Design Thinking : The Wicked Problem of Crete, Greece.

What is The Wicked Problem?

Horst Rittel (1930 – 1990), a university person and design professor, first coined the term “Wicked Problem” in a General Theory of Planning’ (1973). In the paper, Rittel details almost ten characteristics that describe a “Wicked Problem” :

  1. There is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule, as there’s no way to know your solution is final.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, they can only be good-or-bad.
  4. There is no immediate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  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 a set number of potential solutions.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem because the explanations vary greatly depending on the individual perspective.
  10. The planner/designer has no right to be wrong and must be fully responsible for their actions.

The Problem with Natural Resourses of Water

Water resource management has often been described as a wicked problem, especially because there are no easy solutions. It is wicked because there are unknown dimensions to the related science.

In many European countries, climate change has significantly affected the frequency and intensity of phenomena such as drought. In southern and south-eastern Europe, according to global climatic models, severe droughts that once appeared once every 100 years may now reappear every 10-50 years.

The Wicked Problem of Crete

Crete is characterized as one of the high-risk areas of drought phenomena as a result of climate change and inefficient use of its water reserves.10-50 years. Southern Crete is a very warm area. It usually does not have spring and autumn, but winter and summer. The winter can have very heavy rainfall and summer can have almost drought due to high temperatures and in severe cases, it rains with dust from Africa.

In rural areas lacking water, the rational use of water resources is a necessity. The amount of crop production is increased by increasing the irrigation water to a point of satiety, while the extra amount of water does not increase production.

Owing to these intense weather conditions, farmers need large amounts of water to care for their rural areas. But most of the time they are not enough not only for watering their estates but not for drinking water. This is a super wicked problem.

With open questions such as: How much water is available? Where is the water coming from? How is this changing in time? What is causing these changes? In addition, there are in almost all cases, multiple stakeholders that deal with the management of water resources. This renders the decision-making difficult and sometimes even impossible.

Some questions to be asked :

  • When does a flood become a nuisance? Is it if the water level reaches ankle, knee or hip-high?
  • What is water scarcity? How do we deal with water availability, water demand, and water allocation?
  • What are the critical moments in time and space? Are they shifting with climate change?

And related to above :

  • What are our windows of opportunity?
  • How much information do we need to enable informed decision-making?
  • What are our different perspectives and perceptions and how do we bring them together to be able to prioritize actions?
  • How about equity? Is migration driven by equity imbalance? Are the imbalance and migration related to water?
  • Are smallholder farmers looking towards a sustainable and acceptable level of quality of life, or is it a dead-end road and should we make more haste with alternative solutions?

The Characteristics of Wicked Problems

Now let analyze the characteristics of Wicked Problems from our example above :

  • There is no definitive formula for a wicked problem. The production relationship of a crop and the amount of water from the treatment depends on various factors, such as climatic conditions, soil and applied crop cultivation.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule, as there’s no way to know your solution is final. Due to the lack of irrigation planning, farmers began to experiment and to feel safe tend to increase the amount of water irrigation, especially when its price is low.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, they can only be good-or-bad: One solution is to come to a common agreement on the amount of water each may use, but an unpredictable factor is the extreme weather conditions.
  • There is no immediate test of a solution to a wicked problem. : Besides other problems related to environmental changes, In Greece, we have a big bureaucracy problem, so making decisions has enough time.
  • 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. Effective planning is needed, in co-operation with ministries and agencies, and to implement actions of direct return by setting up scientific working groups on the impact on each crop.
  • Wicked problems do not have a set number of potential solutions. Reduce water evaporation from the ground, Reduce perspiration losses, Increase water storage.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Even if water resource management is a global “wicked problem”, there are some unfortunate factors that make it unique such as soil morphology, weather conditions, the policies implemented in each country and region, etc.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. The production relationship of a crop and quantity of irrigation water depends on various factors, such as climatic conditions, soil and applied cultivation technique. Because of the lack of irrigation design (when and how much water to put), farmers irrigate empirically and to feel safe tend to increase the amount of irrigation water, especially when its price is low.
  • There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem because the explanations vary greatly depending on the individual perspective. Crete is characterized as one of the high-risk areas of dryness as a result of climate change and the inefficient use of water reserves. A typical example that verifies the above is the reduced rainfall recorded in the current hydro-logical year throughout the Region of Crete
  • The planner/designer has no right to be wrong and must be fully responsible for his/her actions. Optimization of the use of irrigation water through. a) the annual maintenance of the irrigation network, and b) the calculation of the irrigation dose based on the meteorological information, the type of the soil, the type and age of the crop, and the time of the previous irrigation. In the case of reduced water availability (dry periods), the water needs to be calculated at critical stages of plant growth.

It’s recommended to watch the talk from Tom Wujec, on how to practice systems thinking and collaborative visualization.


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