Smart cities
Smart cities

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Smart cities

3 Wicked problems

A photograph of a man standing in front of a wall, scratching his head.
Figure 2 Solving problems

Everyone has a different perspective on their city and its problems.

Urban challenges such as poverty, sustainability, equality and quality of life are sometimes referred to as ‘wicked problems’, a term that was coined by the design theorist Horst Rittel. A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that, for a number of different reasons, is difficult or impossible to solve. It’s a problem that the various stakeholders involved struggle to define, let alone solve (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

Think, for example, about what could be the solution to the problem of poverty. This problem is closely linked with many other issues – education, nutrition, the economy and so on. In solving a wicked problem, the solution to one aspect of the problem often reveals another problem, one that is possibly more complex. Often there will be no perfect solution to a wicked problem, although many solutions might fit well and help to mitigate the problem.

In dealing with the challenges that cities face, it is often changes to the structure and organisation of society that are needed, rather than quick ‘technology fixes’. Changing behaviour – the way we live, work and play – will be critical for cities if they are to become smart. However, technology can play an important role in facilitating behaviour change, for example in helping to reduce energy demand or change travel patterns.

Cities are well placed to operate as laboratories where, with the active participation of their citizens, they can explore problems and develop smart technologies, services and business models. Design thinking is a creative process that can help cities design meaningful solutions to wicked problems with their citizens (Stanford Design Program and the Standard Arts Institute, 2012). You will learn more about this next week.


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