Wicked Problems

Throughout my first week of wicked problems in industrial design my personal definition of sustainability has changed some though not too dramatically. Previously I thought of sustainability in terms of sustainable design in architecture. My professor last fall, Professor Jay Yowell, conducted a special lecture on biomimicry and its applications in the design process.  The main focus on his lecture was on a research group he had been a member of that studied tree bark and how it interacted with the environment that the tree existed in. Using this research, the team was able to design a building skin that mimicked tree bark, becoming more resilient and insulating as time went on. Because of this I always thought of sustainability as more of a feature of a building rather than a goal. The way I view it now is more of a goal or standard that should be met in the design process. A design should start with sustainability in mind rather than a problem that can be solved later.

By definition, a wicked problem is one that cannot be solved by current means and is one that no one can determine the eventual outcome. This, in my opinion, makes these problems more terrifying and far more annoying than any other. When discussing why a course of action needs to be taken, it is usually discussed in a context of: If we don’t ____ then this will occur. With a wicked problem however, the second half of the of this statement cannot occur without guessing on possible outcomes. When approaching one of these problems with the goal of doing the best that one can do for the time being, it is harder to convince those who might not agree with your actions to support you without knowing the full extent of the outcomes. This differs from a standard tame problems which have a clear outcome and a solution can be formulated with this in mind.

One of the things I find interesting about wicked problems is that because of their lack of an endpoint I feel like they are problems which go under estimated or even unnoticed. I feel like today in our society we are always supposed to prepare a back up plan. Going to college? Think of a few back up majors in case this one doesn’t work out. Snow storm next weekend? Go to the store for supplies in case you get snowed in. I feel with wicked problems the creep out of the woodwork and leave you on a back foot. The problem could have been building for years even decades but no one knew to prepare and because of that the actual solutions do not exist when they are needed. This is where I think wicked problems truly challenge us as we are problem solvers who can solve a problem in hindsight but are completely ill equipped to deal with what the problem has developed into and a solution’s result cannot be confirmed until it is attempted.

When we do find out what this problem is it is often difficult to pinpoint where it is coming from as so many factors lined up in such a way to create this scenario. Before we can solve a problem, we must know where it stems from so as to not try and interact with a situation that never existed. Once we do uncover the origin or origins, we must find a solution for the problem and often this doesn’t work for everyone. All the parties involved will rarely get an outcome they like entirely and might sometimes get an outcome that hurts them. This makes it difficult to decide on a good solution or a bad one as not everyone will come out benefiting from it. And even in a case where one solution is discovered for one scenario, it might not work out an all similar scenarios and require modifications or even complete reworking of a plan.

All these factors lead to those with the ability to make changes to enter a state of concern on what the best course of action is all the while not making any actions. This is the point that I feel we have hit with the environmental crisis as discussed in 11th hour. We have hit a point when we have so much data and evidence that we don’t know were to start as there is no one source of the problem and we don’t know the order that they should be attempted to be solved.

This is why I find the washed-up exhibit so compelling as it doesn’t present solutions but frames a problem. The main piece showing pictures of shells that slowly morphs into trash and garbage. The items also shift from being framed on a sandy beach to in dirt and mud. Connected to all of this is the form of a human torso filled with trash. These two elements are radically different though I think they both make differing points but their relations to one another cause these different messages to overlap and create even more hidden meanings. Starting with the ribbon like shape on the ground, the framing that the artist uses, water and mud, draws out an inherent emotion in the viewer. Oceans and water are natural and have a beauty to them but mud and soil are natural and ugly. Generally, a viewer would see the water as the better or more appealing of the two substances. The actual shells and coral that are placed on the sand lack any color and are all shades of brown and simply show an elegant natural form. I thought this was interesting as it was a deliberate choice to not show vibrant shells or coral reefs, though I don’t fully understand why myself. Perhaps it was almost meant to show that a problem existed in the beauty as the coral was long dead on the shore of the ocean. The actual pieces of trash are varying colors and sizes and are almost meant to draw in a viewer’s eyes. This might lead to some only noting the mud exists rather than dwelling on it, focusing rather on the more interesting garbage. This might allude to the same “analysis paralysis” as we note a problem exists as we analyze the garbage but the mud and grim exists as we ignore it. The actual torso is a slender and elegant form that might be meant to allude to the “perfect beauty” that we often strive to reach. This form is filled with garbage, possibly trying to suggest a cost for this beauty. It may also be trying to establish that we are the core of this problem or possibly since this trash is in the torso rather than organs it is suggesting that we caused this problem because of things that we deemed essential. The placement of this torso is elevated from the ribbon form and almost seems separate. A large stand and an inner tube separate the torso from the ribbon form possibly trying to suggest mankind’s desire to separate themselves from causing this or the disregard for this problem as it formed.

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