, a motive for taking action. Returning to Latour for a moment, his recent Inquiry into Modes of Existence discriminates up to 15 modes or lifeworlds, each which might carry completely different sets of values and concerns relevant to the facts of a case. To frame a problem such as “climate change impacts” we face difficulties in understanding each other’s lifeworld or mode of existing and values, before we might self-organize toward actually effective action on systemic problem systems.

Social methods are necessary for enabling people to discover experienced phenomena and to reach understanding, if not consensus, about possible paths of action. Social methods are not necessarily democratic by design, but must be to facilitate substantive and invested participation from the range of stakeholders in a problem system. Social methods are necessarily processes of design, not only ideation and deliberation.  The most efficacious courses of action in a complex social system are not determined analytically, or by consensus of a group, but through the interactive co-creation and assessment of stakeholder proposals that synthesize a whole intervention or actionable strategy.  (The methods for which are included in such works as Design for Care.)