Breakthrough Dialogue 2012: Overcoming Wicked Problems

Thursday, June 28 through Saturday, June 30, 2012
Cavallo Point

In 1969, two little-known urban planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, gave a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science where they described new problems like crime, environmental degradation, and urban redevelopment as fundamentally harder to deal with than earlier social problems.

The streets have been paved, and roads now connect all places; houses shelter virtually everyone; the dread diseases are virtually gone; clean water is piped into nearly every building; sanitary sewers carry wastes from them; schools and hospitals serve virtually every district; and so on. But now that these relatively easy problems have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn.

They went on to call these much more stubborn problems "wicked." To Rittel and Webber what made a problem wicked was that it was in large measure defined differently depending on one's pre-existing worldviews and values. Rittel and Webber gave the example of crime. To Americans with a strong commitment to law and order, the crime problem is caused by lax enforcement. To those who believe that the government should do more to help the poor, crime is caused by unemployment and insufficient investments in social programs. To those who favor drug decriminalization, crime is the result of drug prohibition.

The complexity of wicked problems is caused not by the fact that they have multiple causes but rather that society and its experts are increasingly unable to agree as to what they are. Social and environmental problems, Rittel and Webber predicted, would increasingly become battlegrounds over which more fundamental arguments about the nature of a good society would be debated. "As the population becomes increasingly pluralistic," Rittel and Webber predicted, "inter-group differences are likely to be reflected as inter-group rivalries of a zero-sum sort...the expert is also the player in a political game, seeking to promote his private vision of goodness over others."

The four decades that have followed have proven the two urban planners prescient. Polarization has intensified, our expert class has dramatically expanded in size, and wicked problems have proliferated. Partisan experts produce mountains of studies supporting radically different understandings of problems like crime that are endlessly contested. Old problems like poverty become more complex in a society where most everyone has enough to eat but access to opportunity remains grossly unequal. And scientific knowledge reveals new problems like global warming which become projection screens for ideological battles that predate the science.

Wickedness, in this way, sits at the intersection of problems that are complex and overdetermined, experts who are no more immune than anyone else to constructing problems to serve their moral, ideological, and intellectual commitments, and a polity that has been increasingly empowered to be suspicious of all truth claims that don't comport with their pre-existing beliefs and preferences. The Breakthrough Dialogue 2012 is dedicated to exploring the ways in which we might begin to reconstruct a functioning, pluralistic politics in an age in which basic facts are up for debate.

Founder, Pritzker Innovation Fund
Professor, Harris School and the College, University of Chicago
Senior Editor, TIME; Moderator: Dialogue 2012
Mongolia Program Director, The Nature Conservancy
Fellow, Brookings Institution
Director, Fellows Programs, Roosevelt Institute
Author; Senior Editor, Claremont Review of Books
Journalist; Professor, Public Affairs Journalism, University of Columbia; Moderator: Dialogue 2012
Author; President, Science Council for Global Initiatives
Associate Scientist, Woods Hole Research Center
Independent Writer and webcaster
Chief Scientist and Vice President, The Nature Conservancy
Co-founder, New America Foundation
Retired Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, GMU
Professor, University of Colorado at Boulder
Political Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle; Moderator: Dialogue 2012
Nobel Prize physicist

Keynote & Dialogue 1: The Wonders of Wickedness

Lynas Copy

The theory of “wicked problems” dates back to a 1969 paper written by two urban planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. The two were dealing with the crisis of public confidence in experts and planners at a time of rising affluence and inequality. As we face challenges like inequality, obesity, climate change, and nuclear energy, Rittel and Webber's description of wicked problems reads as fresh today as it did back then.

In this panel we will explore numerous questions and ideas that we will continue to revisit throughout the course of the Dialogue. How do our preconceived solutions frame the ways in which we understand problems? Is it more useful to think of climate change, financial crises, and inequality as problems to be managed rather than solved? Oxford University's Steve Rayner will deliver the opening keynote for the Dialogue with responses from Mark Sagoff, professor of philosophy at George Mason University, and Nico Stehr, cultural studies professor at Zeppelin University. The conversation is moderated by New York Times Dot Earth blogger, Andrew Revkin.

Dialogue 2: Beyond Parks and Recreation


What remains of our natural inheritance is rapidly being developed. The global conservation movement has slowly come to terms with the reality that, just as the United States and Europe developed and cultivated most of their land, Brazil and Indonesia will largely follow suit. Forward-thinking conservationists have begun to consider alternative futures for those landscapes. If we are going to develop the Amazon or the Mongoliansteppes, how should we shape them in ways that preserve ecological amenities that we care about? Is a planning exercise on this scale even possible? Is 'development by design' consistent with the wisdom of local communities in managing their own resources?

In this panel, Enkhtuya Oidov, Mongolia Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, lays out a bold vision of "Development by Design" for her country, which will soon have the world's largest gold and copper mine. Woods Hole's David McGrath, explores the wicked challenge of conservation in the Amazon, and iconoclastic scientist Peter Kareiva offers his perspective — all in a conversation hosted by Time Magazine's Bryan Walsh.

Dialogue 3: The Future of Nuclear

In the wake of Fukushima both Germany and Japan, once heavily reliant on the atom, have moved away from nuclear power. While other countries such as South Korea and China are pushing ahead with planned reactors, nuclear remains stalled in much of the world including the United States and the United Kingdom. The shale gas revolution has unlocked a vast supply of natural gas and helped move the United States away from coal. But it may have also shifted the United States away from nuclear. With gas so cheap, the prospects for nuclear power are less than rosy.

Widespread adoption of nuclear power faces numerous hurdles: high start-up costs, onerous regulations, and unfavorable public perceptions. And yet nuclear remains our only carbon-free energy source that is currently scalable. If the examples of Japan and Germany are indicative, we cannot lower global carbon emissions without it. How then, do we deal with the barriers that nuclear faces? Can we shape public perception in favor of nuclear? And can next-generation reactor designs overcome public fears of atomic energy? Tom Blees, author of Prescription for the Planet, and Nobel Laureate Burton Richter will discuss the future of nuclear power on this panel, moderated by Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World.

Keynote & Dialogue 4: Hamiltonian Liberalism


At the core of America’s economic growth has always been a dynamic relationship between technological-driven change and politicalmodernization. The Hamiltonian political philosophy, which views the federal government as central to producing innovation and economic growth, has led to substantial government investments in a number of key technologies from the railroad to the iPhone. Yet today, the Hamiltonians are on the defensive as federal spending on research and development gets slashed in the name of cutting deficits.

In this panel, Michael Lind, Policy Director at the New America Foundation and author of Land of Promise, will deliver a keynote address on the history of Hamiltonian liberalism and its future. Roger Pielke Jr., author of The Climate Fix, will respond in a discussion moderated by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joe Garofoli. Can the long history of government support for new technology platforms be the basis for a new political philosophy? And what are the possibilities and limits of innovation economics as a new paradigm for economic growth?

Dialogue 5: The Future of the Welfare State

Is the American welfare state on a collision course with economic and demographic collapse? Or is it basically sound — nothing that can't be solved with health care reform and some tweaks to Social Security and Medicare? This panel will interrogate the assumptions behind both positions. What are the key variables that will determine the sustainability of entitlements in the long term — economic growth, demographic trends, health costs, etc? Are various prescriptions for saving or reforming the system dependent upon problematic assumptions? In this panel we will try to disentangle prescriptions from assumptions and consider how we might find a way forward if we hold both a bit more lightly.

Thomas Edsall, professor at Columbia University’s Journalism School, will moderate a conversation between William Voegeli, author of Never Enough, and Mark Schmitt of the Roosevelt Institute.

Dialogue 6: Left Behind

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Over the last forty years, the United States has become more prosperous and more unequal. Far fewer Americans today suffer from material deprivation than did just a few decades ago. And yet opportunities for social mobility appear to be declining for many. In a knowledge economy, relative access to public goods such as health care and education loom ever larger as determinants of social outcomes. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the problem of equalizing access to these critical social amenities. When it comes to inequality in a post-scarcity economy, what matters most? What doesn’t matter? How do we overcome inequality in a knowledge society that increasingly rewards social and cultural capital that is largely inaccessible to many Americans?

In this panel, heterodox sociologist Susan Mayer of the University of Chicago and economist Scott Winship of the Brookings Institution talk with the Nathan Cummings Foundation's Peter Teague about what liberals and progressives should care about when it comes to inequality and poverty.