Reflections

Something wicked this way comes: using systems thinking in design

From my article on systems thinking for the MFA Design for Social Innovation column at GOOD.is. Read the full post here.

In 1973, social scientists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined wicked problems as those incomprehensibly complex and messy issues we have trouble defining, let alone attempting to solve. Climate change has proven one of the most wicked, as have healthcare, corruption, and the prison system. Such problems are inherently systemic, with unavoidable social complications that require flexibility and patience.
Let’s use Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban as an example. It’s an issue tied to obesity and diabetes, NYC’s urban plan, the beverage industry, and cultural norms. Where to even begin? “We have to invent boundaries for clarity and sanity,” advises systems thinking pioneer Donella Meadows. Sometimes a simple infographic like this one works to tell the story (it shows the history, culture, and science of sugar consumption, but doesn’t overextend into policy or planning, which might dilute its message). Designing visual maps and models helps us immediately find connections and describe relationships. I’ve always been a fan of writing outlines to frame an argument or plan a project; creating models now helps me see the big picture and my place within it.
In our classes last semester, we visualized the evolution of Wikipedia articles and the narratives of New Yorker articles by creating stakeholder maps instead of writing outlines. We designed infographics to show how Tom’s Shoes and Bolsa Familia, a Brazilian social welfare program, operate in social context. Using systems thinking to map a problem in context is now my go-to approach for framing project plans or brainstorming thesis ideas.
It’s worth trying on a seemingly intractable problem of your own. Start by mapping the systems your issue is connected to, which might mean your company, family relationships, social community, or physical neighborhood. See if any patterns or relationships are revealed when you tell the story visually, and perhaps even a cause of the problem will emerge. As Rittel and Webber said 40 years ago, formulating the problem by tracing it to its sources is the first step in solving a wicked problem.
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