1. Hi Stephen,
    For me, the claim that you cannot learn at all from experience does go too far and doesn’t mesh with my own experience. Yes, every time you approach a wicked problem things have moved on and the context is unique. But have things moved on so much, and is the context so different, that lessons from previous experience are not relevant?

    The next time you approach a wicked problem, what has really changed? The actors may be different, their knowledge and values may have changed. But most of the hard infrastructure of civilisation – our energy systems, cities, transport – is only mildly different. The deep structure of our values may be much the same as it was. The biology that has emerged from our evolution is much the same. I just don’t buy that wicked problems are so unique that previous learning in other contexts has no value.

    Yes, of course you have to adapt intervention mechanisms to better suit the new context but starting with promising previous interventions and some analysis of how the context has changed is surely better than trying something at random?

    It would be interesting to look at wicked problems that have been solved in the past and how their solution came about. One possibility that springs to mind is slavery. Another is apartheid in South Africa. Were these problems solved through accumulation of experience leading to progressively more effective interventions? Or was it a case of stumbling on to something by blind luck? I sure hope it was the former, or I’m giving up and going to buy a farm in Tasmania.

    Or, have these problems not actually been solved but just transformed into new problems? Was actual slavery replaced with effective slavery through outsourcing of menial work to poorer countries? They’re questions worth further exploration.

  2. Stephen McGrail

    Thanks, Chris, for sharing your thoughts!

    Perhaps an important aspect is the wording: “no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error” (as opposed to no opportunity at all to learn). Probably also differences from a government planning/public policy perspectives need to be considered, as opposed to activist-style interventions – the paper was written from a governmental action perspective.

    A middle ground perspective I’m reaching (as I type these sentences) is that, yes, we can learn but we need to be very careful not to over-extrapolate from past experience.

    Your comment re: the solutions to other problems reminds me of some public policy theory I studied (during an earlier degree). Hopefully this doesn’t tip you over the edge – to giving up and buying the farm – but one of the most influential theories of reforms and decision making in public administration on complex problems is termed “muddling through”. It primarily refers to a form of incrementalism, but can also be taken (more colloquially) to mean to succeed despite of lack of foresight and skill.

    In essence, the theory of “muddling through ” is a critique of rational comprehensive decision making so, in this way, is quite consistent with Rittel and Webber. It argues the reality of decision-making in public administration is necessarily more “muddling through” than the methodical/”scientific” approaches we may hope to be the case.

    I’ve started to look at some of the new directions in planning theory and paradigms which seek to move beyond a rationalistic model. I should have more to report from this.


  3. Stephen McGrail

    Thank you Tom, I’ll definitely check it out.

    What are your views on the issues raised by the Rittel and Webber paper, and my post? I’d love to know your thoughts on this, if you have any. (I’m sure you do!).


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