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. Read more