The Insulate Britain Planning Wicked Problem – and How to Fix It

The well meaning activists of Insulate Britain are gluing themselves to everything. I sympathize, I am a former 1990s ecowarrior who used to camp out at Twyford Down and Gargoyle Wharf (acting as Planning Advisor to George Monbiot of all people). I even had my former idol and friend Murray Bookchin (the Marx of Green Lefties) write a whole book condemning my deviationist views – Monty Python Peoples Friends of Judea style. See this critical appraisal by my friend and fellow 1990s rabble rouser Damian White.

Its a tough problem. What planning theorists like me call a Wicked Problem. A problem so entangled and complex, unlike ‘tame’ problems’, they are like a Gordian Knot, with no known or easy solutions, other than not hitherto considered radical action.

Lets look at the Insulate Britain problem through this lens. The problem is insulating all badly designed leaking and creaky old buildings in the UK has been estimated at 2 trillion pounds (figure from my friend Rico Woj I haven’t checked it). We used to think that the problem with poorly energy insulated old buildings was to tear them down and start again. The problem we now known from many studies is embodied carbon, even building a new carbon friendly in operation building involves huge carbon costs in construction.

So this is a classic ‘wicked problem’ . A solution that is prohibitively costly vs a solution that doesn’t work. We have no currently viable and deliverable solution to the carbon outputs of existing buildings.

I believe there is a systematic and repeatable solution to many if not most wicked planning problems. We simply as a species need to learn and repeat and teach what that methodology is. After it clicked for me what that method was and how to repeat it I enjoyed great professional success as the go to person to solve impossible problems in impossible timescales in my own sphere of expertise ‘urban planning’. I even gave a highly successful lecture tour in England, flying in for the purpose, on my future book (which I will never have time to finish) on the method applied to the problem of strategic planning. There are too many problems in the world requiring too much effort to be selfish. We must open source and spread the solutions.

What made it click for me was the ideas of five great thinkers.

The first was the late guru of project management Ernst Goldratt. His ideas are complex and rich but the basic idea is you isolate problems in time and space so the constraints on problems can be bypassed and resolved. What I call in my never to be finiished book, making the problem tractable.

Secondly the ideas of Harvard University Planning theorist Lawrence Susskind, founder of the Consensus Building Institute. What he taught me is is that even the toughest problems, like whether or not or where to build a nuclear power station, can be made tangible. By tangible I mean a problem being well defined and understood so a problem is capable of goodwill, compromise and negotiation. These two concepts, tractability and tangibility can make wicked problems solvable, but a third method is needed to achieve this.

The idea is big world problems are unsolvable and overly wicked and small world problems are not. This concept has been expressed by many different thinkers in many different ways but the most influential is Stanly Milgrim. The idea is that big world problems are too complex to model and hence solve. but too simple models are overly simple in that you learn nothing from their overly simple results. So the idea is you make big world problems tangible and tractable by the concept of ‘simplify, simplify, simplify’ but no so much that you remove the benefit of learning through testing a model of a complex system in terms of the unpredictable results and emergent behavior of its complexity.

This is where the fourth great thinkers ideas ill refer to today comes in. Gerd Gigerenzer his studies have shown that “less is more” in solving complex problems, indeed we have evolved to do that, make better decisions with less effort that is, where heuristics make with less effort. Has he famously countered to Richard Dawkins we don’t do complex differential equations in our heads when running to catch a ball. Instead we adopt fast and frugal rules. What Gerd calls Ecological Rationality, which displaces the dead and dated concept of rational choice theory which has held planning theory back for over 70 years. The old and still dominant idea was that you have to gather as much information as you can to make made a sound decision. A decision rule that meant if you were a lion you would starve to death as you would never go for the kill ( a concept by the way that explains what local plans are so slow, too much information literally kills you).

The fifth and final big idea is complementary to that of ecological rationality. That of ecological design, from Sim Van Der Ryn. The basic principle is simple ‘Nature’s geometry is an important organizing principle for ecological design’ so if evolution has already solved a practical design problem from there you should start.

Lets apply these ideas to the Insulate Britain Wicked Problem. How do we make the wicked problem tangible and tractable? How we apply the principle of ‘simplify, simplify, simplify’ and learn from how nature has already solved this problem?

From an ecological perspective its a simple issue. What is a good insulator and what isn’t? When you have surfaces which aren’t air or water tight air or water conducts all the heat away. When you learn anything about building physics you come across the ideas of Wolgang Fest of ‘passivhaus‘ which much simplified is make buildings less leaky and airtight so they don’t conduct away heat. The problem we have with older buildings is that we have leaky and drafty buildings. Adding massive amounts of rockwool and other expensive 1970s energy crisis solutions is that don’t treat the cause they treat the symptoms, and at great financial and ecological cost.

The simplified decision space then is simple, how do we cost effectively make non airtight buildings airtight?

There is much mocking on the ecological left of ‘technocentric’ solutions as opposed to ‘behavioral’ ones. Its my old sparring partner Murey Bookchin’s critique of techno-futurism run riot. Its better the poor starve and die they say in the pursuit of saving the planet. But lets be clear, John Kerry is right on this one; 2/3rds of the solutions to climate change haven’t been invented yet. So how do we as a species learn how to invent these solutions better? After all I remember well promoting renewable energy in the 1970s and 1980s, when I begged my dad to take me to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales and now how these ‘hippies’ have started ideas which now creates the cheapest by far form of energy.

Back to airtightness, what we need is some kind of cheap and universal ‘building condom’ to secure airtightness. I don’t know precisely how that might work, forms of glue you spray on, intelligent materials that self adjust to windows and door spaces, however once defined as tangible and tractable the tough problems become solvable.

So here’s the big idea. An international competition with a 100 million pound prize (Gove’s money of course) for the best solution for the retrofitting airtightness problem. Lets get Branson, Muck and Bezos back to a planet earth sized problem. After all its a lot cheaper than 2 trillion. That would sure lead to many many radical solutions.

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