Design thinking and Wicked Problems

Pace, Fred Collopy (Thinking about "Design Thinking"), I don’t start from Rittell. I don’t define design thinking via its utility (whether that is understood as a class of problem solving capability, or a planning process). I define it based on the generative epistemic act of humans.

When that generative act is scaled up socially, or requires space time distribution, because it is by definition an act of making, its description and enactment is seeen as planning. In fact, it is the archetypal plan. Not scheduling, but the sequencing of moments of thought that are generative.

It is because design thinkingproceeds via this sequence

that it is suited to human, situated problems, such as those encountered by, and so elegantly characterised by, Rittel. That is, when we scale up to the class of social problems “which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decsion makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications of the whole system are thoroughly confusing” (Buchanan, Wicked Problems in Design Thinking) that design thinking becomes the only way we can proceed.

Fred writes: “so many who have created and nurtured the design thinking notion have as a principal point of departure Rittel’s ideas of design as a means for attacking wicked problems. In Rittel’s view design is essentially a planning process. It is understandable that much design is best conceived in this way, since the costs associated with making changes can often be exceedingly great once the execution of a project gets underway. It is probably no accident that the original use of the phrase design thinking was as the title for a book written by an architect (Peter Rowe). But there are other theories of design, and many design domains, where the separation between the designing phase and the implementation phase is not so extreme. In those types of design there is less distinction between thinking and acting. Many of the problems being explored by those interested in moving design into other arenas are of this variety.”

I agree completely that not all design is best understood through the window of “distributed” design – design that is scaled up via space, time, or the number of actors. And the places where thinking and acting are close to one – the places Fred values – are very much part of the human spectrum of generative thinking. Research in those spaces is brilliant. But my own concerns revolve around the application of design thinking in collective human enterprises, and push me to the formulation of multiple axes along which we can decompose design thinking.

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