07 December 2013

The Problem is That People Don't Even Agree What the Problem is

Judith Innes and David Booher open their book Planning with Complexity with an account of a water situation. In Sacramento, CA, the population has been steadily growing, placing a burden on their water system. Worse, the agencies involved have competing goals (some represent agricultural, some fisheries, some housing developments, some southern Californians outside the Sacramento region who need their excess water delivered by aqueduct, etc.).

This constitutes a wicked problem, a situation in which there is no agreement on the definition of the problem or even the goals. (Is the problem that cities aren’t capping development, letting the population put a strain on water supplies? Should the goal be to keep water affordable for rice farmers who need water enough to submerge their crops?) The problem is that people don’t even agree what the problem is.

And in that, Sacramento’s water problem might be a metaphor for the modern world. What is the goal of our economy? What is the problem with our education system? One of the biggest problems with economic or educational policy is that people don’t agree what the problem is. Social conservatives have very different ideas about the goals of education than do progressives. The elderly on fixed pensions have different ideas about economic problems than the owners of small businesses. 

Maybe we could, at the very least, agree that this is a problem. But then again, if it's a truly wicked problem, probably not.

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