The concept of “wicked problems” refers to problems that are considered impossible to solve because of complex interdependencies within a system; only discrete and context-specific interventions can be applied to wicked problems. Examples of contemporary wicked problems are climate change, the U.S. health care system, and the obesity crisis.
Across the world, socially-responsible design practitioners are taking the idea of wicked problems, and flipping it on its head. “If we want to be agents of change, we need to start with a positive approach: look for what works, and build the model on that,” explained Lara Penin, who co-founded the Desis Lab, a network of design schools focused on social innovation. “We have to see things as living laboratories, learn from them, and translate them into everyday language,” said Penin.
Penin studied industrial design in Italy and began applying design-thinking to social change in Europe, as part of a team of researchers who set out to document ways that people were using local resources and ideas to make their communities more livable and ecological. The team learned that a top-down approach to behavioral change would not breed success. “People want beauty and pleasure,” said Penin. “We need to come up with more attractive ideas and solutions to promote behavioral change.” Instead of telling people, “don’t do this: don’t drive a car,” the group realized that people should be rewarded for their own initiative in solving problems.
This fall, graduate students in the Transdisciplinary Design MFA program at Parsons, in New York City, worked with Penin and her co-director, Eduardo Staszowski, to create Amplify, an exhibit currently on display at Brooklyn’s Arts at Renaissance, which demonstrates existing and potential design solutions to local issues related to everyday experience. The project’s aim was to re-think service design in terms of sustainability. Duane Bray, Sarah Soffer and Tom Eich from the design firm Ideo facilitated the Amplify workshop.
The project was based in the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, in Brooklyn, areas known as bastions of hipster culture – often cited as an example of gentrification among Polish, Latino, and Hasidic communities. But instead of focusing exclusively on gentrification’s negative aspects, the Amplify team took the ample social and cultural movement in that area, combined with the presence of more traditional communities, as an environment ripe for social innovation.
Research for Amplify took place over the summer, with interviews conducted among a diverse spectrum of neighborhood residents and business owners. From there, the team identified four areas of concern: the food economy, the sharing economy, environmental well-being, and alternative transportation. Then, the project went into an intensive phase. MFA students worked in small teams to do further research about the identified topics, in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Then they got cooking, turning those ideas into prototypes.
- The Brooklyn Stoop: a moveable stoop that channels Brooklynites’ passion for stoop-side chats, encourages people to converse with their neighbors, and promotes the sharing of ideas and space
- Park It: a garden cart-on-wheels that allows communities to grow things together, and takes advantage of the public nature of sidewalks and streets
- Slowscape: a system of signage and re-worked highways that promotes nonverbal spatial negotiations between drivers, to the effect of making drivers slow down, also known as “traffic calming”
- Alternative Food Economy Ecosystem: an assortment of potential entry points for communities that are not yet participating in Brooklyn’s flourishing local food movement, such as “From B’Burg With Love,” an artisanal food production scheme that solicits traditional recipes in order to motivate people to join local CSA programs (plus, a fun game that explains easy ways to join or start your own CSA)
In each project, the students considered what exists, what could be, and what should be. They also tried to refrain from becoming competitive about their projects. As the intensive week got underway, the organizers saw that some students were beginning to feel ownership over ideas. To foster collaboration, they shifted people around randomly. As a result, the students seemed like one big family, united around the idea that the design-process of research, prototyping, and iteration held potential for tackling supposedly unsolvable “wicked” problems.
After the projects had been assembled and were put on display, there was a collective feedback process, where the designers considered the potential application of their ideas. The students received the feedback with seriousness but held onto the optimism that helped them construct their projects in the first place. It was clear that the students had worked extremely hard, throughout the process, and the result was inspiring ideas that have potential to seek funding and become actual community-based solutions.
With ideas like this coming from young, motivated people who are skilled at collaboration and human-centered research, perhaps even the most wicked problems can be addressed. If we can learn to think differently, isn’t anything possible?