A Layman's Reading of "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning"

Reading #2:"Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" Working Papers from the Urban & Regional Development Horst W.J. Rittel & Melvin M. Webber

Bitch bitch bitch. Whine whine whine. Suddenly everybody's an expert, and nothing's good enough, despite the fact that we have well-trained professionals in countless fields. Well, if you think the situation's bad now, just watch while we tackle issues that are actually hard! Goal-formulation, problem-definition, and equity issues are going to weaken the professional's support system in a serious way.

In the 1960s, professionals in the U.S. were asked to consider the systems they dealt with more actively, what they do and what they should do, rather than what are they made of. This "goal-finding" turned out to be difficult. Boo. Meanwhile, people began protesting the systemic processes of contemporary American society left and right. Think the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-war movement, consumerism, conservationism, etc. Planners had to pay more attention to end-results, because obeying The Man was no longer a valid excuse for screwing up.

In the face of discouraging complexity, planning and policy sciences have been regarded as potentially viable means of improving society. But are social professionals up to the enormity of their task?

We have learned to question not only the efficiency but the appropriateness of a given solution. We have also become more sensitized to the interconnectedness of systems and, thus, more apt to realize that a targeted action may have undesired consequences.

Problems no longer appear as straightfoward as they once did. Defining and locating the problems turns out to be as difficult as outlining their solutions.

Creating a planning/governing system is difficult for one gigantic reason: we can't see the future! It doesn't help that societal problems do not have a steady state solution. They are less like science and engineering problems and more like Whack-A-Mole. We call them wicked problems in reference to their tricky and difficult-to-describe nature. Also because we've always wanted to see how many times we could use the word "wicked" in a scholarly paper. 49.

Even the task of describing wicked problems appears to first require identification of their solutions. If that doesn't blow your mind, consider this: no matter how good a solution we find, there could always be a better solution. There is no way to tell for sure, so we just stop working when we get hungry or sleepy.

Also, there is no do-over for solving wicked problems. The system cannot be reset, and we can't tell how long the effects of a particular attempt will last.

Come to think of it, we don't even know what our end goal should be. Crap.

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