Tag Archive | Wicked problems

Designers as political changemakers

What are the commonly stated wicked problems and what can we do about them?

A common denominator for the so-called wicked problems is that they all have complex connections to multiple sectors of human societies and they cannot be solved easily, if at all. Wicked problem can also be a problem whose complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point at all (Tonkinwise & Cameron 2015). Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. A common feature is that there are different opinions among the stakeholders on the content of the wicked problem and how it should be addressed.

Examples of wicked problems include climate change, unemployment, healthcare, international drug trafficking, nuclear weapons, waste, social injustice, an also the most recent global threat, the COVID-19 pandemic. They are more difficult than just complex problems and thus require different approach.

To learn more about these interesting macro-level challenges, I participated online in the public defense of Mari Suoheimo`s Ph.D. dissertation entitled ““Approaching Wicked Problems in Service Design”, in which she examines the challenges that wicked problems pose to service design and proposes tools to fight them. The opponent, Professor Mikko Koria from Loughborough University, London, led the discussion with his insightful questions and remarks.

Sometimes you need to say the obvious aloud

We can change normal problem to be a wicked one. As a concrete example Mari Suoheimo mentioned the making of an envelope – it`s a normal problem until we decide to make an envelope without any environmental impact, then it becomes a wicked problem.

There is lots of talk of wicked problems, and also it is common to hear that at the end all problems are wicked, or that a solution exists to every wicked problem. This is not true. Instead, the tools that are used to solve normal problems, are sometimes used in trying to solve wicked problems. Obviously, this doesn`t work, and according to some contributors, too simple tools may even complicate the problem-solving processes if applied to wicked problems. If a solution is found to one part of the problem, it can have deep influence on other problems and their possible solutions. As Suoheimo stated: simple tools seek to find a solution, while complex tools seek to understand the problem.

The most essential contribution of Suoheimo`s Ph.D. research to the field of Service Design is to increase our understanding on how we should deal with macro-level problems and how service design can be used to tackle these big and complex problems. One of the most important findings is that service designers do have a role in combating wicked problems; they know how to facilitate the process, they do understand the importance of collaboration and they do have tools to tackle wicked problems. However, even though you would have appropriate tools, the process is never simple, nor easy, and it always requires the participation of several actors. As Professor Koria cited the dissertation “Addressing wicked problems can lead to painful processes”.

Suoheimo`s most important concrete contribution is the Iceberg Model of Design Problems, that Suoheimo developed together with her colleagues. The model is an excellent visualization and helps service designers to understand the different levels of complexity and to choose the right approach and appropriate tools for each level. Besides service design, this model can be utilized in change design, social design and sustainable development design.

Stop project-thinking!

According to Suoheimo, it became evident during her study that wicked problems are always political. Complex social problems are entering more and more into the field of service design and topics require interdisciplinary approach more than before. Designers are good at zooming in and out of problems. It is not a coincidence that service design and collaboration are strong in Nordic countries where also democracy is highly valued and widely applied.

When trying to solve wicked problems, the role of the designer is to facilitate the collaboration and make sure that the problems are viewed holistically. Professor Koria challenged Suoheimo and asked her what does collaboration actually mean if it is not seeking to find a solution. According to Suoheimo it means doing together, as against doing from top to down. It`s about going against power structures. Designers can indeed be political changemakers.

Due to their nature, wicked problems should not be thought of as short-time projects. Wicked problems are often macro-level challenges and are influenced by political decision-making and regulated by national and international legislation. There should be a long-term commitment to solving wicked problems, and also long-term financing. The question is, how do we guarantee sufficient political and financial support to service design in their work with wicked problems?

As Professor Koria stated at the end: this thesis raises more questions than it answers, which is a positive (but hopefully not wicked) problem. What is does is that it definitely leaves room for more research and contributions from scientists and service designers.

-Laura Ekholm

References:

Mari Suoheimo 2020: ”Approaching Wicked Problems in Service Design”. Acta electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis 286, ISBN 978-952-337-223-8, ISSN 1796-6310, Lapin yliopisto, Rovaniemi 2020. http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-337-223-8

Tonkinwise, Cameron 2015: “Design for Transitions – from and to what?”. Academia.edu. Retrieved 9 November 2017.

Wicked, wicked problems

New study in the field of service design!

Mari Suoheimo’s doctoral examination was held on 18th of September in the University of Lapland. The opponent was professor Mikko Koria from Loughborough University London and thesis supervisor was professor Kaarina Määttä.


First Suoheimo introduced us to complex and simple problems and made some examples of them. A simple problem is tying shoelaces and complex or even wicked problem is solving the Covid-19 situation. Suoheimo also pointed out that there is a lot of discussion of wicked problems in the field of service design. The talk in the field is that all design issues or problems are in fact wicked or that the concept of wicked problem is already solved. To Suoheimo’s point of view, that is not how ever the case. But she continued that almost any design problem can be turned in to a complex or wicked one. As an example she said that designing a envelope is simple design issue, but designing and developing an envelope that has zero impact on environment is already a complex issue.

An example of a wicked problem.
Source: Google free images.

In the thesis Suoheimo addresses how to approach these questions. And she said that her interest in the topic already raised in her studies in Brazil when her teacher introduced her to wicked problems that are intangible problems, just like all services usually are.

The thesis it self consists of introduction, three articles, discussion and conclusions. First article is a literature review on the Relation and Role of Service Design with Wicked Problems, second is called “Strategies and Visual Tools to Resolve Wicked Problems” and last focuses on how to apply the theory in to practice and is based on case study “Process of Mapping Challenges of Cross-Border Mobility in the Barents Region”, done with Toni Lusikka.

In the thesis she also introduces the new Iceberg model of design problems developed together with Rosana Vasques and Piia Rytilahti, co-authors of the first article. The model does not only help to understand the different levels of complexity of wicked problems but also helps to choose the approaches and tools to use in different levels.

An iceberg. The model can be seen in Suoheimo’s thesis.
Source of the photo: Goole free images.

In the beginning of the event there was a little bit definition of service design it self, like how it has evolved from hands on designing to much more complex service science. The aim of service design is to create better services. This can be done through designing a good service experience using tools like service journey, and mapping it. Suoheimo also talked about Stickdorns et all. five principles of service design. That I would like to stress that are actually newly developed to six principles: Human-centered, collaborative, iterative, sequental, real and holistic. (Stickdorn et all, 2018, 16). Suoheimo also says that the talk originates to Buchanan article on 1973 about wicked problems that started the whole debate and introduced one service science frame.

Suoheimo sees that there are four levels of design: 

1: Graphic design
2: Industrial design
3: Service design
4: System design

And points out that service design actually touches all the four levels. Service design is also not an island, it touches and goes limited with other fields too. And when in comes to complexity some fields actually understand it’s use more deeply, like social sciences. Also action research and design thinking are similar nowadays. The new double diamond process is closer to action research, and Suoheimo points out that all the models start to look the same.

The opponent Mikko Koria said that the theme of the thesis is interesting, topic and valuable if not even essential for the field. But the thesis actually raises more questions than answers, which is a wicked problem it self. He also conducts that there is a loose use of the term wicked problem in the field, it’s now a buzz word, which is a worry.

The problem with wicked problems is that in service design we are using tools that are not designed to solve wicked problems which makes the process even more painful, ’cause the process is anyway painful, not ever easy. And wicked problems can have many sides too (political, social, and so on). You first have to understand the problem to know how to solve it.

An example of wicked problem solution. Source: Google free images.

So what we need is new courses! And programs! Especially interdiciplinary courses with organizational studies and management …and more resources in the service design field.

The good news: Service designer’s role is to be an agent of change because we are able to make the change.

Author: Iiramaria Virkkala, SD student.

References and to look for more info: 

Väitös: Palvelumutoilun ikeät ongelmat

Suoheimo’s thesis

Stickdorn, M., Lawrence, A., Hormess, M. E. & Schneider, J. 2018. This is service design doing: Applying service design thinking in the real world : a practitioner’s handbook. First Edition. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

Buchanan (1990) Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, (Spring, 1992), pp. 5-21. The MIT Press.