On Wicked Problems

Here is the pre-production version of a paper just accepted for publication in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, entitled ‘The wicked city: Genealogies of interdisciplinary hubris in urban thought’. (You can access a PDF of the final draft here).

The paper is one, probably the last, output from ‘The Urbanization of Responsibility‘ project, supported by a Leverhulme Fellowship back in 2014-2016, but which lasted longer than the funding, as these things do of course. (If someone gave me another fellowship, I might have the time to sculpt the various urban-focussed things that have come out of that project into a coherent looking book. Probably won’t happen).

Here’s the abstract to this latest piece:

“Across multiple academic disciplines and fields of policy, cities are now ascribed wide-ranging task responsibility for addressing a wide range of global issues. This paper elaborates a genealogical mode of analysis for understanding the ascription of causal and practical responsibility to urban processes. This analysis is developed through a case study of the revival of interest in the concept of wicked problems. The paper pinpoints aspects of the original account of wicked problems that are crucial to appreciating the significance now played by this concept in discourses of metrophilia. The focus is on the specific sense of ‘wickedness’ outlined in this original account. The career of the wicked problems idea is reconstructed, with an emphasis on different views of expertise and how these are related to the changing status of the city in recent accounts of wicked problems. The paper identifies differences and similarities between the two prevalent ways in which the invocation of the concept of wicked problems is used to ascribe responsibility for shaping urban futures – a ‘taming’ perspective and a ‘sharing’ perspective. In concluding, it is argued that the career of the idea of wicked problems brings into view the constitutive link between generalised ascriptions of task responsibility to urban processes and a set of chronic concerns about the ambivalence of urban expertise.”

Who Does Geography Matter For?

 

The report last week by the Royal Historical Society on Race, Ethnicity and Equality into the discipline of History in UK higher education, as well as some of the attendant press coverage, has reminded me of a train of thought I have been following, in my own head, since the summer. It was prompted by the #ChooseGeography hashtag, which has been a medium for sharing various reasons to affirm why Geography Matters, as they used to say.

The stream of tweets reminded me that I, and a number of other geographers I know, didn’t really choose geography at all. It chose us – it’s proved to be an unexpectedly creative and open space in which to find things out. Perhaps this grammatical difference – between choosing geography and being chosen by it – indicates a significant cleavage within the field more broadly. The active sense of choosing geography is associated with a strongly justificatory rhetoric of why geography matters in more or less useful, practical, even applied, ways. #ChooseGeography does reflect a wider embrace of the idea that Geography is ideally placed to address all sorts of ‘global challenges’ – because geographers are really good at understanding the interactions between local actions and global processes [they really are].

Of course, it’s worth remembering that all those ‘challenges’ that drive current debates about the value of research are externally sourced (remember, the establishment of UKRI means the Haldane principle is effectively dead – by defining it as a principle only relating to decision about individual research proposals) – which does raise the question of what is involved when whole scholarly fields define their own intellectual agendas by so openly embracing the logics of ‘challenge-led’ research (i.e. what the government of the day randomly decides is worthwhile, with no more arms length mediation).

The problem with the ‘really useful knowledge’ version of geography is that it tends to side-line that strand of geographical thought that focuses on how all those ‘challenges’ arise as matters of public concern in the first place [you could call that a ‘critical’ strand, or a ‘genealogical’ strand; or, just ‘science’, in so far as science is about problem-finding, not problem-solving, to borrow a line from Richard Sennett].

So, for example, lots of those ‘global challenges’ are now described as really complex, and therefore requiring integrative, ‘interdisciplinary’ approaches. Climate change is, obviously, the best example – it’s now routinely thought of as a “super wicked problem”. Now, if you take that idea seriously (and you should), then it means that this sort of problem can’t be solved (and certainly not by the application of scientific knowledge, however integrative and expansive it might be). A little bit of intellectual history can be a dangerous thing. Science doesn’t offer solutions. It’s difficult to roll that idea into grand funding bids though, isn’t it.

So, here is my final thought: Just what is the relationship between the idea of geography-as-useful-and-challenge-oriented, on the one hand, and the chronic whiteness of the discipline, in the UK, on the other?

To be more precise, how does the ongoing framing of a field of knowledge – one that seeks to understand the worldliness of the world – as a purveyor of beneficent knowledge which is able to solve other people’s/peoples’ problems (and especially, which is able to solve problems created by other people’s/peoples’ supposed lack of thoughtful action), how does that framing help to reproduce a problematic and unacknowledged paternalism at the heart of the Subject of academic Geography (whether as student, teacher, or researcher)? Just askin’. Seriously.

Anyway, I wonder if the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers, of course) might consider a similar exercise to the one undertaken by the RHS sometime soon. It would make interesting reading.

 

 

 

Resilience and Design

Here are details of a Forum on the theme of Resilience and Design, edited by Rob Cowley, in the journal Resilience. As well as an introduction by Rob, it consists of four short essays on ‘urbany’ themes, mainly, by myself, Tania Katzschner, Nathaniel Tkacz, and Filip De Boeck. Here is the list of contents:

Resilience and design: an introduction, Robert Cowley

Planning as design in the Wicked City, Clive Barnett

Design, responsibility and ‘Staying with the Trouble’: rethinking urban conservation in Cape Town, Tania Katzschner

In a world of data signals, resilience is subsumed into a design paradigm, Nathaniel Tkacz

‘The Hole of the World’: designing possibility through topography in Congo’s urban settings, Filip de Boeck

And here is the abstract for the whole collection:

“This forum aims to encourage theorists of resilience to engage more closely with different aspects of design theory and practice. The introduction outlines a series of largely unacknowledged parallels between resilience and design, relating to the valorisation of processes over states, the loss of faith in ‘planning’, the ambivalent status of boundaries and interfaces, and open-ended political possibilities. Four short reflections then follow on various design-related topics: the significance of the ‘wicked problem’ in contemporary urban planning and design, and the urbanisation of responsibility; design’s potential to repoliticise and engender new forms of responsibility; the significance of the digital interface; and the condition of everyday life in the ‘unplanned’ post-colonial city. Readers are invited to build on or refute the explicit and implicit links made between resilience and design in the various forum contributions.”

I have a bunch of free e-copies of the Forum, so let me know if you’d like one!