April 12, 2024
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New book looks to Binghamton for ways to address ’wicked problems’

Author and alum Guru Madhavan finds inspiration in Edwin A. Link and the development of flight simulators

Guru Madhavan, MBA ’07, PhD ’09, has written a new book called Guru Madhavan, MBA ’07, PhD ’09, has written a new book called
Guru Madhavan, MBA ’07, PhD ’09, has written a new book called "Wicked Problems: How to Engineer a Better World." Image Credit: Provided.

Not all problems are created equal, and approaching them all the same way can lead to failure — or at least a lot of heartache along the way.

That’s the message of Wicked Problems: How to Engineer a Better World, a new book from Guru Madhavan, MBA ’07, PhD ’09.

During his career, Madhavan — the inaugural Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and senior director of programs at the National Academy of Engineering — has confronted some of the trickiest modern conundrums: making prescription medicines affordable, drawing up a national strategy for cancer control in the U.S., guiding global health approaches to tackle infectious diseases, prioritizing the development of new vaccines and related interventions, and delivering effectively on large engineering projects. He often has the ear of U.S. lawmakers and other officials around the world, and he also has been a strategic consultant for technology startup firms and nonprofit organizations.

In Wicked Problems, Madhavan focuses on what he calls the “synergistic six” of systems engineering — efficiency, vagueness, vulnerability, safety, maintenance and resilience — to discuss how wicked problems have emerged throughout history and how best to address them in the future.

Throughout the book, he weaves in the life of Binghamton’s own Edwin A. Link, who used the equipment from his family’s organ factory to invent the flight trainer and became a pioneer in aviation, and later in underwater archaeology and ocean submersibles.

“This book is my love letter to Binghamton — the city, the community, and the university,” he said. “There’s so much to learn from their universality.”

Q: What is a wicked problem?

A: To get to that answer, it’s useful to think about how the philosopher Karl Popper described the spectrum of problems. On the one end are clock-like systems with predictability and controllability, and you can understand and manipulate their components for solutions. On the other side are cloudy systems, with problems that defy logic and challenge us at every level. So, between Popper’s clocks and the clouds, you see the world take on different dimensions.

In this book, I’m after the cloudiest of the problems, dubbed the “wicked” problems, a term that scholars Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined back in 1973. They catalogued a range of properties for what makes a problem wicked — not in a malignant sense, but in terms of their sheer complexity. For example, these problems don’t have clear beginnings or endings, no clear owners, and they multiply their effects when you engage with them. Each of these problems is unique, and so are their costs and consequences. Any attempt to solve them only gives rise to more problems.

By training, engineers are typically comfortable with clock systems, and less so with cloud systems. So how does one begin to “engineer” interventions for problems that aren’t necessarily amenable to solutions? In this book, my approach was to take and recognize a systems engineering perspective, much like a detective quest, to organize our thoughts and actions to better engage with intractable problems.

Wicked problems, as I explain, are composed of “hard problems,” “soft problems” and “messy problems.” The hard problems have well-defined properties and boundaries, and you can literally “solve” them. You want to optimize for next-gen energy-efficient vehicles, then it’s a hard problem, and there’s a hard solution.

With political and psychological influences, a hard problem can become a soft problem, which is actually harder to solve. Think of managing traffic. You can tame soft problems by solving certain aspects of them, but you can’t attain an ultimate ideal solution for traffic. You can only “resolve” them rather than solving them.

A hard problem and a soft problem can interact to produce a messy problem where our value systems, ideologies and beliefs bleed in creating a condition where we may not be able to agree on the true nature of a particular problem — of the kinds that confront us every day. You cannot brute-force solve them like a hard problem, and you cannot resolve them like a soft problem. You must “dissolve” them, which means transforming it into a different state so you can gain a greater appreciation of it.

Like a stacking doll, wickedness is nested with hard, soft and messy problems. We can’t simply “solve” wicked problems, because then you are talking only about addressing a narrow facet of a problem. One must simultaneously look how to solve, resolve and dissolve wicked problems.

Q: How did Ed Link become a major part of the book?

A: In the years I was in Binghamton as a grad student, I’d heard Ed Link’s name a few times in casual conversations, maybe a couple of seminars, but that’s pretty much it. I’d been to the Binghamton airport and driven past Roberson Museum so many times, but I never had any motivation to think about the Link Trainers they had on display.

It was years later when I discovered the significance of Ed Link’s work during a weekend visit to the Roberson Museum. I was completely captivated and began a nearly seven-year journey to complete this book. Ed Link is the hero of this book and is also an exemplary archetype to guide our approaches to wicked problems. His work remarkably blended technology, psychology, and sociology, the very sensibility we need to advance both engineering and its cultural uses.

I believe that Ed Link’s work belongs in the same league as the Wright Brothers, yet Link is comparatively unknown. Similarly, Binghamton and the Susquehanna Valley have an extraordinary industrial legacy that is comparatively unknown to Silicon Valley. There’s a deeper point we need to engage with and I discuss that in the book: the fundamental politics of recognition as it applies to people, places and the problems, wicked or otherwise, that we as society choose to engage with.

Q: How did your time at Binghamton change the way you approach your work?

A: I was originally trained as a Newtonian in control systems engineering. But Binghamton transformed me into a Darwinian for complex systems engineering. My research and education at Binghamton profoundly reshaped my thinking about the world, and there were more collaborative opportunities and very few impediments. I did a PhD in biomedical engineering along with an MBA, but I also took coursework in the Decker School of Nursing, attended seminars at College of Community and Public Affairs, and significantly, in Harpur College, signed up for a fluke elective course in the Evolutionary Studies Program that ignited a new kind of sensibility in me. Binghamton’s environment tied well with a prime attribute of systems engineers: We are more of learners than the learned.

Q: What’s it like to return to Binghamton to dedicate and discuss this book?

A: It’s a mix of homecoming and thanksgiving for me. The more I learned about Binghamton’s cultural, technical and social history, the more I wanted to include in the book. I could have written 200 more pages!

Our identities are shaped by the kinds of people around us, the kinds of places we inhabit and the kinds of problems we tackle. In that regard, Binghamton forged my engineering identity with a broad civic consciousness.