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701Death is a Wicked Problem

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  • Eric Britton
    Dec 9, 2006
      On Behalf Of Jonathan E. D. Richmond
      Sent: Saturday, December 09, 2006 12:28 PM

      I have written the following for ACCESS in memory of Mel Webber, but thought
      those of you who might not see ACCESS would like to see it --Jonathan!

      Perhaps death is not a wicked problem, for there is only one inevitable
      destination at the end of the road. Perhaps this is why Mel sent a number of us
      a cryptic last message, emailed after his death. "Goodbye," he said, with
      finality. And that was all he said. An end without doubt. A conclusion without
      the complex and confounding series of choices that characterize wicked problems.
      An end to the thought, writing and speech associated with one of the few truly
      great minds of planning over the last half century.

      I first encountered Mel during a brief stay at Berkeley. I had left MIT with a
      trail of debt and unwisely registered for a PhD at Berkeley with only partial
      financial aid. Rather than worry about the unpaid rent at International House
      that now embelished the five months of unpaid dorm rent I had left at MIT, I
      became utterly absorbed in the two most astonishing courses I have taken
      anywhere. One was taught by C. West Churchman, the other by Mel Webber (very
      ably assisted by Karen Christensen).

      The courses had similar themes, but a difference in emphasis. Both West and Mel
      had as central concern the human failing of turning the complex into the simple
      in order to find an easy answer that rarely proves to be an effective solution.
      Both of these deepest of thinkers called on their students to identify and
      question their assumptions in order to avoid the pitfalls of so much planning.
      But, while West led us to encounter the great philosophers as a way to lay bare
      the inadequacies of our own thought, Mel was more practical, and gave hope that
      there was in fact a path to better planning, one that we could all embrace.

      Much of what is called "planning theory" is deadly boring, with too many courses
      in the subject a sort of fraternity initiation ritual students are made to
      undergo before they can become certified planners and then forget everything
      they have read.

      Mel's unforgettable course could not have been more different. To start with
      the examples - about real transportation systems, real cities, and real people -
      were lifelike and demanded attention. The theoretical readings, though
      voluminous, were carefully selected and came to life through the questions Mel
      led us to explore in class. And the most profound message that Mel gave us was
      that there was a way to confront those things we found complex. Simple analyses,
      such of the demand for a transport system, may prove inadequate without
      consideration of social, environmental and larger urban contexts, but Mel did
      not tell us not to conduct such studies. Indeed, as we learned, a good deal of
      Mel's own work in transportation made effective use of conventional tools of
      economic data analysis, but used the findings as a starting point for asking
      deeper questions, which could then lead to a rearticulation of the original

      Mel's teaching always had a great clarity which drew in his students. Indeed,
      the concept of "wicked problems," which he developed with Horst Rittel, was
      explained by him with such immediacy that it was readily understood and became a
      larger-than-life phenomenon nobody in the class could let themselves forget
      whenever a planning or other social problem presented itself in other classes
      and, later, in professional life.

      Wicked problems have no one solution, have no ending point. They are messy, and
      often the obvious problem we first encounter requires other problems to be
      confronted to give any chance of progress. So is traffic congestion about
      providing more roads? Or allowing less cars on the roads we have? About
      providing public transport - what sort of public transport? About changing our
      work patterns and the geography of our cities? About changing out very concept
      of place - Mel introduced us to the "non-place urban realm" - and with it out
      notions of community (now to be "without
      propinquity") and the sorts of travel implied (do existing concepts of public
      transport work at all?)

      And so the choices go on, and it becomes clear that wicked problems can lead to
      endless other problem formulations, strategies, and surprising outcomes which
      then generate new wicked problems.

      Mel found a way to teach his students such things without heaviness. We left his
      classes feeling empowered and uplifted. The complexity he led us to confront may
      have been "wicked," but the concepts Mel taught us were vivid and compelling.
      And the message from Mel's course was that there are ways to tackle complexity
      and become better planners, and that we would all be better planners if only we
      would open up our minds, become aware of the choices to be made, and act in the
      light of a wisdom Mel had given us the power to produce even at our young age.

      Powerful stuff.

      We certainly did not have to attempt to attack all elements of complexity
      -- we would doubtless go crazy if we attempted to do so -- but if we could
      recognize and act on at least a part of that mess we would do good work. Despite
      the "wickedness" of problems, we could come up with solutions. They might not be
      the only possible solutions, or optimal (there is no such thing as an "optimal"
      solution to a social problem in any case), but they would provide good paths
      forward which could contribute to the growth and wellbeing of cities.

      Mel was an excellent writer. He expected high standards from his students'
      written work, and had no hesitation in identifying defects and prescribing
      remedies. His demands for clear thinking permeated all areas of his work, and
      are in evidence in this very issue of ACCESS. For, if my original words have
      shown any sign of lapse, you can be sure an editor will have cleaned them up
      before they meet your eyes. Too many academics write poorly, but Mel insisted
      that all writing is a form of communication and must grip the reader as his
      teaching did his students.

      Perhaps death is a wicked problem after all, at least when we face how to
      confront the legacy of a magnificent human being. Death may have a physical
      finality, but we have choices on how to honor and learn from a life well-lived.
      Do we continue work that was in progress? Do we use the ideas as a basis for our
      own future thinking? How are those ideas to be understood in a variety of
      contexts? How must those very ideas change as transportation systems, cities,
      communities metamorphose over time?

      Ideas can live on and are perhaps our only way to immortality. Mel's ideas were
      powerful as well as humane, demanding generosity of spirit and leading to paths
      of constructive change. If we can incorporate at least some of Mel's principles
      in our own, the result can be anything but wicked.

      Jonathan Richmond
      Visiting Professor
      Logistique, Transport et Tourisme
      Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers
      5 rue du Vertbois
      75141 Paris Cedex 03

      40 rue Paul Delinge
      95880 Enghien-les-Bains

      1 (617) 395-4360
      (US number forwards and rings in France.
      All calls billed as if to Massachusetts)

      e-mail: richmond@... http://the-tech.mit.edu/~richmond/