My forthcoming column this week is about gun violence, again. So it’s been on my mind a lot the past couple days. The arguments that make up the discussion about gun violence are all pretty strident and often simplistic, or are presented that way (Tougher sentencing for criminals! No, less poverty! No, fewer absent fathers! No, more community programs! No, less hip-hop! No, better urban planning!…), yet it is self-evidently a complex problem. A few completely unrelated pieces of reading—beginning with this pretty excellent collection of “Black Hat Life Hacks” by some kind of English magic-using businessman—made me consider ways to frame the problem that might shed more light and less heat.
(WARNING: This is a very long post that is more a series of notes—me thinking through some things—than an essay. It raises more questions than it answers, even in my own mind. It’s about ways of thinking about a problem, not about my certain answers to that problem. I post it here as much because I’d like to be able to refer to it at some point—and hoping it might generate interesting conversation—than anything else. If that’s not your flavour of discussion, then maybe skip it.)
ARE WE TRYING TO SOLVE THE RIGHT PROBLEM?
Mechanical Engineer Paul MacCready, as outlined by Asa Raskin on his blog, summed up a key challenge to progress in many difficult endeavours by saying, “The problem is we don’t understand the problem.” Raskin sums up how MacCready applied this insight to invent a human-powered flying machine in six months after dozens of others working on it persistently had failed to make one in 18 years:
MacCready’s insight was that everyone working on solving human-powered flight would spend upwards of a year building an airplane on conjecture and theory without the grounding of empirical tests. Triumphantly, they’d complete their plane and wheel it out for a test flight. Minutes later, a years worth of work would smash into the ground. Even in successful flights, a couple hundred meters later the flight would end with the pilot physically exhausted. With that single new data point, the team would work for another year to rebuild, retest, relearn. Progress was slow for obvious reasons, but that was to be expected in pursuit of such a difficult vision. That’s just how it was.
The problem was the problem. Paul realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human powered flight. That was a red-herring. The problem was the process itself, and along with it the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months. And he did. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire.
The first airplane didn’t work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, retest, relearn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.
So if you are trying to solve a difficult problem, sometimes you need to re-examine exactly which problem you are trying to solve.
We face a similar issue—clearly a much more serious one—with approaches to gang violence and gun crime. We don’t understand what the problem is. Or we don’t understand all of it, although some of us seem to think we do. We know that people shooting each other, and especially shooting each other in the street where uninvolved bystanders get caught in the crossfire is a problem. And if we define the problem as the shooters in those cases needing to be caught and punished, then the solution is relatively straightforward: the police need to find those responsible and lock them up. But if we’re talking about how to prevent this type of thing from happening, we’re talking about something different. But most of the quick (and popular) solutions proposed—longer sentencing, bans on target shooting weapons—don’t seem to have any real evidence-based chance of putting a dent in the problem, and most of the other solutions could take years, millions of dollars, multiple levels of government and sometimes broad cultural evolutions to show results, if they show any. The problem is we don’t undersand the problem. Because…
IT’S A WICKED PROBLEM
A “Wicked Problem” is not one that is evil (though this one contains elements of that). It is a specific type of problem that social planners, business people and designers talk about as especially difficult to solve. An old fashioned “tame” problem is relatively linear: We might have a river we can’t cross. How do we solve it? Build a bridge. Make sure it is structurally sound. Problem solved: we can now cross the river.
A Wicked Problem is different, because it is complex and difficult to define—it is often a symptom or effect of other problems— it involves multiple stakeholders who cannot agree on what exactly the problem is, and it is difficult to define or measure what a successful solution would achieve. The go-to example of a Wicked Problem is global warming.
Wikipedia lists the 10 properties of a Wicked Problem laid out by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973:
There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem (defining wicked problems is itself a wicked problem).
Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
“The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problems’s resolution.” “Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.” “There is no immediate and ultimate test of a solution…” “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-false, but better or worse.” Oh yeah. We have a Wicked Problem here.
In an interview with Rotman Magazine [PDF], Jefferey Conklin (who helps companies tackle Wicked Problems) explains some of the trouble in even approaching those problems:
For a long time, there’s been a model—a pre-understanding—that what organizations needed to do was ‘identify the problem’ and then systematically work to develop a solution and appropriate implementation. What Rittel said is, it’s just not that easy. Problem understanding is actually the more important and evasive part of the process.
The social complexity aspect of it is that you have different stakeholders with strongly-held beliefs about what the problem is. Dealing with wicked problems is not at all a matter of coming up with the best answer; rather, it’s about engaging stakeholders in a robust and healthy process of making sense of the problem’s dimensions…. As a ﬁrst step, the distinction that the problem you are facing is wicked can help you get a handle on the fact that it will require a different style of leadership and a different approach.
If you don’t recognize what you’re dealing with and you don’t approach it differently from other problems, he says it leads to “Fragmentation”:
Fragmentation is a condition in which the stakeholders in a situation see themselves as more separate than united. The fragmented pieces are, in essence, the perspectives, understandings and intentions of the collaborators, all of whom are convinced that their version of the problem is correct.
Hmmm. That sounds familiar.
As we approach the end of the ﬁrst decade of the new millennium, it is clear that the forces of fragmentation are increasing, challenging our ability to create coherence, and causing more and more projects to ﬂounder and fail. The antidote to fragmentation is shared understanding and shared commitment.
Former CIBC VP Ted Cadsby blogs at the Harvard Business Review that in the case of Wicked Problems, certainty can be an enemy:
Our minds abhor ambiguity; they will do anything to eliminate uncertainty. But when certainty is applied to complexity, the result is unwarranted confidence, because certainty closes the door to alternative perspectives. The brilliant facilitator doesn’t accept the first satisfactory answer, but pushes the team to question every preliminary conclusion. The brilliant facilitator creates the kind of tension that generates high-quality problem solving and fosters a tolerance for ambiguity and discomforting uncertainty. Leaders beware: Sometimes the best solutions emerge the next day, the next week, or some other time when new information, or better yet, a new perspective, surfaces. Managing complexity is iterative and never final, which is why brilliant facilitators are not reluctant to revisit decisions.
How we find that “brilliant facilitator” in a broad public policy discussion is a tricky question in itself. Especially since we—all of us on all sides of these issues—tend to fail to see how alternate perspectives are even needed. We tend to get caught up in our own understanding of the issue and our own solution to it, and accuse the other side of either stupidity or malice. Writer Karl Schroeder sums up the seemingly intractable situation this leads us to in addressing Wicked Problems of public policy:
It is not the case that wicked problems are simply problems that have been incompletely analyzed; there really is no ‘right’ formulation and no ‘right’ answer. These are problems that cannot be engineered. The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way, if only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/denialists didn’t keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren’t aware that there are wicked problems, they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand ‘the real situation.’ But they’re not going to do that, and granted that they won’t, the solutions you work on have to incorporate their points-of-view as well as your own, or they’re non-starters. This, of course, is mind-bogglingly difficult.
Yeah. And it is made even more difficult, I think, because we tackle problem solving as a moral issue—understandably—rather than a practical one.
OUR INSISTENCE ON MORALITY-BASED ARGUMENTS MAY LIMIT US
Dan Gardner tweeted a link yesterday to a paper [PDF] by Philip Tetlock of Berkely on how the values we consider sacred keep us from even considering ways to solve some problems. We have values (love of family, loyalty to country, opposition to racism, value for human life) that we consider to be inviolable, and we consider these “sacred” principles to be outside the realm of conversation of “secular,” economic trade-offs. In fact, we tend to consider even thinking about trading off a sacred value for an economic one as completely taboo—in the language of the study cited, people felt that even discussing a scenario in which Jesus was thought to be an ordinary child of a single mother was, for Christians, “contaminating.” The mere suggestion of an idea contrary to their sacred values is taboo. The same held true in experiments that asked people to consider a hospital administrator making a decision about whether to save a life or save the hospital money, what they call a “taboo tradeoff,” because it pits a sacred value against a monetary one:
This experiment manipulated: (a) whether the administrator found the decision easy and made it quickly, or found the decision difﬁcult and took a long time; (b) which option the administrator chose. … People were most positive towards the administrator who quickly chose to save Johnny whereas they were most punitive towards the administrator who found the decision difﬁcult and eventually chose the hospital. … Thus, lingering over a taboo trade-off, even if one ultimately does the right thing, makes one a target of moral outrage….
Taboo trade-offs are also contaminating. To observe a taboo trade-off without condemning it is to become complicit in the transgression. The hospital-administrator study revealed the highest level of moral cleansing (willingness to support organ-donation campaigns) when people thought the decision-maker had not only made the wrong choice in the taboo-trade-off condition but made it after thinking about it for a long time.
The paper is interesting, and documents how we prevent ourselves from even considering plenty of evidence-based policy because it makes us consider the secularization of things we hold sacred.
However, the conclusions aren’t directly applicable to how I see the debate about gangs and guns in Toronto, except in that the study made me consider the extent to which the debate is framed by almost everyone on all sides as a moral question. Any evidence that does exist about the efficacy of solutions to the problem is given a back seat to sacred values. There are obvious reasons for this: murder, poverty, racism: these are moral questions, no doubt about it. There is no doubt that the very complicated Wicked Problem we’re facing is loaded with issues of morality, and that dealing with the issue itself is a moral imperative.
BUT: I think that when many of us participate in the debate starting from a moral premise, it leads us to focus on a problem of culpability. Our argument is about justice. So the question becomes, who are the perpetrators and who are the victims and how much blame should be assigned to each party? And then we have a tendency to think, it seems to me, that the answer to the question of who is to blame will point to the solution to the problem.
Some people think only the gang members are to blame, and punishing them and offering more deterrence and a harder life to those who may be tempted to become gang members will serve as a just solution. Others think broken families are to blame, and so some measure of accountability for parents (or prevention of certain kinds of parenthood) will be a solution. Some people think pop culture images that glamourize violence are to blame and therefore either censorship or media literacy are a solution. Other people think that a society in which poverty and racism are dominant elements is to blame for creating criminality in the first place, and so addressing those social problems is the solution. And so on. (This is a Wicked Problem, of course; it is possible or even likely that more than one of these groups of people have valid points about responsibility.)
In any case, we tend to think that solving the problem begins by answering the moral question of blame. If we can find out who is to blame, we can hold them accountable, and the problem will be solved.
Potential problem #1: we disagree about where blame should be placed: we wind up fighting endlessly about hanging-or-hugging, based on whether we think society or the individual is more or less responsible for an outcome. Somehow the question of “deserve” comes into it—these guys deserve punishment, or they deserve better choices in life, or their family/community/government deserves to be accountable for their actions. When you boil this debate down you get not just to root-level ideological beliefs, but ontological beliefs about the nature of free will. And those are debates we’re unlikely to resolve in the context of a public policy discussion.
Potential problem #2: there may not be a reason to think that finding out who is morally responsible and making them accountable will lead to a satisfactory resolution of the problem. Our insistence that this—not a shooting in itself but the problem of gang membership and violence as a society-wide issue—is a moral question in which the essential issues are who has been wronged and deserves support and who has done wrong and deserves punishment may be preventing us from approaching better solutions to the problem.
This is true in a whole bunch of areas of public policy.
For instance: Let us assume for a moment that we think people going hungry and living in the street—and especially children going hungry and living in the street—is a problem that is worthy of solving. One proposed solution might be to give them money for food. Yet a strong element of the debate over that solution will always hinge on the sense many people have that the people homeless and starving—or their parents—do not deserve to be given anything, because they are lazy or continually make bad decisions. The people paying to give the homeless and starving money in such a scheme may work very hard and may have carefully considered their lifestyle decisions and may have made great sacrifices to be in a position to be well-fed and housed. How is it fair that they should give money to people who may not have similarly worked or considered or sacrificed?
That may be a fair, if complicated question. Yet it does not address the problem we are trying to solve, at least as I stated it in this example. If the problem we want to solve is that children are starving and homeless, then who is deserving of what is not really the issue. (Questions that are issues are practicalities: is there enough money in the economy to fund this solution? Will this potential solution impoverish the working population? Will people choose not to work or make good choices because of the availability of money for food and housing? Those are points that address the workability of the solution: “who deserves what” questions do not.)
Anyhow, I don’t mean to suggest that morality and justice are not important questions. They are essential questions. I don’t even mean to suggest that they don’t belong in this debate. But I think if you are dealing with a seemingly intractable problem that has resisted solution through decades of moral back-and-forth, and you think perhaps reframing the problem—thinking of new ways to approach it so you can see if maybe you’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem—is a good idea, you might start with a different approach. Difficult as it is, you might, as a thought experiment, set aside your deeply held beliefs about who should be held accountable and instead begin by asking a different set of questions. Rather than starting with who has made bad coices, we could begin by asking what circumstances exist that make it more likely that bad choices will be made. Is it possible to change those circumstances to ones where people are less likely to make those choices? Realizing that we’re looking not for right or wrong answers, but for better or worse approaches, what are some of the very many factors involved? What might work to change those factors? Is there evidence for that having worked? Is it possible to test how it would work?
ENVISIONING WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
While I was thinking about all this, I got stuck on considering one of the elements of a Wicked Problem, rephrased in a bullet-pointed summary in the Rotman Magazine piece [PDF]: “You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.”
And I realize while I have heard a lot of people weigh in on various elements of what the problem might be, I have not heard a lot of people describing what the world looks like after the problem is solved. Lots of people describe what their proposed solution looks like (criminals suffering in jail, youth workers giving sage advice, people getting jobs). But what does the world in which the problem of gun and gang violence is “solved” look like?
Clearly, people are not members of a gang, are not carrying guns, are not deciding in the spur of the moment to shoot those guns to try to solve a problem or prove a point. We know what they are not doing. But what are they doing instead? Are they going to university? Playing in the park with their children? Starting companies to develop mobile gaming apps? Running restaurants? Performing music? Or are they rotting in jail?
If circumstances in some areas of the city seem to lead people to choose to join gangs, what does the neighbourhood look like after those circumstances are changed? Do the houses look different? Do the people who live in them have more money? Better jobs? Are there more people wandering around or fewer? Are the ways that people travel to and from the neighbourhood different? Is there more surveillance apparatus? Patrolling armies of police stopping and frisking people? Are houses more like fortresses?
If the way that police and residents interact with each other is contributing to the problem (as the Curling-McMurtry report in 2008 [PDF] clearly found people believed it was), then what do those interactions look like in the “solved” future? How do police behave differently while policing a neighbourhood? How do residents talk to police? How do people react differently when they see a crime? Or when they see a police car? Are the police arresting more people? Or fewer? Are residents comfortable around the police? Or afraid of them?
I don’t know the answer to these questions—I assume there are no right answers to them, only a near-infinite variety of imaginable alternatives. But when you begin a trip, you often start by choosing a destination (you seldom just say “I’m going to a place that is not here”), and then it becomes much easier to plot a route, choose a means of transportation, figure out what supplies you need to pack or pick up along the way. Even if the journey is long and complex and difficult, it becomes immensely more possible when you know where you expect to end up.
There’s probably a danger in getting hung up in an imagined future of the solution. But it seems like looking at the issue from that end might open up different ways of thinking about the problem, and help us define more clearly what problem it is we’re trying to solve. Or what problems. Which is where all this began. If the problem is we don’t understand the problem, maybe we need new ways of thinking about what the problem is.