How to turn wicked problems into academic questions

Stanford1Had to get up very early last Thursday and show up at the Grand Temple of Learning already at 7.30 a.m. Ably conducted by Renate Fruchter, the Stanford Media X seminar Remote Collaboration in Media Mixed Reality Environments introduced us to a variety of ways of creating creative spaces. In Cisco we saw how physical space can be arranged and used to stimulate co-creation, and how people can meet and co-create through a large video screen, while  physically being in different parts of the world. Back at Stanford we saw how people can work together in cyberspace, while being represented by avatars, or in physical space, while being represented by robots.

Lots of interesting building material for knowledge federation!

The very last lecture, given by Joe Ouye and Eric Richert of the New Ways of Working Network (NewWow) was interesting in another way. They observed that the task of creating collaborative environments had the structure of a wicked problem. Years ago Ouye worked with Horst Rittel and was still inspired by him.

After the talk, Chuck House, the Media X Director, remarked that the wicked problems, as important as they might be, do not really fit very well into the academic scheme of things. In academia we tend to value clear-cut problem statements and well-defined results. By their very definition, the wicked problems are not amenable to this sort of treatment.

I did not say anything, it was already 9 p.m. and everyone was tired. There was not much energy left for philosophical deepenings. But here is what I thought.

Before we go more deeply into Chuck’s remark, please take a moment to reflect on what it meant. If we agree that our most urgent problems tend to be wicked, and that our best qualified minds to solve them tend to be academic…

You cannot blame us academic people for this odd state of affaires. The academic work is not just about practicality, a large component of it is a certain ethos and aesthetics. We owe it to our great forefathers. The question ‘What constitutes a result?’ is not unlike the question ‘What constitutes a good work of art?’ A good example is E=mc2 (so elegant, so simple, and so full of deep and useful implications). A bad example may well be ramblings about some wicked problem. (I mention in passing that this sort of ethos was what brought me into algorithm theory early in my career. People warned me against such choice, because the jobs in theory were scarce. Besides I wanted to do work that had practical relevance. So I earnestly tried to do applied research, but I couldn’t. The question ‘What constitutes a result?’ got the better of me. And I haven’t changed much.)

There is, however, a simple, elegant and academic way out of this entrapment. It’s our metaphorical Mirror! Recall that by ‘going through the Mirror’ we can enter an academic space where the rules are symmetrical to the conventional ones. So it should not surprise us if it turns out that on the other side of the Mirror we can apply the time-tested academic ethos to the solution of the problems that we really need to solve.

Here is briefly how this works.

We pass through the Mirror when we have recognized that we are not objective observers but creators. Everything else remains roughly the same. On the conventional side of the Mirror our goal is to add a piece to a disciplinary reality puzzle and thereby make  it more complete. On the other side our goal is to create a piece in our reality that makes it more whole.

Some of the best pieces are those  simple  high-level ones, which can elegantly take care of much of the wickedness.

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