Wicked Problems

I apologize in advance for the rambling nature of this post…

I suppose the chapter I most connected with this week is 8. This is the second time this semester that the term and realities of Wicked Problems has shown up. The first time was in the Scientific Writing course I am lucky enough to be teaching this semester 🙂

The fact that wicked problems are so closely tied with globalization and that with technology (Science, Health, Tech Comm, Community Management, they are showing up everywhere) makes the realities attached to solving them particularly interesting for people like me who enjoy working with them. Though Mehlenbacher seems a bit put off by some treating wicked problems like they were games (see pg 191), I think that’s becoming the most natural and even viable way of dealing with complex problems that have multidimensional histories attached to a host of vastly different communities, and good gamers are used to rules that are always going to be in flux. I assume that Mehlenbacher expresses the idea of attacking these problems with gamer mentalities because of his age (I did do a smidge of cyber-stalking and am now following him on Twitter), but since he’s working with the spirit of Tech Comm future, I would have though he’d embrace that bit. He does kind of imply that such tactics don’t work, but doesn’t negotiate the question of why (to me that matters).

I may be quiet and shy, but I love cooperative problem-solving (we don’t do that enough in our discipline, or, we haven’t been at any rate), and the future he is describing for Tech Comm may make this field more difficult than any other, which also makes it that much more exciting and socially, culturally, and temporally relevant. The misconceptions that he discusses as having to be avoided by the tech commers of tomorrow are already exacerbating the wicked problems we face today. His recommendations to

  1. Never oversimplify the problem! Explore all or as many of the complexities as possible.
  2. Never craft rigid definitions of the problem. Allow for the inevitable shifts and nuances.
  3. Never resist or ignore the uncertainties of the problem. Wicked problems don’t have tame solutions!

are especially important if the communication problem poses a threat to the public or to an institution. I also appreciate his assertion that “Expertise is intensely contextualized and social” (193).


There is no central authority when it comes to solving dynamic problems, and understanding who and what your resources are is necessary for success. The focus on reflection in solving wicked problems is something that really stood out to me too. The shift in who qualifies as an expert and how diverse the range of expertise may need to be also suggests that those who are able to adapt and collaborate most effectively will be in high demand.

The chapter on theory, Chapter 5, and the one on how history influences present design strategies and the resulting social actions, Chapter 7, could prove really helpful in understanding what must go into solving wicked problems. While the creation of protocols in a medical setting is research intensive but less complex a variety of problem-solving, solving wicked problem would mean having to use similar methods just to better understand the problem and work on chipping away at the causes.

For instance, if we used my current favorite wicked problem, global warming, as an example, solutions aren’t going to be created through global action, but local action. A tech commer working with this problem may be employed by a multinational corporation that has acknowledged their contribution to the problem, and who are looking for things they can do to lessen their carbon footprint. The tech commers job then may be to work with a global team to reduce overall energy consumption by converting to renewable energy sources. They would need to find out the energy demands and where they can cut the demand without impairing the system as a whole. By understanding the policies and procedures that are effecting energy demands of production, including the human aspect (workers), the team would be able to find viable methods of reducing energy consumption, but their solution may effect the city or town that houses the facility, and they would need to understand the impact there as well, perhaps including the history of the community and the community beliefs and even public knowledge of how things like solar farms work.

If it were in a city that was likely to have citizens vote on construction of a renewable energy source for the facility, the tech commer would need to know that, and things like public voting history and procedures, and she/he/they would need to work on designing documents and other texts that could explain to the public how such a change would work, how it might effect them and their resources, what the global initiative is, etc. The new knowledge gained in the experience may be translatable to other cities and towns that the corporation has facilities in, and might suggests methods of generating public approval that can be altered based on the new situation and place.

In the process, the tech commer may have developed protocols that can be used by the researchers and workers who will be sent out to learn about the community and who will need to interact closely with the public. A situation like this is also likely to mean that the problem-solving process can be made more efficient by including local experts who will have greater knowledge of how to talk to and work with the public, how new plans may impact things like agriculture and even land development rights, etc. So, the point is that the techniques used to create the protocol for insulin monitoring and administration would be necessary to solve the wicked problem of one corporation reducing its effect on global warming. Likewise, the chapter on theory works into it too….but I notice I am at almost 1000 words, and I may be getting ramblier by the moment. I will finish by noting that, of all that we have read so far this semester, I have enjoyed these three readings the most.


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