ANNIVERSARY Countdown (Count-Up?)

Today is Friday, March 7th, 2014. We were married 986 days ago, on June 25th, 2011.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Degrees of Separation

Step 1. Back in 1968 or so, two design theorists at Berkeley, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, develop the notion of wicked problems to help explain why urban design can't be left to experts. (In brief, a wicked problem is one that everyone approaches and defines differently, that is both a problem and a symptom of another larger problem, that can't be simulated or tested, that is never finished, and that has important human impacts.)  They publish a paper outlining this idea in 1973.

Step 2. In 1988, I take Horst Rittel's Introduction to Design Theories and Methods course at Berkeley.  I was much more enamored of my history and theory courses than I was with design studio, and I thoroughly enjoyed this class.  The 1973 article on wicked problems was in my course reader.

Step 3. I use the concept of wicked problems for the next 20+ years in my scholarly life and my teaching. It's a core concept for helping understand why no single discipline can make the changes we need in the world. And it always catches people by surprise — they've never heard the term, but they completely get the idea and can apply it almost immediately to problems that they themselves face.

Step 4. In June 2012, I give a brief talk at my national conference (the Council on Undergraduate Research [CUR], a group drawn from all of academia's fields) to about 400 people, regarding problems that are too large to leave within one discipline.

Step 4. The environmentalist David Orr has to pull out at the last minute from a scheduled talk to the American Association of Colleges and Universities in November 2012.  Someone on the organizing committee saw my CUR talk and thought I could step in, so in two weeks, I put together a much-extended version of that talk which goes into more detail about the idea of wicked problems (and yes, explicitly credits Rittel and Webber with the original idea).  I send a copy of my PowerPoint presentation to the organizers about four days before the talk in Kansas City.

Step 5. The day BEFORE my talk, I receive an e-mail from a senior White House staff member in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, beginning with the line "Your talk is going viral in Washington DC!"  It turns out that the conference organizer had sent the PowerPoint around within the AAC&U leadership; the President of the AAC&U sent it to a colleague in the US Department of Education; and that person at DoE sent it around to colleagues throughout the White House (all of this between Sunday and Wednesday).  The ideas tie in with lots of White House initiatives, and the staff member who contacted me wants me to put together a proposal for research and social engagement based on interdisciplinary opportunities.

Step 6. At the invitation of the person who contacted me, Nora and I write a proposal for a project we've been conceiving of and talking about for almost ten years, that we call Local Learning.  The idea is that colleges offer a degree major rooted in the facts and needs of their local communities rather than only in the abstractions of an academic discipline.  Local problems are always education problems AND economic problems AND social problems AND science problems... We ask a group of trusted friends in higher education for some coaching on a draft of the proposal, and send the document along to the White House in late November. (We'll be having a phone call with one of the Cabinet departments about it in two weeks.)

Step 7. Last night on 60 Minutes, Steve Kroft held a joint interview with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as she's about to step down from her post as Secretary of State. (Nora was watching it as I was driving back from Vermont to Boston — I saw it online when I got home.) At the end, she was talking broadly about the complexity of international relations.
We live in not only a dangerous but in an incredibly complicated world right now, with many different forces at work, both state-based and non-state, technology and communications...  You've got to be careful. You have to be thoughtful. You can't rush in — especially now, where it's more complex than it's been in decades. So yes, are there what we call "wicked problems," like Syria, which is the one you named?  Absolutely.  And we are on the side of American values, we're on the side of freedom, we're on the side of the aspirations of all people to have a better life, have the opportunities that we are fortunate to have here.  But it's not always easy to perceive exactly what what must be done in order to get to that outcome.
Wait, what??  Did Hillary Clinton just use the idea wicked problems?!?  "... what we call wicked problems..."?  Did she use the word "WE", while sitting there with the President of the United States?!?  You kind of sit up and pay closer attention when the Secretary of State uses an idea that you might have contributed to the discourse.  My ears always perk up whenever I (rarely) hear someone else use that idea, because I know they see the world in similar ways to Nora and I. And I am pretty sure this phrase wasn't part of political or diplomatic life a few months ago.

What I wouldn't give to overhear the last few months of hallway conversations in the White House, where this idea of wicked problems started to take conceptual root and eventually rose to the point where the President and the Secretary of State are using it to explain the complexity of Syria.  (Bodes well for the proposal, too...)

Any time we feel as though we have to balance multiple considerations, we've likely entered the world of wicked problems.  What kind of living should we make?  How do we balance family, career, community and self?  What makes a good life?  It's wicked problems that vex us, and that make life worthwhile.  If our policy questions become as sophisticated as our personal questions, our policies can only become smarter.

So in the end, we do our work, not knowing where it will go or who will receive it.  We teach, not knowing which students will hear us.  We serve on committees and community organizations not knowing whose lives will be touched.  What happens with our work is not always for us to know.  The work is all we have.

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