Wicked problems and the price of oil

Working in an oil company has certainly opened my eyes to the complexity of the energy infrastructure in the US and the world. I’m sure that the majority of the people I come into contact with who have an opinion on energy consumption are unaware of just how complex it is to actually get oil out of the ground and into our cars.

Last year I learned and started thinking about “wicked” problems and “designerly” thinking. My understanding is that there are some problems in the design world, in which the variables and interactions between problems are extremely complex and are called “wicked” problems. Sustainable energy consumption is most definitely a “wicked” problem.

Lately, it seems I’ve heard the term “sustainability” being used quite a bit, with what I suspect is a regards to energy conservation and design of manufactured goods. Technically, these are two different things and, to be honest, the word “sustainable” is used too often without any particular type of qualifier. Sustainability is like spirituality. There are all kinds of spiritual practices. We need to be clear about what we’re talking about with regards to sustainability – e.g., sustainable agriculture, a sustainable approach to business development, and sustainable technology development.
Change to the way the world uses energy is not something that can happen within even 5 years. It’s something that will require a deep commitment from several generations of political leaders and will require us all to put aside our motivations for power and economic wealth in favor of the future of the planet. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I do believe that it’s somewhat unrealistic to think that one industry or even one country will be able to make lasting changes to the energy infrastructure of the world alone.

More info:
Check out this download for Firefox, “Oil Standard” – See the world in barrels of oil

Stirring Design Into Business – article on design thinking in Business Week, 2007

“On addressing wicked problems…” – from Interactions, 2008

Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI” – requires ACM subscription for full-text

Web design vs. Academia

Academia vs. Web design: The Journal on New Media and Society looks for papers on mobile communication and developing communities. Meanwhile, A List Apart posts an article on improving web design education.

For a Special Edition publication, the Journal on New Media and Society is looking for papers on Mobile Communication and the Developing World.

“We are seeking papers for a special edition of the journal New Media & Society focusing on mobile communication and media, and its impact on the developing world. We are interested in papers that empirically describe the use of mobile practices as well as the convergence of mobile and other platforms in the developing world (e.g. Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe or other locations in the “global south”). Successful papers will examine the integration and use of mobile communication technology and its implications (both positive and negative) in individuals’ lives. We are seeking papers that investigate the global as well as the local appropriations of mobile media use and its relationship to social change and/or development…”

Hrmm… Could this be yet another good reason why the myriad of professions in the “user experience design” field need more original research? Interestingly enough, while I pondered that thougth, I came across A List Apart’s post on elevating web design in academia. The article listed 3 tips for getting involved:

Here are three things you can do today to make a difference in web education:
• connect with a university,
• sponsor an educator, and
• volunteer your time.

I do like the idea of getting professionals more involved in education, but I feel that parts of the article are confusing the business model of web design companies with the academic model of universities. Companies are for-profit entities that ultimately need to make money. Universities are non-profit organizations that ultimately strive to advance knowledge. The two have motivations that can be, and apparently are for the web design industry, mutually exclusive. Their drivers are completely different and require different credentials to advance their needs. Business needs skill. Academia needs knowledge and degrees. It’s not so simple to simply ask universities to give up the need to hire people with graduate degrees. Universities are more established than web design, so why is it that universities are broken? Why not ask businesses to hire people who are “unqualified”, and then spend time training them to be productive in the context of their business? Why isn’t it that web design businesses should change, or at least change their expectations on who they should expect to hire?