Death is a Wicked Problem
- 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.
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.
Logistique, Transport et Tourisme
Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers
5 rue du Vertbois
75141 Paris Cedex 03
40 rue Paul Delinge
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/