Complicated, Complex, Wicked – All Together to innovate…

Innovation benefits and requires a wicked systems approach, which merges complicated and complex system thinking. Claes Anderssona and Petter Törnberga explain in a very well detailed article the details and reasoning behind, to be summarized as:

  1. Uncertainty is intrinsic to wickedness and the issue should not primarily be how we reduce it but how we deal with it. Dealing with uncertainty is at the core of what dealing with wickedness is about.
  2. Integration of interests, models, tools, viewpoints, expertise, capacities for action (e.g. authority), and goals is essential, both instrumentally and for normative reasons.
  3. Alignment is tightly tied to integration and is essential for maintaining the direction and integrity of efforts.
  4. Dynamics/emergence is at the core of innovation and wickedness, giving rise to uncertainty and other wicked phenomena. Interventions must therefore be dynamically intermeshed with the unfolding dynamics.

Some more details I would like to highlight are:

Approaches embodying a topdown rather than a bottom-up approach to understanding and acting, and that are largely based on prediction, planning and control, are giving often an unsatisfactory result and disconten.
An alternative view of socio-ecotechnological systems emphasizes qualities related to ideas about complexity, such as multidimensionality, path-dependency and unpredictability. These qualities are seen as irreducible root causes of problems – not least ones related to sustainability – and of our persistent inability to predict, prevent and deal with them. They are also seen as key to the development of a new generation of approaches to understanding and tackling these problems.

How to define wicked: simply put,
– self-organization generates complex systems,
– assembly/development generates complicated systems,
– innovation generates wicked systems
wicked systems are arenas of and for innovation.

Complicated, Complex, Wicked

Open-ended innovation demands high complexity and complicatedness:
– Constrained to low complicatedness, innovation cannot be open-ended since we need complicated organization to build powerfully adapted and specialized systems. Unstructured system interactions would make for unmanageably high-dimensional spaces, preventing creative processes from efficiently exploring the design space.
– Low complexity prevents the operation of chief mechanisms of adaptation, such as distributedness, parallelism, multifaceted interactions to provide robust feedback, and exploration of design spaces by testing multiple variations. Such systems are barren since the patterns that their interactions are allowed to take are pre-determined.

But innovation likewise maintains high complexity and complicatedness:
– Complicatedness is maintained since it represents our chief way of organizing design spaces. While it is an open question whether complicatedness generally increases or not, complicatedness is clearly maintained at high levels.
– Complexity is maintained because the rich interactive capabilities of adapted entities are expressed distributedly in an arena setting. Intense, dynamic and weakly constrained interaction creates “seamless webs” where any node will be in close interactive contact with just about the entire web. This gives us mass dynamics and the phenomena of complexity.
Wicked systems are arenas where adapting systems interact and compete over limited resources.

The concept of Near-Decomposability (Herbert Simon, 1962), and the concept of wicked problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973) both relate to the problems of “designing complex systems”.
The opposition between the two accounts could, however, hardly be stronger. Simon’s story is about systematically conquering overwhelming problems following a top-down procedure. Rittel and Webber story tells us that precisely this strategy is doomed to fail in many of the most important cases – in particular in front of the types of sustainability problems.
Simon provided a generative design space for an important class of problems. Rittel’s and Webber’s work, by contrast, was essentially negative (a critique) and does not structure the design space in a similar way. They tell us that the design spaces of the paradigm that Simon represents do not work for wicked problems, but do not provide much in way of an alternative.

In the quest to provide new design spaces also for wicked systems we may still benefit from Simon’s explicitness: we may use his concept of Near-Decomposability to understand why wicked problems are not like the “tame problems” for which
Simon’s prescriptions work so wonderfully. After all, Rittel and Webber (1973) define wickedness more or less precisely as a stubborn recalcitrance to the type of approach that Simon (1962) proposed.
Near-Decomposability is a type of patterning of interaction pathways that allows for strong simplifications. Essentially it means that the rate of interactions between sub-components within a component (Inner Environment) is much higher than
the rate of interaction between the component and other components on its own level of organization (Outer Environment). The Inner and Outer Environments are separated by the component Interface, which can be seen as the emergent (designed or evolved) totality of the component: its interaction modalities and pathways of interaction.
The archetypical way in which components are separated is physical distance and/or enclosure (usually in technological components for example), but the separation may be maintained in any manner that achieves the sought structuration of interaction patterns. Apart from a difference in density of interactions within and between components, the Interface also tends to channel interactions so that they occur in forms that the Inner Environment is adapted to deal with. For example, humans may accept energy from the environment, but exposing us to heat or pouring nutrients over us will not work: energy must enter in very specific forms along very specific pathways if we are to properly make use of it.

Near-Decomposable (Simon, 1962)

The Interface can, for many purposes, be used as a shortcut to everything below its own level of organization: we may use a smart phone or an automobile with virtually no knowledge about its inner workings. The Interface cuts short potential system-wide cascades effects of changes, and the process of creating representations of such systems (on some level, e.g. by gathering empirical data)
will converge: more effort yields less and less relevant details to add. Innovation or assembly may therefore focus on one small part of a system at a time.
This mechanism of simplification-by-compartmentalization is so drastic that it may entirely reset the number of degrees of freedom of a system on each level of organization. In principle, we may go on nesting systems in this hierarchical manner forever. What prevents us from actually doing so is simply that we run out of scales over which to operate. Indeed, opening up new scales to occupy with levels of organization is a premier cause of major transitions in engineering.
Near-Decomposability is, notably, valid only over a time scale that Simon refers to as “the short run”. If the time scale is too long, then factors outside of the Inner Environment will begin to disturb the dynamics, and assumption that the “enclosure” is constant will become invalid.

Near-Decomposability misses the mark when it comes to wickedness.
The problem specification tells the problem solving system what the result should be like in terms that are intrinsic to the solution. The process then builds a solution that works out all the nasty little details in how to actually go about doing this, and that can deal with contingencies.

The ten expressions of wicked problems listed by Rittel and Webber (1973)
1. “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem”
2. “Wicked problems have no stopping rule”
3. “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad”
4. “There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked
5. “Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; because
there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt
counts significantly”
6. “Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively
describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described
set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the
7. “Every wicked problem is essentially unique”
8. “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another
9. “The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be
explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines
the nature of the problem’s resolution”
10. “The planner has no right to be wrong”

Harnessing innovation to deal with wicked problems

A central concern is that of integrating and aligning assets toward achieving a common goal. A possible solution is found in the concept of an “enterprise leader”: an integrating and aligning agent that:
(i) Spans the boundaries of many agencies through deep knowledge about how they work, what they do and how they see the world.
(ii) Can act without formal authority, on the basis of skillfully negotiated commitments rather than command (formulating shared interests, a sense of common mission).
(iii) Builds and leverages boundary-spanning networks to establish communication channels, trust and reputation.
(iv) Dynamically steers the dynamics as it rapidly unfolds in an unpredictable manner.

Of central importance is a view of complexity (overwhelmingness in our terminology) as responsible for:
(i) partiality – our inability to know everything about the systems;
(ii) plurality – of perspectives and ways of knowing;
(iii) provisionality – partiality and plurality causes fallibility, and so knowledge must remain provisional and open to change.

Transition Management is in many ways representative for how change is envisioned in the sustainability transitions community. A transition (as opposed to lock-in) is a period where agency counts, so where it will go can be affected if we manage the transition wisely. The Transition Management Cycle summarizes the idea behind the approach as four steps:
(i) Problem structuring, envisioning and establishment of the transition arena;
(ii) Developing coalitions, images and transition agendas;
(iii) Mobilizing actors and executing projects and experiments;
(iv) Evaluating, monitoring and learning.

2 responses to “Complicated, Complex, Wicked – All Together to innovate…”

  1. […] Een alternatieve kijk op sociaal-ecotechnologische systemen benadrukt eigenschappen die verband houden met ideeën over complexiteit, zoals multidimensionaliteit, padafhankelijkheid en onvoorspelbaarheid.Deze eigenschappen worden gezien als onherleidbare grondoorzaken van problemen en van ons hardnekkige onvermogen om ze te voorspellen, te voorkomen en aan te pakken.Ze worden ook gezien als de sleutel tot de ontwikkeling van een nieuwe generatie benaderingen om deze problemen te begrijpen en aan te pakken. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: