ASTU 401G: Wicked Problems in Community Development

Course Overview

ASTU 401G “WICKED PROBLEMS” is an upper-level interdisciplinary course designed for students with an interest in global sustainability, students will focus on a case study in India and study the societal complexity of international community development. Students from all faculties are encouraged to register. 

In partnership with SELCO Foundation, an NGO in the Bangalore area, this course will collaborate on cases to approach complex social issues such as:

  • urban homelessness and housing;
  • agricultural (un)sustainability and sovereignty;
  • clean energy solutions for social services;
  • refugee migration; and
  • nomadic communities.

Students will learn to utilize the trans-disciplinary tools of systems theory, forum theatre, critical systems heuristics, strategic design and, of course, current best practices in international community engagement. Assignments will be grounded in solidarity practices with the mission of the organization. Students will gain the tools to untangle the complex systems and structures, drawing on theories such as critical pedagogy and post-development.

In their influential paper of 1972, design scientist, Horst W. J. Rittel and city planner, Melvin M. Webber, coined the term “wicked” to describe “problems of governmental planning – and especially those of social or policy planning” that are “ill defined; and […] rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution.” They considered these problems to be of a fundamentally different nature to “problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable.” According to Rittel and Webber, the intrinsic complexity of such “wicked problems” as poverty, homelessness, and environmental degradation could not be solved but only “tamed” or “at best […] re-solved – over and over again.” Perhaps the single greatest consistent contributor to “wickedness” is the lack of consensus among stakeholders as to the correct description of the problem itself, let alone the nature of any possible intervention. This vexing conundrum is often due to differing tacit judgments regarding the “boundaries” of the “system or area of concern” to be addressed (i.e. Should an intervention to address homelessness include strategies around education and employment?) as well as a lack of clarity regarding the specific socio-political contexts and power distributions within any particular development context. The ways that these often unvoiced assumptions can surreptitiously constrain dialogue and action can be particularly acute when well-intentioned citizens from the “developed world” attempt to participate in community development projects with vulnerable populations in parts of the “developing world.”

Focusing upon a case-study situated in India and utilizing the transdisciplinary tools of systems theory, forum theatre, critical systems heuristics, strategic design and, of course, current best practices in international community engagement, this course will engage students in a probing, practice-based dialogue exploring contemporary approaches to the “taming” of “wicked problems” in an international community development context.

Course time:

W2021 T2 Tuesday and Thursday 11:00-12:30pm. Classes will be primarily synchronous for team-based activities.

Eligibility Criteria:

Open to all UBC students with a minimum 3rd year standing by January 2020.

This course can be counted towards the Faculties of Science and Engineering’s undergraduate students arts course requirement.

This course runs from January – April 2021.

How to register: Register on the SSC here.