Book Review: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

A review from UX Matters on a methodology which seems closely linked to ideas on Co-Design and transdisciplinary research without the baggage of its intellectual precedents and academic rigour – while citing social entrepreneurship it has yet to see how this might embrace both commercial and social actors in a unified field, I haven’t read the book yet but it looks worthwhile  and have ordered it. 

In this “Handbook & Call to Action,” Kolko introduces the idea of wicked problems—large-scale social issues that plague humanity, like poverty and malnutrition—then describes the role of design in mitigating these problems. Starting with the example of his experience with Project Masiluleke, Kolko points out that traditional approaches cannot deal effectively with complex social and cultural problems. Such wicked problems always interconnect with other problems, are costly to solve, and often lack clear methods for understanding and evaluating them.

Traditional ways of tackling wicked problems include the following:

  • top-down government policy-making and funding that are too broad and complicated to deal with the real issues
  • companies’ being motivated by revenue generation and mass production to maximize their profit margins
  • standard project-based frameworks with finite engagement periods that are too short and too shallow to create long-lasting social impact

Kolko suggests that it is possible to mitigate wicked problems through what he calls social entrepreneurship—entrepreneurship that aims to create social capital by adding value to the community rather than focusing only on creating economic wealth.

Kolko argues that designers need the skills of a social entrepreneur to tackle wicked problems effectively. However, in the commercial world, designer and entrepreneur are two separate roles. It’s unclear why this should be different in a not-for-profit context. Although it’s possible to combine the roles of designer and entrepreneur successfully in one person, this is an exception rather than the rule.

Kolko’s proposed curriculum is first and foremost a design curriculum—and a very promising one. While it is not convincing as a social-entrepreneurship curriculum, it is arguable whether one curriculum should even try to address both design and entrepreneurship.

Kolko advocates making students aware that they can position design within any context and teaching them how to deal with situations in which the circumstances may be complex and far from ideal. This is a very valuable proposition—one that would benefit every design course. It is admirable that Kolko wants to place the emphasis on solving social problems, but students must realize that making this choice has consequences as well.

Read the full review

Author: Jon Kolko

Publisher: Austin Center for Design

Publication date: March 2012

Format of print edition: Paperback; 8.5 x 8.5 inches; 176 pages

ISBN: 978-0-6155931-5-9

List price: $45

Free online edition: Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving

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