A Design Thinking essay on a truly wicked problem.
“Wicked problems are chronic, beyond complex, with no clear boundaries or solutions” (Dunne, 2019, p. 29). One of the most complex issues facing the world today is climate change. While the topics around climate change are argued in political forums and living rooms across America, the academics, scholars and critical thinkers of our modern world have done an excellent job of documenting the realities and pending dangerous impacts of our current climate crisis. How does one take on an issue of this magnitude using design thinking practices? The first step is to rethink the problem.
The design thinking approach to problem solving starts by ensuring that the problem being solved is the actual problem and not simply a symptom. The real problem that has led us to where we are now in our climate crisis is not the increase of manufacturing or the number of cars on the road. It isn’t even the increase of the average person’s carbon footprint. Those are simply symptoms of the real issue. The true nature of the climate crisis is the lack of a strong, consistent desire of enough people to make a change. There are many people who are passionate about helping save the environment, but not enough to affect a true and lasting change.
The design thinking approach attempts to solve problems through research, designing possible solutions, prototyping new models to test and refining those prototypes. Some examples of how this could be put into place include:
Research – There has been an immeasurable amount of research on climate change impacts. There now needs to be more research performed on why the masses are not more engaged in helping reverse these impacts. Empathizing with people to better understand where they are coming from will help see how the problem can start to be addressed.
Ideate – Scientists, researchers and organizations that focus on reducing the climate impact need to start working directly with the public to come up with real solutions and ideas that could motivate people to be more involved in climate improvements.
Prototype – Once a direction is decided upon, the industry needs to test it on real environments. Since the real problem is the adoption of behaviors and practices that reverse climate change, the industry can work with smaller affected communities to start and grow over time. This would provide the ability to implement more prototypes early on and give the ability to scale as the prototypes need.
Refine – One of the primary methods of design thinking is to implement prototypes early, learn from that experience and refine the prototypes, consistently improving as the work continues. Through working with the communities in the initial locations, the industry can continue to learn and move forward with improvements.
One of the most important aspects of design thinking is something often left out of troubleshooting and problem resolution. The concept of rethinking the problem is critical to really get to the heart of the issue and not focus on only solving symptoms. Not taking time to reframe the question of what is being solved is like taking Advil for the pain in your arm but not actually getting a cast on the broken bone underneath. It provides a temporary fix, but the problem never goes away. Only once the true nature of the issue at hand is understood can a successful solution be designed.
Dunne, D. (2019). Design thinking at work. In Design Thinking at Work. University of Toronto Press.
This was written as a case study towards my MA in Leadership Studies at Northern Vermont University.