Media, Technology, and Education
CurriculumDesign ThinkingIntegrated ClustersWicked Problems

Design Thinking and Wicked Problems

When I visited Spain in 2008, I was impressed by all the little things the country was doing to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. There were wind farms all over the countryside, there were solar panel arrays in the sun-drenched area of the country between Barcelona and Bilbao, the doors in the subways only opened if you pressed a button to make them open, and the escalators stopped moving if no one was on them. Barcelona was the first place that I visited that had a bicycle sharing program (called Bicing, started in 2007) to try to reduce the use of cars in the city. None of these individual items will solve the country’s energy issues. In fact, there is no one thing that will solve the country’s energy issues. But taking all of these things together moves the country closer to its energy goals.

I have had several reminders recently that we in the United States often want a big, perfect solution to whatever ails us. And until we get that big, perfect solution, we typically do nothing. For example, NHPR‘s The Exchange broadcast a show this week about the licensing of building contractors. One of the guests was completely opposed to such licensing because it wouldn’t prevent builders from taking money and then just not doing the work. The guest repeated several times that licensing will not prevent theft and, therefore, we should not require licensing. Of course, he’s correct that licensing will not prevent theft. But several callers pointed out that licensing is a tool that could be used to track unethical behavior on the part of builders and provide a way for customers to ask the state for the history of a particular builder. Such a tool could be a deterrent to theft. But the guest was insistent that we shouldn’t license builders because it wouldn’t solve this particular problem. The state, in the meantime, has done nothing to begin to address the issue of unethical behavior by building contractors.

My hope for some of the changes that we are making to the General Education program at Plymouth State University is that we can begin to teach our students how to avoid becoming paralyzed when a perfect solution to a daunting challenge is not available. We are talking about moving the focus of the First Year Seminar (FYS) from a question that the students answer to a challenge that the students work on. The challenges would come from a set of “wicked problems.” I’ve mentioned a bit about wicked problems before but haven’t really spent a lot of time explaining what they are. A wicked problem is “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve.” “Wicked” means resistance to resolution rather than evil. There are many reasons that these problems can be difficult to solve. We might have incomplete or contradictory knowledge about the problem. There might be a large number of people with a variety of opinions involved in the problem. Full solutions might involve a huge cost so as to be out of reach. And often, the problem is interconnected with other difficult to solve problems. Because of this interconnectedness, attempts to solve these problems often illuminate or create new problems. Working on these problems can lead to real social good which can help students provide meaning to their course work. But I’ve heard the criticism that experts in the fields that touch these problems haven’t been able to solve them so how can we expect our students, especially our first year students in FYS, to solve them?

I think this question misses the point of using wicked problems in FYS. Of course, our students aren’t going to be able to solve these problems. But that’s not our goal. Instead, our students will use design thinking to make some sort of difference. What is design thinking?

According to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and author of the book Change by Design, design thinking is a process of “integrating what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable” and “is fundamentally an exploratory process.” He also says, “Design thinking is all about upgrading within constraints.” What does all of this mean?

Design thinking is a methodology for working on complex problems. It is solution focused rather than problem focused. It is an iterative process with five clearly defined stages that we move around in non-linearly. The first stage is about empathy. We need to know the people involved in the problem, especially the “end-users,” those most affected by the problem. We need to know about their needs and the contexts in which they live. We need to put ourselves, as much as possible, in their shoes to think about what would be helpful. The second stage involves defining the problem as one whose solution will satisfy a human-centered need. Notice that this definition of the problem has moved from the larger, complex problem that we are trying to work on to a smaller, more focused problem that expresses the needs of a particular group of people. The third step is about ideation, where the designers (in this case, the students) generate many ideas about how to satisfy the need identified in the definition stage. The fourth stage is to build several small-scale prototypes where particular aspects of the solution to the problem are chosen for implementation. This is an experimental phase where the goal is to identify the best solution to the needs with the constraints identified in the other phases. The fifth stage involves testing the prototypes and often involves the development of more insights into the problem that can then be iteratively incorporated into redefining the problem or into new ideation and prototyping stages. This is a non-linear process where each stage may lead to paths forward or backward to any other stage in the process.

One thing that I particularly like about the design thinking mindset is that there is a bias towards action. This core principle of design thinking means that the focus is on action-oriented work rather than discussion-oriented work. The team is then unlikely to get stuck because they can’t figure something out. Instead, they are encouraged to move in new directions, to think about things differently, and become unstuck.

If this process was one that had been applied to Spain’s fossil fuel dependence problem, a group of people may have come up with all of the ideas that I mentioned earlier in my post. No single one of the ideas solves the problem but each of them makes a difference by satisfying a human-centered need. Each brings the country closer to a solution of the overall problem.

I use a version of this design thinking process in my General Education class Creating Games. We work a bit more linearly than what I’ve described here but our design process is still non-linear and iterative. The students create some amazing games over the course of the semester. And almost 100% of my students feel a deep sense of ownership and engagement in the games that they are creating. If we could teach students to use this process to address pieces of complex societal issues, I have no doubt they would be engaged and do some great work. I am excited to explore the possibilities.

Interestingly, in the Summer 2016 issue of Peer Review, Tom Schrand, Associate Dean for General Education at Philadelphia University, wrote about using design thinking as a strategy for building consensus in the reformation of a general education program. This tells me that a full revision of general education at PSU is a wicked problem. We are just beginning to work on the revision of our general education program. We’ll need to try to remember to avoid paralysis in a search for a big, perfect solution to the problem.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.


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