Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

wickedness as a simulation design objective

In a now-famous 1973 article in Policy Sciences entitled  “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber outlined the notion of “wicked problems.” In contrast to the “tame problems” that engineers and scientists typically wrestled with, the wicked problems faced by social planners had a number of intrinsic paradoxes, challenges, and complex characteristics:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
  10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

When simulating peacebuilding and development, I think that most or all of these are very useful elements to build into the experience. By doing so–and, equally importantly, by designing a teaching and debriefing system that explores the judgements that participants made, how they came to those decisions, and the foreseen and unforeseen (and first and second order) consequences of their actions—a simulation can promote the sort of self-conscious critical thinking that is so important in highly dynamic, complex, and confusing conflict and post-conflict environments. Highlighting the inherent “wickedness” of development challenges in conflict-affected countries (and indeed, more generally) also discourages the notions that there are cookie-cutter approaches of universal usefulness, or that one can somehow develop a “conflict cookbook” with unvarying recipes for stabilization, peace,  social justice, and economic growth. Context is everything, and a central part of doing a better job of international engagement (or, for that matter, local initiatives) is to understand what sorts of questions need to be asked.

While on the subject of the need to avoid “conflict cookbooks,” I should perhaps flag the World Bank’s forthcoming 2011 World Development Report, which will address the theme of “Conflict, Security, and Development” (especially since both Gary and I are involved in the process). The WDR will explicitly attempt to avoid “trap that characterizes a lot of institutional development work by external parties (i.e. that it is based on prescriptive models and is insufficiently adapted to real-life situations of fragility and conflict)”  You’ll find the project team’s blog here.

2 responses to “wickedness as a simulation design objective

  1. Rex Brynen 20/01/2010 at 3:57 pm

    Oh there’s that too. I’m always impressed–and little frightened–at what some of my students get up to as simulated combatants.

    Last week I wrote a graduate school reference that said (in addition to the more conventional praise) something to the effect that someone was “one of the most effective managers of a (simulated) ethnic extremist, genocide-promoting radio station that I’ve ever had in more than a decade of class simulations.” Now there’s something you want on your CV!

  2. Mike Innes 19/01/2010 at 11:08 pm

    Rex, when I first saw the title of this post, I thought it might relate to perfidy considerations in IHL/LOAC. Shows what I know…

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