Monday, September 20, 2010

SENDS and the Wicked Problem Resolution Approach

By Carl Hunt

From the earliest versions of the SENDS White Papers and the SENDS Science of Cyberspace White Papers, we have proposed the study and adoption of the concepts related to Wicked Problem Resolution (WPR) in trying to understand and tackle issues related to the phenomenon of cyberspace and cyberspace security. In fact, several in SENDS Consortium meetings have confidently asserted that cyberspace security is a wicked problem. For that reason, the major SENDS papers have discussed WP in some detail, although to date we have not talked much about how to integrate WPR and the Science of Cyberspace. We begin to do that here.

Earlier this year, Australian academics/authors Valerie Brown, John Harris and Jacqueline Russell published a volume of essays they edited and co-wrote titled Tackling Wicked Problems through the Transdisciplinary Imagination (Earthscan, London, 2010). The principles embodied in the text reflect much of what is considered as complexity science: the multidisciplinary body of research that embraces challenges from diverse research perspectives (see for example: Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, Touchstone, 1992; Kaufmann, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, Oxford, 1996; and Miller and Page, Complex Adaptive Systems, Princeton University Press, 2007).

Transdisciplinary approaches differ from the multidisciplinary perspectives of complexity science in the following way: transdisciplinary thinking is the “collective understanding of an issue…created by including the personal, the local, and the strategic, as well as specialized contributions to knowledge,” note the co-authors in the Introduction to Tackling Wicked Problems. They go on to write that such “open” thinking includes not only the scientific disciplines, but also includes “all validated constructions of knowledge and their worldviews and methods of inquiry” (p. 4). As documented throughout the book, imaginative inquiry is at the heart of resolving WP.

It’s also important to note that we don’t try to “solve” WP, but rather to resolve them due to their complex and dynamic nature. Resolving problems is a different tactic than solving them: "resolving" speaks to an iterative process in which there is a recognition that there is no final or "right" solution, whereas problem "solving" looks for the "right" or ultimate answer. Leveraging the power of cyberspace to accomplish resolution will be a powerful contribution that our budding Science of Cyberspace can make.

There’s much more to discuss when it comes to WPR and the Science of Cyberspace, and we will continue to present those observations right here in this blog. At this point, it’s important to set the stage and seek the beauty of convergence and synergy by identifying imaginative ways to proceed in dealing with wicked problems, harnessing the connectivity of cyberspace.

It’s not about being wrong or right, either, as the academic definitions of the WP literature tell us: “Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong, simply ‘better,’ ‘worse,’ ‘good enough,’ or ‘not good enough.’” (Rittel, Horst and Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, Elsevier, 1973 (this is the ground-breaking paper that began to formalize thinking about WP)).

The convergence of WPR literature, creative and imaginative inquiry, complexity science and a better understanding of cyberspace are all at the root of harnessing the power of mass interconnectivity to identify and better deal with the very hard problems we face now and in the future. Humanity is only beginning to see the benefits and the pitfalls of globalization and the connective power that is emerging from new technologies and social science-based understanding of these environments.

Here’s the closing point: the study of WP in the light of Complexity Science tells us that humans can be simply right or that we can be simply wrong, but we can’t be complexly right or complexly wrong. To appreciate this assertion, it helps to know how complexity science works (including exchange, self-organization and emergence), and it really helps to understand cyberspace theories (which we are only now exploring). The bottom line, however, is that WP are real and they’re tough to tackle because they are complex by their very nature, and the power of cyberspace (and cyberspace sciences) may present the best way to approach WPR.

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