Wicked possibilities: designing in and with systemic complexity

Wicked possibilities: designing in and with systemic complexity was a webinar hosted by Sally Sutherland, Ben Sweeting and Tom Ainsworth.

This event opened up questions, exploring ways of acting and designing in situations where consensus is not possible or even desirable. Please see the outline belowThe event took place on 15th July 2020. This was a transdisciplinary event, attended by people from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.

The event hosted guest speakers Dulmini PereraPaul PangaroMathilda Tham and Thomas Fischer. These speakers were invited as their work and ideas influenced the framing of the event. Each guest presented aspects of their work that responds to the ideas and questions outlined below in pre-recorded presentations and during conversations at the event.

Please click on the name of the speaker to take you to their pre-recorded presentation: Dulmini Perera, Paul Pangaro, Mathilda ThamThomas Fischer.

Wicked possibilities: Designing in and with systemic complexity

Design is increasingly concerned with systemic complexity. This follows, in part, from the interconnected nature of contemporary design questions, which are characterised by conflicting values, unpredictable interdependencies, and uncertain boundaries. In response, many designers and researchers have positioned themselves to address questions of social transformation and sustainable development through ever more comprehensive approaches to designing, including frameworks such as metadesign, systemic design, socially responsive design, transition design, etc. At the same time, developments in machine learning and the contemporary entanglement of technologies with bodies, the social, political, and ecological mean that even design’s traditional domains now exhibit and participate in the complexity of social systems.

In the context of complexity, it is misleading to speak of solutions. In distinguishing “wicked problems” from those that are amenable to conventional problem solving, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber (1973) spoke instead of “resolutions”, emphasising the need to “re-solve” wicked problems again and again (p. 160). In many contexts, a resolution to a wicked problem may last for some time before it needs to be re-addressed, and it is easy to slip into forgetting its temporary nature. In the most complex situations, however, moments of resolution can be partial and fleeting. A lasting resolution may even be undesirable as a design goal where it depends on establishing a consensus that reduces difference or obscures necessary debate.

What, then, is a designer to do if there are sometimes not even temporary resolutions at which to aim? If designers are to “avoid othering messiness” (Perera, 2020, abstract), conventional approaches to ambiguity, conflict, and contradiction need to be radically rethought. Rather than seeing these qualities as errors to be corrected, how might they be seen, as in design conversation, as potentially enriching? That is, how might designers see the wicked, not as something to be tidied away, tamed, or even resolved, but as something to work in and with? And how, given the present dominance of instrumental measures of success, might such an approach be possible?

Reference list

Perera, D. (2020). Wicked problems, wicked play: Fun machines as strategy. FormAkademisk – Research Journal of Design and Design Education, 13(2). doi:10.7577/formakademisk.3378

Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

The event was generously supported by Connected Futures, and the School of Architecture and Design.




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