The term “wicked problems” was first introduced into the scholarly lexicon by Rittel and Webber (1973), professors of urban planning and design at the University of California, Berkeley.
It refers to the relationship between social problems and the failure of national (e.g. domestic agencies) and international e.g. (the United Nations) institutions to remedy them. It is now widely invoked in a variety of disciplines to describe problems that are seemingly intractable, very resistant or immune to orthodox solutions, and often transnational in scope. Examples of wicked problems include climate change, poverty, proliferation of weapons, migration and displacement, and terrorism.
In my sophomore-level Denison Seminar, students used a web/cloud-based collaborative visualization tool called DebateGraph, to explore, identify, analyze and design possible solutions to wicked problems. DebateGraph is basically a tool for “dialogue mapping” (Conklin 2006). It provides an electronic platform for students to develop a visual picture or map that “captures and connects participants’ comments as a meeting conversation unfolds” (Conklin 2006). I have selected it for two main reasons. First, in my Political Science courses, I often use a variety of visual aids for unpacking complex concepts (e.g., differences between parliamentary, presidential, and semi-presidential systems). It is clear that while some students immediately grasp complex topics via reading, others literally need things “unpacked” in a way that they can see it and identify connections, comparisons, as well as points of divergence or difference. Even if students gra sp complex issues with good reading, visualization tools elucidate points in a direct and meaningful way. DebateGraph supports visual forms of learning, and it will also assist the students in developing an online community that they can access outside of class to “visualize, question, and evaluate all of the considerations that any member thinks may be relevant to the topic at hand,” and to encourage “intelligent, constructive dialogue within the community around those issues” (DebateGraph.org). Second, many wicked problems are described as non-linear, defying the linear logic of data collection, data analysis, solution formulation, implementation (Conklin, 2006). DebateGraph provides a mechanism to grapple with non-linearity and, hopefully, make students more comfortable with non-linear methods or opportunity-driven methods of problem solving.
I created four teams of four students, each tasked with the exploration and analysis of a wicked problem that utilizes DebateGraph as part of their research and group deliberations. Students developed individual DebateGraphs for mapping the elements of a wicked problem, as well as a group DebateGraph to weave together various elements of the problem their group was assigned (climate change, human trafficking, terrorism, or HIV/STDs).
One example of a DebateGraph visual representation is from the student group tasked with human trafficking as a wicked problem. By opening the link to DebateGraph, readers can explore and manipulate various formats of visual representations (e.g., graph, tree, page, outline, etc.), levels of conceptual detail, and labeling that are available to students as they construct their analysis of a wicked problem.
Another example of a wicked problem visualization is for climate change shown below: