Solutioning for time-critical wicked problems

Firstly, I’m a big fan of the shared emphases among these varying approaches to transition design (Escobar, 2018), “cosmopolitan localism” being my most preferred. Writing with less than a week until an election for the leader of a country of 300+ million people, the candidates two unbelievably disappointing men unsuited for addressing our most pressing issues (arguably purposefully avoiding real “solutioning”), the vote-counting procedure effectively muting voices across states, it is difficult to resist the claim that democracy is dying if it isn’t already dead. (Was it ever alive? For whom?) Among the common threads between these transition design practices, decentralizing/distributing our life forces (production, decision making, etc.) is critical.

However, I am concerned with how effectively the practices described throughout this week’s readings can address such wicked problems that have approaching (while not demarcated) “deadlines.” Recognizing that the roots of wicked problems run deep in space and time, Irwin states,

Designing for systems-level change… will be slow, patient work with “emergent outcomes.” It will also challenge dominant paradigms that demand fast, concrete, predicable and profitable results. (2018)

How, though, do we reconcile our patience with a closing window of opportunity?

According to climate scientists, humans may have a narrow window of opportunity (perhaps only three decades) to change direction radically in order to avoid the catastrophic effects that will come about with an increase in the Earth’s temperature above two degrees Celsius. The space evolving from such a dire predicament is already being populated by myriad tiny transition islands where unsustainability and defuturing are being held at bay. But there is still a long way to go until such islands give rise to the new continents where life might again flourish. (Escobar, 2018, emphasis mine)

I wonder whether “only three decades” is even too generous: among whatever number of disheartening pieces, a report on one of the least desirable positive feedbacks loops for warming potentially rearing its head.

That in mind, what of transition design makes addressing wicked problems, namely climate change, with time constraints possible? How do patience and urgency coexist in this framework? To make matters worse, how do we handle stakeholders with conflicting desires who actively undermine progress (e.g. fossil fuel capitalists)?

Arturo Escobar, 2018, “Design for Transitions” in Designs for the Pluriverse
Terry Irwin, 2018, “The Emerging Transition Design Approach

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Hey Vince, I also worry about the time crunch we’re facing to hold climate change at bay. I noticed in Donella Meadows’ piece, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” that the most effective points of intervention are also the hardest to change and would mostly likely require the most amount of time.

Constants, parameters, and numbers (the leverage points at the bottom of the list) are the least resistant to change but won’t make much of an impact. In the case of climate change, this would mean perhaps raises taxes on gasoline or enforcing stricter pollution controls on industry. This might succeed in slowing the increasing rate of carbon emissions, but it won’t be enough.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, transcending paradigms will have the greatest impact, but it is the hardest to accomplish. One must be flexible and realize that no paradigm is true. It requires an open mind and constant critique of the paradigms in existence. This kind of transcendence is a lifelong effort. It’s difficult to unlearn decades of education and cultural exposure and exist above it all.

Taking one step back on Meadows’ list puts us at changing the paradigm. This isn’t as difficult as transcending the paradigm, but it still requires major cultural shifts. I believe that we won’t be able to stop climate change unless we change our dominant paradigm. We have to rethink the way we relate to the Earth, but as you stress, we don’t have very much time left.

I think about paradigms like ball on a track. The track is shaped with crests and troughs, and the ball rests at the base of a trough. Each trough is a paradigm. In order to move from one paradigm to another, you have to push the ball up the track and over the crest. It takes a lot of energy to push the ball up, as gravity pulls it back into the trough. But if we push hard enough, the ball will reach the crest and fall easily into the next trough. The problem, however, is that we can’t see the ball or the track. We push the ball, but we have no idea how close we are to reaching the crest. We don’t know when our efforts will push us into the next paradigm, but if we keep trying to shift people’s perspective, we’ll reach the crest, the tipping point, and we can fall into the next paradigm. It always seems impossible to make this change, but once we do, we’ll look back and think," how could it ever have been anything else?"


Alternatively it could just be a case of preparing for the collapse of the planet. The discipline ‘collapse informatics’ created a decentralized computing network called the internet. While the collapse envisaged by the creators hasn’t come (yet), its communication inventions were still useful. Designing for other forms of decentralized resilience in the face of collapse might go a long way toward actually preventing collapse from happening. Just thinking out loud.

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On collapse, @bksutherland I’m reminded of the controversial “collapsologie” that has apparently picked up a great deal of steam in France and elsewhere; this critical review by Pierre Charbonnier is insightful.