Jacek Irzykowski Kreola

Insights from Art on Engaging with Wicked Problems

Johann Sarmiento Business, Education, Insights 0 Comments

One way to look at our modern world is as a gigantic collection of problems. Many of these problems might be personal and very well defined (e.g. how do I get to the office on time today?) while others are much higher complexity (e.g. those associated with geopolitical or ecological issues.)  A view of the world as full of problems is not a pessimistic view in any form but, instead, one that highlights the action-oriented and dynamic nature of our natural and man-made worlds.  The key question is, however, whether our problem-solving approaches are up to par with all the challenges we face individually and collectively.

For many years, academics, individual practitioners, and organizations have proposed and tested many problem-solving approaches and have generated as well many insights about how humans solve problems. “Almost everything in life is a problem” declare the foremost experts in the psychological study of human problem solving. Precisely because of that, understanding what makes certain problems so difficult and how, is quite important.  It is in that spirit that we wanted to collect here some insights about Art and a very particular type of important problems, the so-called “Wicked Problems.”

 Where do “Wicked Problems” come from?

Originally, the concept of “Wicked Problems” emerged from the field of social planning and was associated with societal problems.  Wicked problems (i.e.”tricky” ones as opposed to “malicious” ones) were defined as such not just because of their size or level of difficulty but because they are the types of situations in which the ongoing need to define and clarify the meaning of the problem becomes the central challenge and the driving force behind “making progress” with it.   Another reason why problems were labeled wicked was the fact that they often involve multiple stakeholders with concerns and worldviews that are very diverse and often in conflict with one another.

Designing local education systems, public health initiatives, or how to better preserve the environment are clear wicked problems but so are  things like reaching a good balance between the work and personal dimensions in your life, promoting meaningful community relationships, etc. Settling too early for a narrow definition of the problem would likely lead to, at best, a very partial improvement that might fade easily over time. In addition, in reality wicked problems never get completely solved because there are no complete and definitive tests of whether the problem has been addressed nor guarantees that the progress achieved will stay forever.

To a large extent, wicked problems came about as a challenge to the “rational” or “information-processing” model of human problem solving which dominated psychology and even to the “first-generation systems approach” used in some areas of Economy and Management.   Because the popular “Divide-and-Conquer,” and  “Means-End” strategies of traditional problem solving depend on a clear definition of the initial and desired states they are simply inadequate to deal with this unique class of problems.

How can Art-based approaches help?

One of the interesting things about wicked problems which resonates quite closely with artistic practices is the fact that, very often, engaging in attempts to resolve a wicked problem and iterating through such attempts seems to be the only way to actually make progress.  Such action contributes to defining an understanding what the problem might be as much as it moves the situation forward.  Often we, as spectators, learn about what a social problem is (or was) the way we often learn about what Van Gogh may have done to painting in his time: in retrospective.  Such retrospective accounts give us the wrong impression about how one actually experiences these situations. The importance of engaging, in an open, reflective, and action-oriented way, with the situation at hand is perhaps one of the greatest lessons of the artistic-approach to problem solving.

Clearly our global economy qualifies as a wicked problems and, as many leading thinkers believe, for our global economy to not create more instability, inequality, and crisis, a new approach is needed.  Approaches and alternative concepts are more likely to move from niche to new norm when meaning and engagement are infused into business and the global economy.  As an example, in our interview with violinist and visionary Miha Pogacnik he described how “many people would rather go for a job that is less paid but [in which] they feel to be part of something that is emerging and it is addressing all the issues as one complex whole. There are people who are beginning to look at things as a whole and they feel very personally disturbed if you are only […] making quick money […] but on the other side you are destroying something.”  Insights like these and the committment to continue to understand the nature of wicked problems is what has motivated new ways of doing authoritative regulation, promoting open competition, or supporting participatory planning in many parts of the world.

Art has a lot to contribute to the process of addressing wicked problems. Our working hypothesis at the moment is that the artistic mindset can provide a unique and significant contribution as you can explore in many of the materials collected here in Age of Artists.  Insights from artistic practices point already into very unique ways of approaching meaning-making and sense-making and the individual and collective levels -two key elements at the core of engaging with wicked problems.

Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning by Horst Rittel & Melvin Webber, (1973)
Psychology of Problem Solving by Janet Davidson & Robert J. Sternberg (2003)

Picture Source: Thanks to Jacek Irzykowski, digital matte painter and environment concept artist for allowing us to use his work to accompany this post. Please visit Jacek’s page at http://jacekirzykowski.com/.


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