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Friday, March 29, 2024

Wicked Problems:

"We suffer today from much more pluribus than unum."
A simple equation named “the monster” can help us think about wickedness: I = 2^(n(n-1)), where I is the number of states a system could have with n number of elements. Suppose all the components interact with one another straightforwardly. Then, a two-element system results in 4 states, and a three-element system has 64 states. In a ten-element system, the number of states will exceed the number of stars in our galaxy. While wicked problems are inherently complex, we increase their complexity with our human bramble of beliefs and deficits, paradoxes and priors.

We spray around “aerosol words,” easy to release but challenging to recapture. Think of some common terms: “society,” “sustainability,” “economy,” “equity,” “green,” “liberty,” “love,” “peace,” “progress,” “innovation,” “justice,” “diversity,” and “data.” Each word encompasses multiple, muddled meanings. Every aerosol word and its sense becomes a compromise, barely reached. And worse, wicked problems are invoked so often, they are tainted by simple familiarity. As I’ll argue in this book, engaging with wicked systems requires more than good intentions, creativity, and expertise. We need a communal code of conduct—or in an engineering sense, a concept of operations to train and treat our approaches to gain more profound improvements.

This book is double stranded. One strand follows a forgotten engineer; the other examines forgotten uses for engineering. Together, they weave an engineering vision for civics and a civic vision for engineering. While nonfiction, the book’s aspiration may feel like fiction. Engineers, after all, aren’t commonly invoked as pillars of democracy. Yet as we’ll see, engineering does more than tech support. Engineering is a carrier of history, simultaneously an instrument and the infrastructure of politics. It’s among the oldest cultural processes of know-how, far more ancient than the sciences of know-what. And through engineering, civics can gain a more structured, systemic, and survivable sense of purpose. By applying engineering concepts in a civic context, engineering can usefully grow the policy lexicon and enhance its cultural relevance. The usefulness of civics and engineering is often realized only in their breakdowns, much like trust, most longed for in their absence.

Democracy is the ultimate voice-activated application, defined by differences and decibels. Yet, there are no noise-canceling headphones. Unlike virtual assistants, democracies don’t simply yield to our vocal commands. Democracy is a perpetual raw material, never a finished product. Developing a civic consciousness to achieve democracy’s goals will fundamentally require a systems engineering approach, just as remedying the professional deficits of engineering will depend on civic participation. Indeed, civic engagement may exist without engineering, but no engineering can effectively exist without civic engagement.

This book will advance engineering concepts for cultural use. The driving desire is to responsibly appraise and engage with the inner nature and character of life’s wicked problems. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. memorably said, we suffer today from much more pluribus than unum. Our world thrives on variety and diversity. Still, curtailing chaos requires sufficient cohesion. We need civic operating standards. Better living with wickedness will depend on better engineering of wickedness. Civics and engineering aren’t just about what we choose to do; they are about what we choose to become…

Madhavan, Guru (2024-03-25T23:58:59.000). Wicked Problems: How to Engineer a Better World. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 
Read a review in my Science Magazine the other day. Stay tuned...
 Goes to my long-standing "Deliberation Science" itch (still irascibly ensconced in Scare Quotes).


Fascinating read. Wafts of Brian Klaas's "Flukes" arise. More on the way shortly...

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