Meeting 6/4/2013: Ray McCall and Janet Burge—Untangling Wicked Problems

We believe there is a need for rigorous theories of design that can serve as a basis for progress in the 21st Century across a wide range of design fields. To meet this goal, we aim to help establish a foundation for such a theory by carefully investigating the nature of design problems and determining what this nature implies for design processes that produce better-designed artifacts. Our starting point will be Rittel’s theory of wicked problems. Rittel created the theory of wicked problems to describe “that class of problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many decision makers and clients with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are confusing.” [Churchman, 1967]. He then laid out ten criteria for wickedness which we will discuss in this talk.

To support our effort, we need a definitive theory of wicked problems, including an explanation of when it does and does not apply. To provide a solid foundation for a theory of design, a theory of design problems needs to be correct, properly justified and complete in the sense that it either describes all design problems or clearly indicates to which problems it can and can not be applied. We seek to find out whether Rittel’s theory meets these requirements, and if not, where it needs to be abandoned, modified or supplemented.

To these ends, we need to explore the following questions:

  • What should be the criteria for defining wicked problems?
  • How should these criteria be applied when determining wickedness?
  • How does the wicked problem theory serve design?

Brief Bios

Raymond McCall is an Associate Professor with the Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He received his Ph.D. in Architecture (Design Theory and Methods) from the University of California, Berkeley in 1978. He also has a Master’s of Science in Product Design from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design in 1975 and did undergraduate work in architecture and art history. His research interests are focused on using net-centric computing and information technologies to support the reasoning of designers. He created the first hypertext systems for capture, management and retrieval of design rationale as well as the first system integrating such support with support for computer-aided design graphics.

Janet Burge is an Associate Professor in the Miami University Computer Science and Software Engineering department. She received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (2005) and performed her undergraduate work at Michigan Technological University (1984). Her research interests include design rationale, software engineering, AI in design, and knowledge elicitation. She is a co-author (with Jack Carroll, Ray McCall, and Ivan Mistrik) of the book “Rationale-Based Software Engineering”. Dr. Burge is a recipient of a NSF CAREER Award for her project “Rationale Capture for High-Assurance Systems”. She has been at Miami University since 2005. Prior to that point, she worked for more than 20 years in industry as a software engineer and research scientist.