Ecosystem services prototyping: Urban Mill attacks on wicked problems!

Urban Mill’s pilot year 2013 focused on Platform Service prototyping. During Spring 2014 our service model development focus has shifted to Ecosystem Services.

We are aiming to answer to the question ”How Urban Mill community and it’s stakeholders could solve complex societal challenges – wicked problems – together”. And what kind of systemic development approaches, capability building processes and orchestration methods should be used?

Now the first pilot initiatives are in preparation, related e.g. to Agile University-Enterprise interfacing concepts, Espoo Innovation Garden’s RDI ecosystem services, Open regional knowledge sharing and Transition to renewable energy usages in a city context.

Methods like Goal Oriented Programme Planning (GOPP), Theory of Change (TOC), Backcasting, Design thinking, Scenario Building, Transition orchestration have been applied.

Great help for understanding our approach and philosophy gives this report:

Working with wicked problems. Guide with three approaches, five methodologies and seven rules of thumb (2012)

By publishing above report the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) aims to facilitate knowledge sharing among all interested parties bringing together important learnings and take-away messages on working with wicked problems.

The report is based on a seminar which brought together a number of thought leaders who illuminated a palette of approaches to deal with complexity. To facilitate knowledge sharing among all interested parties, KBF requested Philippe Vandenbroeck, coordinator of the seminar, to develop an accessible and attractive report bringing together important learnings and take-away messages on working with wicked problems.

Here are some excerpts from this report:

”Acknowledging the existence of wicked problems means admitting to face societal challenges for which no definitive answer exists. Wicked problems are structurally complex so that it is hard to say where a given problem stops and another one begins. And stakeholders will frame these challenges in different ways so that a one-size-fits-all solution is highly unlikely. Thinking in terms of wicked problems opens up a novel repertoire of strategies to come to grips with these issues. However, we should guard against getting carried away by our ability to recognise and deal with complexity and conflict. Even in this complicated world ‘simple’ solutions remain possible.

What are wicked problems anyway?

When talking about the many societal challenges we are currently facing, people increasingly describe them as ‘wicked problems’. The notion has an obvious negative
resonance. Someone who is wicked is not to be trusted. We can’t really be sure
about the intentions of a wicked person. So how can a problem be ‘wicked’?

It was in the 1970s that people started to talk about ‘wicked’, ‘swampy’ or ‘messy’
problems, partly in response to the turbulence of the 1960s (remember the threat
of nuclear annihilation, the Vietnam debacle, the student revolt, the emergence
of an environmental agenda). Horst Rittel and Marvin Webber (a design theorist
and an urban planner, respectively) wrote a paper in 1973 with the forbidding title
“Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” in which they argued that scientific approaches to ‘problems of social policy’ were bound to fail because of the nature of these problems.

They wrote:

“They are ‘wicked’ problems, whereas science has developed to deal with ‘tame’ problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about ‘optimal solutions’ to social problems (…). Even worse, there are no ‘solutions’ in the sense of definitive and objective answers.”

What Rittel and Webber pointed out was that in many cases it is better to acknowledge
upfront that science is ill-equipped to tackle social challenges. There are two basic reasons for the wickedness of these problems: complexity and conflict. These problems are ambiguous and hard to pin down because they seem to consist of many partial, but interrelated challenges. So it is hard to tell what button to push, or what lever to pull to make them go away. And the people affected by these problems will have very different views on what the nature of the problem is and how it can be tackled. So, a solution that
can be considered ‘optimal’ from an objective, impartial point of view does not exist.

Key characteristics of wicked problems

  • There is no definitive formulation of
    a wicked problem. The framing of a
    wicked problem can always be contested.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are
    not true-or-false, but better or worse
    from a given point of view
  • Every attempt to intervene alters
    the problematic situation in significant
  • Wicked problems do not have an
    enumerable set of potential solutions.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered
    to be a symptom of another problem.”

Download the whole report here.




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