Let’s solve wicked problems

Recently, I was part of a conversation that turned into a discussion about teaching students to solve the complex wicked problems that face us. Some wicked problems confronting us include climate change, international drug trafficking, refugee resettlement, the emerging Zika virus pandemic, terrorism and war, food security, better healthcare, assisted dying and social equity. The solution to any one of these problems, say refugee resettlement, requires the solution of a host of other interconnected problems.

The list of wicked problems and their interconnected counterparts keeps growing, not shrinking. Almost always, there is no central authority, such as a national government or an international coalition, that is able to enforce a solution for a specific wicked problem. Thus, viable solutions require collaboration among diverse cultures, social segments, governments and disciplines, which has proven to be exceedingly difficult.  Almost always, the solutions require us to transform irrational behaviour, e.g., during war and conflict, into rational conduct.

Given the enormous difficulties that we face, should we simply throw our hands up in the air? Obviously, not. It is imperative that we focus on how we can collaborate to solve these problems.

Collaboration requires skills, such as empathy and reflection, and understanding of cultural diversity, equity and history and its impact. Collaborators must be willing to commit to change for sake of their communities, both local and global, and able to comprehend the nomenclature and language used in different settings and disciplinary fields. The skills needed for successful collaboration are durable since, once learned, the learner retains them over a lifetime.

In contrast, substantial portions of engineering curricula are devoted to developing students’ technical and professional skills, which are for most part perishable.  When practitioners don’t use those skills, they typically lose them after some time.  (Before you take umbrage at my contention, do read the next paragraph.)

Perishable skills are certainly not unimportant. If I were to ask my peers from the engineering class of 1982 to determine the Hamiltonian of a simple harmonic oscillator, how many of would remember how to solve for it and why? I’d bet that only a few of us can provide the answer today simply because we have continued to examine and explore dynamical systems whereas the rest have followed different but equally rewarding  pursuits. I’d be the first to admit that I’ve lost many technical skills that I learned in university because I haven’t used them in a long while.

(Incidentally, the answer to the above question is, Hp2/(2m) + (1/2)kx2. As to why one would determine the Hamiltonian, here’s the answer. Since H does not depend on time, this shows that the energy of the system is conserved, which is important information for solving several physical and engineering problems.)

Take international drug trafficking for instance. Any solution to this wicked problem is not a true or false one but is simply good or bad, or oftentimes better or worse. That is so because the definition of any single wicked problem keeps changing. Hence, information about its exact nature is at any time incomplete. Large numbers of people are impacted by the wicked problem and they have diverse and emotional responses to an imposed solution. The solutions themselves produce significant economic and lifestyle burdens that are unevenly distributed.

Both sets of skills, durable and perishable, are required for professional success. Engineering curricula must enhance students’ durable skills because wicked problems are inherently rooted in social and cultural contexts.  Arguably, innovation (and even successful invention) is based more on expressions of our durable skills.

Wicked problems must be solved since dystopia is a bummer. The artistry of Fury Road notwithstanding, I don’t want to live in a Mad Max universe.

For the future of our society and for the sake of innovation, it is not enough to simply restrict the learning of engineers to Taylor series expansions, circuit theory, reaction kinetics, matrix inversions, phase change diagrams and the like. They must also know about art, culture and history in a multicultural world that is populated with wicked problems.


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