Wicked problems, wicked delight

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  • Published 20110607
  • ISBN: 9781921758218
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

I AM OF the generation of the wicked problem. At twenty-seven, most of my life has been lived amid global complexity, connectivity and uncertainty. I’ve watched the world become rapidly more connected, and I’ve cut my academic teeth on issues such as climate change, global poverty and viral pandemics. Like many, I’ve felt the need to be more than a passive observer, and to work towards a world of human and ecological wellbeing.

In 2007 I was working as an environmental officer at an Australian university. I’d been in this role for years, and was disillusioned about my ability to effect the kind of change that I believed in and that my job required. My task was to encourage social change and thus establish new patterns of resource consumption – a job more complex than the boss liked to believe. I was frustrated by the inaction of such a highly educated population and needed a new approach, something to energise both me and the campus community.

Around this time I attended the Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) conference and there, among papers on the implementation of energy monitors, recycling infrastructure and duel-flush toilets, I attended a presentation on delight that fundamentally changed the way in which I relate to complex problems. Delight. We change by delight. I could feel my ears prick up and my mind begin to whirr.

The woman who gave this presentation disappeared, much like a genie, and my efforts to trace her have been fruitless. I hope my paraphrasing does her words justice. She said: I used to be an activist. An angry activist. I used to yell at people, bang my fist at meetings and use any chance I had to make a point. I would abuse meat-eaters at barbeques and social events, taking any opportunity to rant on about something. Suddenly people stopped inviting me to parities. And I like parties! So I began making cake. Gorgeous, in-season, local, organic, beautiful, ethical cake. And people started inviting me to parties again. To quote St Thomas Aquinas, ‘we change by delight.’

Aesthetically pleasing, ethically sound and absolutely delicious: people were more willing to engage with a person peddling pleasure than with an approach based on anger and guilt. It struck me that although I believed in the devastating consequences of environmental inaction, I didn’t need to be sombre in my approach. And I didn’t need to change the world by laying weight on other shoulders.

A couple of years after attending the ACTS conference, I returned and spoke with some of the environment officers from other universities. Talk turned to previous conferences, and I discovered I had not been the only one significantly moved by the idea of delight as an approach to change. While we may never know whether the presenter has continued to bring about significant change through delight, the significance of her impact on us makes her idea worthy of further exploration.

I believed so strongly in the potential of delight as a tool for change that I began a PhD on the topic, and headed straight to the books for some sort of accepted definition. My favourite was an amalgamation of various definitions and came from Joel Davitz in his book The Language of Emotions (1969): a combination of joy and surprise.


COMBINING JOY AND surprise in practice can be found on the Fun Theory website (www.thefuntheory.com), the introductory blurb claiming that the site is ‘dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.’

A favourite example is an attempt to get more people to take the stairs, rather than the nearby escalator. The stairs are converted to a working keyboard and people’s reactions videotaped. The footage shows people gravitating towards the stairs and tentatively stepping on the keys. Realising they make a noise, serious, suited business people started jumping up and down the stairs, slowly making their way to the top. The experiment saw a two-thirds decrease in people using the escalators, and facial expressions showed that the experience was joyful, surprising and also a bit different. Much like the guerrilla gardening movement, the piano stairs are about subverting a norm in order to bring about change.

Yet it would be perhaps naive to think that joyous surprise is the simple answer to complexity. I’ve come to realise the importance, indeed the unavoidable nature, of the difficult, the sad and the scary, all of which are fundamental components of wicked problems. Delight on its own is far too simple a concept for such complexity and paradox. As John Law states in the opening sentence of After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Routledge, 2004), ‘if this [indicating a complex and messy picture] is an awful mess…Then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?’ I believe delight has the potential to create a far richer approach to wicked problems than merely a naive belief in joyful surprise.

Einstein is often famously quoted as saying, ‘we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.’ As I see it, the only hope of taming the slippery and mischievous beast that is a wicked problem is to beat it at its own game. Wickedness and delight are, in themselves, slippery, surprising, unruly, harsh, edgy, mischievous and playful. By using these characteristics as strengths for strategically challenging existing problem-solving habits, and normal behaviour, I believe we might have a chance at understanding and better coping with wicked problems. Wicked delight captures this as an unexpected experience in which old perspectives and norms are suddenly viewed in a new and different light.

Arthur Koestler, famous for his anti-totalitarian novel Dark Noon, also wrote The Act of Creation (1964), setting out what he sees as the three main elements of the creative process. One is the importance of humour in creating new technologies, and also in facilitating new ways of seeing the world. Koestler describes humour as the result of two different planes of understanding clashing. Humour is essentially the experience of paradox exposed: two rational truths are presented in a context in which they both maintain their truth and in which truth cannot actually be possible.

Let’s say I have an uncle, a much-loved uncle, who has long been an authoritative, well-dressed and rather intimidating figure in my life. I am also used to seeing my nieces and nephews in neck-to-knee swimsuits, designed to protect delicate young skin from the sun. Both of those things are normal to me and I accept them. Imagine my surprise, then, at seeing my serious uncle take to the beach in a tight-fitting wrist-to-ankle sunsuit and froglike goggles – the joy and surprise at seeing this normally serious person become, in my eyes, a figure of fun. The humour in this is the combination of two normal things in a way never before experienced by me. This clash of expectation is what generates the humour in the situation, and is thecreation of a new way of seeing – to me, the creation of a small new truth. My old perspective on the possibilities of my uncle is challenged. What else might he be capable of?

To my uncle this would be no laughing matter and there would be an element of wickedness in my laughter. Koestler acknowledges that in all humour there is an element of nastiness and that a laugh is always, in at least some small way, at the expense of another. Yet the truth held within this laughter is potentially of great value. Thus learning about humour helps in the exploration of wicked delight as a valuable tool for addressing wicked problems.


DAVID ENGWICHT, AN ARTIST and social innovator, draws on elements of wicked delight – intrigue and uncertainty – in his work on traffic. In Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic (Envirobook, 2005), he argues for the removal of road markings, lines and signs, an approach at odds with traditional traffic-engineering solutions. Engwicht works on the assumption that speed signs, road bumps and other on-road instructions and intrusions leave the motorist feeling secure and certain about the conditions he or she will encounter. By removing these clues, the driver is required to learn to expect the unexpected and to slow down. And to further encourage an appreciation and awareness that something surprising may happen, Engwicht asks people to gather in the streets: on their doorsteps, in the front garden, on the footpath. Participants find themselves engaged in unusual activities such as eating breakfast in the front yard, putting up decorations or creating a temporary living room in a car space.

Motorists begin to slow down in order to try and understand what is going on, as well as to ensure they are able to react to the unexpected, which suddenly seems much more likely. Walking becomes an interesting and social way to travel, and cycling safety improves. Engwicht finds ways of encouraging the unusual and the different.

A shift towards safer and more sustainable transport is one step towards addressing the many small parts that make up wicked problems. Such innovative and counter-intuitive solutions need to be applied in all contexts, as well as at the higher conceptual level. By approaching the need for change through the lens of wicked delight, thinkers may be able to do away with some of the mental lines and signs that shape our thinking and help us avoid the confronting and the unexpected.

One of the most insidious elements of wicked problems is the way in which factors that contribute to them are often imbedded into the everyday. Elizabeth Shove, an English sociologist, uses the history of washing practices to highlight how consumption of resources is determined by social norms. Once, bathing was considered a risky business, something likely to increase your chances of catching illnesses through the skin. Given this, water and energy consumption was considerably less than it is today – and in a lecture on this subject Shove asked who in the audience had not bathed that day. In a full lecture theatre only one or two people sheepishly put up their hands. While only bathing every second day is not going to kill us, it can be social suicide to admit you have not washed in the past twenty-four hours.

The sense of being judged by others, of being constrained in our actions by our need to conform, is one of the greatest barriers to change. Teenagers are taught not to give into peer pressure, yet most of us spend our lives doing just that. A recent study investigated the factors that influence whether or not a hotel guest will reuse their towels. A number of different signs were tested near the towels: one that pleaded with people to reuse the towels for environmental reasons, one that simply said ‘please reuse towels’ and another that said ‘most people in this hotel reuse their towels’. It was the last that had the greatest positive effect on towel reuse. (Of course, when asked, none of the guests put their actions down to the behaviour of others.)

These examples highlight the power of social norms in influencing patterns of consumption and the importance of getting us to reflect on our actions. This is not always comfortable or easy. The street artist Banksy embodies elements of wicked delight in his work, and is world renowned for his confronting and cheeky tactics. His signature art involves rats depicted spilling toxic waste, climbing into forbidden areas or parachuting into unusual places. To some Banksy is an inspiring artist and social change activist, while to others he is a nuisance and a vandal. A masked rioter hurling a bunch of flowers, two policemen locked in passionate embrace, the elderly playing bowls with bombs, beautiful landscapes on the ‘segregation wall’ between the Palestinian Territories and Israel: is this wicked? Is it delightful? Does it make you stop and think? Banksy’s art constitutes a belief in the impossible, craftily exemplified in a quote on the back of one of his books: ‘”There’s no way you’re going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover” – Metropolitan Police Spokesperson.’

What’s more, many of the greatest social revolutions have been a result of breaking rules. The women’s liberation movement put forward a new story for the way in which the world could work – a story in which women were credited with equal intelligence and capability. This was a fundamental challenge to the way in which the majority of people viewed the world at the time. Similarly, additions to scientific understandings of the world have often been the result of accidents, of new ways of framing situations and a challenging of fundamentally embedded ways of knowing the world. What would have happened if the drip from Alexander Fleming’s nose hadn’t accidentally fallen into his petri dish, laying the groundwork for his discovery of penicillin? What if Archimedes had failed to glance at the dirty smudges on the bath’s edge that caused him to realise the water was rising as he lowered himself in?

In confronting wicked problems, notions of normal need to be challenged on a number of fronts. Research shows that simply telling someone about a ‘better’ behaviour is not likely to bring about a change in action. So, how about wicked delight as a tool for rule-breaking, and rule-breaking as a necessary requirement of solving problems. What about viewing rule-breaking as an exercise in practical imagination? Could wicked delight inspire us to think in different ways, across many disciplines, about change?


INSPIRED BY ONE woman and her talk of luxurious and ethical cakes, I was able to view a tired, and tiring, issue in a new light. I came back from the ACTS conference and decided to fundamentally change the way in which I approached my work. I took pleasure in defying my boss and throwing my work plan out the window – taking a seemingly less serious approach to the issue at hand. Rather than banging my head against a brick wall I was going to work on something delightful, something celebratory and something that would actually bring about change.

As a sustainability officer, it was my job to nudge people out of their existing patterns of behaviour and encourage them to act more sustainably. This is only possible if people are able to envisage and create new ways of being. Celebrate Sustainability Day was the first result of my affair with delight. It was a day to recognise just how far my university had come; to celebrate the research on sustainable technologies, the student groups, the corporate sustainability achievements; and to encourage further engagement from staff and students. On the day approximately thirty stalls were set up, displaying information about sustainability activities on campus. People could test-ride electric buggies, listen to local music, eat local produce, participate in a clothes swap and enjoy fruit smoothies from an erratically functioning pedal-powered blender. Stalls focused on protesting were asked not to attend – it was a day of possibility.

Students began volunteering on the spot, keen to be a part of the event for even just an hour between classes. It was an energising activity for many of them. The day was a huge success and our office gathered a further ten committed and enthusiastic volunteers. To those in power it had perhaps seemed a frivolous use of finance, yet the new perspective – sustainability as fun, lively and exciting – enabled the university community to engage with the idea.

While the event itself may not have fundamentally altered social practices, it was a chink in the armour of disengagement – not to mention a way of maintaining my own enthusiasm. This came from changing the rules of the game and rethinking my work plan, reframing the traditional approach to social change. The value of delight as a tool for coping with wicked problems lies not in its ability to provide an ultimate solution to the complexity of the problems, but in its value as a lens for focusing on change. There are no simple answers to wicked problems; rather, we need to begin to feel comfortable exploring new approaches, trying the unusual and creating opportunities for the unexpected to happen.

As a person who cares deeply about social and ecological sustainability and justice I’ve struggled to work out my contribution to the morass of complex arguments, emotional responses, political blocks – a slowly thinning knife edge on which the fate of the world sits. I’ve wanted to hide in despair, join the sea slugs on the ocean floor, run off to join the circus. Yet by being honest, by acknowledging the slippery nature of wicked problems and embracing their social and ecological complexity, I can throw myself head-first into the ring of a different kind of circus. The challenge of managing, or perhaps more realistically coping with, wicked problems may be the greatest challenge of human existence. It is an exciting and terrifying time to be alive – a time well worthy of our delightfully wicked attention.

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About the author

Millie Rooney

Millie Rooney is a PhD scholar at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia.She has previously worked in campus environmental management and is currently...

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