The "evil implications" of problem-solving

I was on my way to the airport in China the other day, I was looking at the transforming landscape of crates, housing and fields. Reflections about enginnnering of these giant projects lead me to post this tweet :

A few hours later, a friend ask me : How can they be nice if they have evil implications ?. Here is my answer.

They are promising and interesting approaches. The evil is that they are introduced as universal solutions. And anything universal is doomed to lead to disasters IMHO

For instance, there is a strong trend in seeing the world as a sum of problems to be solved (poverty, ecology, gender issues, etc). Supposedly, each of these “problems” could be isolated and solved with a “problem-solving” approach. The idea is that you just need to direct enough resources to them (brain time, money, etc) and they will be “solved”.

This solution-oriented view introduces a need of streamlined process to solve as much problems as possible with the fewest amount of resources.The “design-thinking” is the tool to speed up the process of “problem-solving”. It basically allow economy of scales by providing a working recipe. Instead of having to re-invent local solutions, you have a general model to apply.

This makes a lot of sense on paper (especially paperwork for fundraising) : focus on “real-world problems” with a proved method at hand.

So the evil now : by addressing a single problem, you introduce TONS of new problems. That is a normal systemic issue, when you modify a part of the system, all the system is modified. Another thing is : by directing resources towards a problem, you are taking it away from somewhere to address it somewhere else. So, you are instead of solving “problems”, you are basically moving them to other regions of the planet / society (where they will take different forms).

You end up finding out that the real problem is that people exists. They fight, they cheat, they steal, they consume, they don’t act responsibly, etc. They are not “properly educated” : they don’t understand the “problem”. Then, there is two ways : education or coercition (which are sort of similar but at different stages of life). Here starts the “evil implications”.

If you want to solve a problem real hard, the fastest way to do it is to remove it. , i.e. erase whatever creating the problem. The more you streamline the process of solving it, the more bureaucratized it becomes, the less space there is for any different or localized solutions. That becomes a one-fit-all, i.e. total and authoritative approach that will finally lead to more problems as it suppress all localized issues.

The idea of “democracy” as a systemic solution for linear progress and social improvements worldwide provides good example of hard failures. Thinking solutions can be defined once and for all, or that you can just flag things as “solved” and forget it is an illusion.

“Problems” changed everyday. They are never “solved”. Their implications is life.Things are in this state today, and they will change tomorrow. Acting is sometimes mandatory, but it will lead to local improvements only, not “solving problems”. Big words only make things worst IMO. Sometimes action is not even needed. By the time you invest all these resources, maybe your problem will be gone anyway. Solving problems is a sold way to make us feel good about ourselves.

The evil implications is that defining a “problem” lead us to think that we are not part of it and that we can “solve” everything. We, humans, become the people “doing good”, “solving problems”, ‘tackling challenges”, etc. That is not how it works. THE problem is that we are alive and that it takes an awful lot of stuff to keep us that way. So what are we going to do about that ?

Nothing. I see no mass suicide ahead, nobody renouncing life. We are just sticking around as long as we can, inventing new machines and health care systems to keep us alive longer. It is fascinating. That is one of the reason I am so passionate about the relationships we have with technology. We invent incredible solutions for problems we create. Then the world is bigger to me that a set of problems we can solve. Humans should be more humble about what they are.

This text was originally published in read/write blog.

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