Decision Theory for Planners #102 Cleaning up a social mess

What a social mess.

The term comes from Russell Ackoff “”Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.” (Redesigning the Future -1974)

They’ve been called a variety of things including “wicked problems.” (by Horst Rittle & Melvin Webber), “ill-structured problems.” (by Ian Mitroff).

A tame problem (Conklin, J, 2001, p.11)

  • has a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement.
  • has a definite stopping point, i.e. we know when the solution or a solution is reached.
  • has a solution which can be objectively evaluated as being right or wrong.
  • belongs to a class of similar problems which can be solved in a similar manner.
  • has solutions which can be tried and abandoned.

Wicked problems/Social Messes have none of these things.

Different writers have emphasised different aspects but all essentially the same problem – that its not just a problem its a mess.

Problems, tame problems, well structured problems, have solutions. Messes do not have straightforward solutions.

The first time you mention a controversial issue you will know if you have a social mess if immediately you have two to more points of view the moment you mention it – from different value systems, different perceptions and even the nature, causes, boundaries, and range of solutions of offer to the policy maker.

Think of issues such as nuclear power, wind farms, genetically modified crops, housebuilding etc. etc.

Complexity is part of the problem Robert Horn says that a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes‘. This Complexity makes Social Messes so resistant to clear structuring and definitions and hence clear analysis and, resolution

In their classic paper of planning theory Rittell and Webber understood that this also undermines traditional rationlist approaches to planning

“The classical …approach … is based on the assumption that a planning project can be organized into distinct phases: ‘understand the problems’, ‘gather information,’ ‘synthesize information and wait for the creative leap,’ ‘work out solutions’ and the like. For wicked problems, however, this type of scheme does not work. One cannot understand the problem without knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve.”

In a much quoted paper (though almost unknown to town planners) Richard Buchanan used the concept as a basis for a theory of design – in essence that design was a creative act because it was the art of solving wicked problems through spatial forms.

Why are design problems indeterminate and, therefore, wicked? Neither Rittel nor any of those studying wicked problems has attempted to answer this question, so the wicked-problems approach has remained only a description of the social reality of designing rather than the beginnings of a well-grounded theory of design…
Design problems are “indeterminate” and “wicked” because design has no special subject matter of its own apart from what a designer conceives it to be. The subject matter of design is potentially universal in scope, because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience. But in the process of application, the designer must discover or invent a particular subject out of the problems and issues of specific circumstances. This sharply contrasts with the disciplines of science, which are concerned with understanding the principles, laws, rules, or structures that are necessarily embodied in existing sub-
ject matters.

So for Buchanan the mess is a liberation – because it creates the field and space for creative expression. Sorting out social messes is the very act of being a creative person.

Jonathan Rosenhead, of the London School of Economics, has presented the following criteria for dealing with complex social planning problems (Rosenhead,. J. (1996). “What’s the problem? An introduction to problem structuring methods”. Interfaces 26(6):117-131.)

  • Accommodate multiple alternative perspectives rather than prescribe single solutions
  • Function through group interaction and iteration rather than back office calculations
  • Generate ownership of the problem formulation through stakeholder participation and transparency
  • Facilitate a graphical (visual) representation of the problem space for the systematic, group exploration of a solution space
  • Focus on relationships between discrete alternatives rather than continuous variables
  • Concentrate on possibility rather than probability

In other words a process of group social learning.

There is a very large literature of techniques for group social learning, and also for the complementary tools for multi-criteria decision making. Ill look at these in future chapters.

Ultimately though improvements will only arise through creative planning.  I use the term improvements rather than solutions, to planning problems, because planning problems, being messy, never go away and often generate new problems.

This requires a modesty and an immersion when dealing with our clients – certainly not an erasurehead approach.

We can learn from the great Italian Architect and Planner, Giancarlo -De-Carlo who approached these problems from an anarchist perspective. (for 360 degree panoramas of his most famous schemes see here)

De Carlo did not believe in rigid separation of disciplines, of  a solution imposed on an historic backdrop, or of a designer seperating themselves from the needs and understanding of the client. He began with a deep “reading of the territory.” He has described this as an iterative process,
involving tentative design and feedback.

“all barriers between builders and users must be abolished, so that building and using become part of the same planning process..Wise Plans fail because the collectivity had no reason to defend them. Since it did not participate in their forumulation ” (Architectures Public 1969)

How to break down such barriers?

In a university really worthy of the name, every citizen should be free to enter and listen to a lecture. You could say, “well, what stops anyone from attending a lecture now?”[this was before fees] I believe the answer is the architecture itself. Thresholds, for instance, are the expression of authority and institutionalization. And the most important barriers are those thresholds which you cannot touch.
The issue of easing access should be much more important than simply concern for disabled entrances. In a way, we are all disabled when we cannot use a particular space. Thresholds built up in words are more powerful than physical thresholds.

Think of the barriers that planning departments erect to the understanding and availability of planners and planning information with their one stop shops designed like estate agents – really designed to sell a ‘service’ and keep the public outside the door marked private. The false hermetic seal between the order behind and the social mess out front.

2 thoughts on “Decision Theory for Planners #102 Cleaning up a social mess

  1. Pingback: Decision Theory for Planners #113 To decide or not to decide? – the Delay Dilemma « Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

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