Posts Tagged engineering

Just a Moment, Galileo

Bruce Vojak’s wonderful piece on innovation and the minds of Newton and Goethe got me thinking about another 17th century innovator. Like Newton, Galileo was a superstar in his day – a status he still holds. He was the consummate innovator and iconoclast. I want to take a quick look at two of Galileo’s errors, one technical and one ethical, not to try to knock the great man down a peg, but to see what lessons they can bring to the innovation, engineering and business of this era.

Less well known than his work with telescopes and astronomy was Galileo’s work in mechanics of solids. He seems to have been the first to explicitly identify that the tensile strength of a beam is proportional to its cross-sectional area, but his theory of bending stress was way off the mark. He applied similar logic to cantilever beam loading, getting very incorrect results. Galileo’s bending stress illustration is shown below (you can skip over the physics details, but they’re not all that heavy).

Galileo's beam bending diagram

For bending, Galileo concluded that the whole cross section was subjected to tension at the time of failure. He judged that point B in the diagram at right served as a hinge point, and that everything above it along the line A-B was uniformly in horizontal tension. Thus he missed what would be elementary to any mechanical engineering sophomore; this view of the situation’s physics results in an unresolved moment (tendency to twist, in engineer-speak). Since the cantilever is at rest and not spinning, we know that this model of reality cannot be right. In Galileo’s defense, Newton’s 3rd law (equal and opposite reaction) had not yet been formulated; Newton was born a year after Galileo died. But Newton’s law was an assumption derived from common sense, not from testing.

It took more than a hundred years (see Bernoulli and Euler) to finally get the full model of beam bending right. But laboratory testing in Galileo’s day could have shown his theory of bending stress to make grossly conservative predictions. And long before Bernuolli and Euler, Edme Mariotte published an article in which he got the bending stress distribution mostly right, identifying that the neutral axis should be down the center of the beam, from top to bottom. A few decades later Antoine Parent polished up Mariotte’s work, arriving at a modern conception of bending stress.

But Mariotte and Parent weren’t superstars. Manuals of structural design continued to publish Galileo’s equation, and trusting builders continued to use them. Beams broke and people died. Deference to Galileo’s authority, universally across his domain of study, not only led to needless deaths but also to the endless but fruitless pursuit of other causes for reality’s disagreement with theory.

So the problem with Galileo’s error in beam bending was not so much the fact that he made this error, but the fact that for a century it was missed largely for social reasons. The second fault I find with Galileo’s method is intimately tied to his large ego, but that too has a social component. This fault is evident in Galileo’s writing of Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, the book that got him condemned for heresy.

Galileo did not invent the sun-centered model of our solar system; Copernicus did. Galileo pointed his telescope to the sky, discovered four moons of Jupiter, and named them after influential members of the Medici family, landing himself a job as the world’s highest paid scholar. No problem there; we all need to make a living. He then published Dialogue arguing for Copernican heliocentrism against the earth-centered Ptolemaic model favored by the church. That is, Galileo for the first time claimed that Copernicanism was not only an accurate predictive model, but was true. This was tough for 17th century Italians to swallow, not only their clergy.

For heliocentrism to be true, the earth would have to spin around at about 1000 miles per hour on its surface. Galileo had no good answer for why we don’t all fly off into space. He couldn’t explain why birds aren’t shredded by supersonic winds. He was at a loss to provide rationale for why balls dropped from towers appeared to fall vertically instead of at an angle, as would seem natural if the earth were spinning. And finally, if the earth is in a very different place in June than in December, why do the stars remain in the same pattern year round (why no parallax)? As UC Berkeley philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend so provocatively stated, “The church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself.”

At that time, Tycho Brahe’s modified geocentric theory of the planetary system (Mercury and Venus go around the sun, which goes around the earth), may have been a better bet given the evidence. Brahe’s theory is empirically indistinguishable from Copernicus’s. Venus goes through phases, like the moon, in Brahe’s model just as it does in Copernicus’s. No experiment or observation of Galileo could refute Brahe.

Here’s the rub. Galileo never mentions Brahe’s model once in Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. Galileo knew about Brahe. His title, Two Systems, seems simply a polemic device – at best a rhetorical ploy to eliminate his most worthy opponent by sleight of hand. He’d rather fight Ptolemy than Brahe.

Likewise, Galileo ignored Johannes Kepler in Dialogue. Kepler’s work (Astronomia Nova) was long established at the time Galileo wrote Dialogue. Kepler correctly identified that the planetary orbits were elliptical rather than circular, as Galileo thought. Kepler also modeled the tides correctly where Galileo got them wrong. Kepler wrote congratulatory letters to Galileo; Galileo’s responses were more reserved.

Galileo was probably a better man (or should have been) than his behavior toward Kepler and Brahe reveal. His fans fed his ego liberally, and he got carried away. Galileo, Brahe, Kepler and everyone else would have been better served by less aggrandizing and more humility. The tech press and the venture capital worlds  that fuel what Vivek Wadhwa calls the myth of the 20-year old white male genius CEO should take note.

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Intuitive Probabilities

GothGuy3Meet Vic. Vic enjoys a form of music that features heavily distorted guitars, slow growling vocals, atonality, frequent tempo changes, and what is called “blast beat” drumming in the music business. His favorite death metal bands are Slayer, Leviticus, Dark Tranquility, Arch Enemy, Behemoth, Kreator, Venom, and Necrophagist.

Vic has strong views on theology and cosmology. Which is more likely?

  1. Vic is a Christian
  2. Vic is a Satanist

I’ve taught courses on probabilistic risk analysis over the years, and have found that very intelligent engineers, much more experienced than I, often find probability extremely unintuitive. Especially when very large (or very small) numbers are involved. Other aspects of probability and statistics are unintuitive for other interesting reasons. More on those later.

The matter of Vic’s belief system involves several possible biases and unintuitive aspects of statistics. While pondering the issue of Vic’s beliefs, you can enjoy Slayer’s Raining Blood. Then check out my take on judging Vic’s beliefs below the embedded YouTube video – which, by the way, demonstrates all of the attributes of death metal listed above.

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Vic is almost certainly a Christian. Any other conclusion would involve the so-called base-rate fallacy, where the secondary, specific facts (affinity for death metal) somehow obscure the primary, base-rate relative frequency of Christians versus Satanists. The Vatican claims over one billion Catholics, and most US Christians are not Catholic. Even with papal exaggeration, we can guess that there are well over a billion Christians on earth. I know hundreds if not thousands of them. I don’t know any Satanists personally, and don’t know of any public figures who are (there is conflicting evidence on Marilyn Manson). A quick Google search suggests a range of numbers of Satanists in the world, the largest of which is under 100,000. Further, I don’t ever remember seeing a single Satanist meeting facility, even in San Francisco. A web search also reveals a good number of conspicuously Christian death metal bands, including Leviticus, named above. Without getting into the details of Bayes Theorem, it is probably obvious that the relative frequencies of Christians against Satanists governs the outcome. And judging Vic by his appearance is likely very unreliable.

South Park Community Presbyterian Church
South Park Community Presbyterian Church
Fairplay, Colorado

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Debbie Downer Doesn’t Do Design

OspreyAre you a real engineer – you know, the kind who actually knows the underlying mechanics of how the natural world works? Have you ever been evicted from an innovation workshop by some smug hipster with an art degree who your firm engaged to teach you how to think creatively? Has a self-proclaimed design guru called you a Debbie Downer because you categorically reject all spacecraft designs that  include the note, “Insert warp drive here”?

Do you wear the 3rd Law of Thermodynamics on your sleeve? Do you recoil at greentech entrepreneurs who convince investors and politicians that with innovative design, photovoltaic conversion efficiency can breach the Shockley-Queisser limit or even the Carnot limit?

Do many TED talks make you want to hurl? You know the ones. Take the second most popular TED talk of all time, where Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor relates her “stroke of insight” – an incredible tale of the transcendent peace she experienced after a complete lateral stroke. She drags out the ever-popular (false – but don’t be a Negative Nancy) left-brain/right-brain stuff as an explanation for her mystical experiences. The high-rolling TED audience swoons. Taylor then dredges up an old TED staple, stating, “the left hemisphere is linear thinking.”

Ah – linear thinking. One TED speaker shows a graph of a straight line and another of an exponential curve. He explains the magic nature of exponentiality to the spellbound audience who has apparently forgotten their high school math class on compound interest and then releases his pearl: imagine how productive we can be if we employ nonlinear thinking instead of the linear variety. He equivocates discontinuous non-linearity with exponential nonlinearity and not a soul notices. Critical thinking is for left-brained losers.

Do you groan when Jane McGonigal declares an epic win with her assertion that behaviors learned in World of Warcraft can translate into solutions to real problems if we just swallow the right dose of newthink? McGonigal reports that humans have spent 5.93 million years playing World of Warcraft. She means, of course, 5.93 million man-years (or Doritos-stained-fingers, pear-shaped-kid-years). She adds that 5.93 million years ago is when primates became bipedal (TED video at 6:05). She then addresses the evolutionary value of video games, noting that we’ve played WoW as long as we’ve walked on our hind legs. I’m not making this up. “This is true; I believe this,” as McGonigal likes to say.

If you’ve ever wanted to choke a perpetual-motion hocking idea-man, The Onion has an antidote:

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Engineering Innovation, Environmentalism and Sustainable Energy

GlobeLightBulbIf the world is to be saved, it will be innovative engineers who save it.

There is a reasonable chance that the planet needs saving from greenhouse gas and too much carbon dioxide. It’s not certain, and the climate models have far more flaws than many admit (Trenberth’s missing heat, the missing carbon sink, etc.). But the case for global warming is plausible and credible. It’s foolish to try to quantify the likelihood of climate catastrophe; but the model’s credibility and its level of peer review is sufficient to warrant grave concern and immediate work.

Environmental activists, scientists and politicians have made real progress on the climate problem. Calamatists and deniers might not see it that way, because that progress has been by fits and starts. It has involved bitter ideological disputes, ugly politics, and money spent on absurd tangents and scams. But such is the path of progress in a democratic system; and no one has yet to find a better means of agreeing on how to live together.

Environmentalists are opinionated, irrational, pessimistic, Luddite ideologues, unwilling to change their minds or their methods despite evidence. At least that’s how their opponents see them. But national parks, low-emissions cars, lead-free paint, and elimination of chlorofluorocarbons have served us all rather well with acceptable costs; and noisy environmentalists can take much of the credit. It is hard to argue (though some have) that we aren’t better off as a result of the 1970 Clean Air Act. Environmental activism has been innovative and entrepreneurial. Bold individuals and grass-roots movements did their work by being disruptive. They sought and received investment, more in publicity than in money, from high profile Hollywood entertainers. They attached brands, like Jane Fonda, to their polemical products with great success. Richard Posner calls non-academic moralists like Rosa Parks and Susan B Anthony “moral entrepreneurs.” That term seems equally applicable to much of the environmental movement.

Environmentalism, packed with emotion and persuasive passion, is a fine tool for raising awareness. It has been wildly successful; and the word is out. Environmentalism is, however, an extremely poor tool for problem solving. Unfortunately, much of the environmental movement seems unaware of this limitation. It’s time for the engineers.

leonardoScientists have done – and will continue to do – great work in climate modeling, energy research, and geoengineering theory. They’ve shown that global warming could disrupt ocean currents causing a new ice age, that synthetic algae biofuel warrants serious study, and that direct manipulation of climate – if you look far enough into the future – is not only possible but inevitable. Man-made or not, the earth’s climate will do something very unpleasant in the next 50,000 years and humans will likely choose climate engineering over extinction. Scientists will define the mechanism for doing this; engineers will translate concepts into technology. It will be scientists who demonstrate inertial confinement fusion but it will be engineers and innovators who make it utility scale.

Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions, correctly observes that America has an alternative energy fetish. While walkable neighborhoods, conservation and home insulation get little press, solar power is everyone’s darling. The lens of technology is focused almost exclusively on a single cure for our energy problems: produce more energy. But the energy crisis can also be seen as cultural rather than technological. History gives evidence that increases in production and consumption efficiency lead to more consumption (Jevons Paradox). Ozzie proposes that better designed communities, reproductive rights, efficiency codes, insulation, and dwellings designed for sensible passive solar energy have great leverage since they address demand rather than supply.

In Green Illusions Ozzie is neither anti-capitalism nor anti-technology. Some of his proposals involve behavior change and others call for innovative design and engineering aimed at reducing energy demand. On the former, I’m not convinced that enough behavior change can happen in the time needed to seriously impact CO2 output. But I’m very optimistic about the potential for technology and capitalism to save us, Jevons Paradox and all, and despite claims that technology and capitalism are the roots of evil.

The present increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world against which Saint Francis was rebelling in so original a way. – Lynn White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”

Let’s change the system and then we’ll begin to change the climate and save the world. The destructive model of capitalism is eradicating life. – Hugo Chavez at the Dec. 2009 UN Climate Change Conf.

The environmental movement now seems far more interested in mutual confirmation of their moral superiority than on fixing things. Far too many environmental moral-entrepreneurs have let their fight take them to an ideological – perhaps religious – place where they dwell on ecological sin and atonement, and revel in the prospect that things are going to hell fast. Since it was technology, capitalism and Christian ethics that got us in this environmental mess, we need to reject the whole lot; and they certainly can’t be part of the cure… Not so fast.

schematicThe big variables in the CO2 game are population, per-capita energy use, device efficiency and production efficiency. Despite their local success, our moral entrepreneurs have had little effect on awareness and behavior change outside Europe and America, the so-called global north. The parts of the world just now creeping out of poverty have other priorities; per-capita usage and device efficiency will likely be driven more by economics than by morality. China, for example, now adds roughly one gigawatt of coal-based electricity generation every week. It has made it clear that no climate-related restrictions will impede its growth. And China exports about 99% of the solar panels they produce. If we cut US CO2 output to zero, it would amount to only a minor delay in the timing of any impending global warming catastrophe.

The global south is where the action is; but the successes of our environmental moral-entrepreneurs have not escaped the boundaries of the global north. Fortunately – and due solely to market forces – the fruits of our technological entrepreneurs travel around the globe at the speed of light. The Jevons Paradox is a dressed-up claim of elasticity of demand with regard to price. The efficiencies of Jevons’ concern were dollars per watt, not CO2 per watt. US electricity prices have climbed steadily (roughly constant when adjusted for inflation) for the past several decades. So Jevons is largely irrelevant in the US and is no reason to throw in the towel on production or consumption efficiency. To the extent that Jevons applies to scenarios where consumption is affected by regulation and peer pressure, it still begs for innovation to bring about higher efficiency devices and power generation means.

RetailElectricityPrice

As the global south move out of poverty, they will buy refrigerators, air conditioners and cars. If all goes well, they’ll buy more efficient versions of those appliances than we did as we crawled out of poverty. If we’re luckier still, they’ll use electricity that comes from something other than the conventional coal plants they’re building at breakneck pace. That might be coal or gas with sequestration, small nuclear, or maybe fusion if we get our act together. It won’t be wind and it won’t be solar – for land-area reasons alone (do the math).

My main point here is a call for more innovation of the engineering type and less of the moral/environmental entrepreneur type. US environmentalism is becoming increasingly short-sighted, fighting a battle that, even if won decisively in the global north, is a miniscule fraction of the whole war. And that style of environmentalism has no tools to take its battle to the global south. What we can take to the global south is engineering innovation. We can’t keep that within our borders even when we try.

Engineering and innovation, with reasonable policy intervention (i.e., Jevons-neutralizing tax) can solve the problem of sustainable clean-energy generation. Behavior change is tricky and it takes time and finesse. Adoption of superior technology is much faster. I’m putting my money on the engineers.

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US Wind Power Limitations – Simple Math

I am all for wind power where it makes sense. It seems to make sense in certain high mountain passes in California where the wind is both strong and consistent – class 6 or 7 wind resources where class 3 or 4 is thought practical for power generation. For the most part, the US has thus far chosen its wind farm locations wisely in terms of energy generation. Some may say not so wisely from an aesthetic or habitat perspective, but that is not my concern here. Even without considering the base-load issues of wind (see previous post), projecting wind energy’s capability to supply a major portion of US energy demand by extrapolating from such high quality wind resources is ludicrous.

America’s wind farms on average have an output of about 1.4 watts per square meter of land they occupy. The Roscoe facility in Texas does somewhat better at about 1.9 w/sqm and California’s top locations do about 2.8 w/sqm. Data from the US Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory and AWS TruePower, a group that does wind analysis for DOE (which does seem a bit prone toward telling us what we want to hear) shows most of the US to fall far below these sites in capability.

Bold claims have been made by enthusiasts like Al Gore and advocacies like the Energy Justice Network about wind’s potential to power all our energy needs. Let’s take a quick look.

American energy demand in 2010 was 28,700 terawatts. Though peak demand is much higher than average demand, for the sake of easy (conservatively erring in wind’s favor) we can distribute that total energy consumption over 24 hours for the year and get an average power demand of 3.3 million megawatts for the US. The land area of the 48 contiguous states is 8.1 million square kilometers. With a 1.4 watts per square meter (equals 1.4 megawatts per square kilometer), we’d need 2.3 million square kilometers of wind farms to supply our 2010 consumption with wind. That amounts to 29% of the land area of the contiguous 48.

The portion of the US that would be needed to supply this power, without consideration of distribution, urban and reserved land, and wind resource quality then looks like this:

Wind farm land requirement to fill US energy needs 2010

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has published a lot of the AWS TruePower work on potential wind sites in America, usually focusing on areas with a capacity factor of 0.3 or greater, broken down by wind speed. Their charts show most of the US as having some potential for wind generation, but many wind advocates are clearly unaware that the energy contained in wind is not proportional to its velocity. It may seem that the forces of nature conspire against us, but the energy content of two mile per hour wind is only 4% of the energy content of ten mph wind. Worse yet, wind turbines are designed for peak efficiency at one specific speed; thus a wind turbine designed for 10 mph (4.5 m/s) wind will get much less than 4% of its design power with a 2 mph wind (more on that here).

The below map is based on a similar one at the DOE Wind Program site. Using Photoshop’s Hue-Saturation-Brightness tool I whitened the useless wind resources from their color coded map, removing the color for wind regions below wind power class 3 at a height of 80 meters (260 ft). Here’s what’s left, from which it is very apparent that wind can play only a limited role in American energy even if we cover every square foot of land where quality wind blows – without regard for environmental, aesthetic and practical considerations.

US Wind Resources, Power Class 3 or above

When President Obama recently said “all of the above” about energy policy, he certainly meant all of the above where sensible. Large subsidies to wind (which have thus far gone primarily to direct expeditures, not R&D) do not meet this requirement. Unbridled wind advocacy, whether stemming from uninformed enthusiasm, dirty politics, or corporate greed, contributes to the wickedness of our energy problem by taming a small increment of it whilst creating the illusion that the solution approach is scalable. Engineering fundamentals show that the energy problem is indeed solvable, so there’s plenty of room for optimism. But let’s not set ourselves up for disappointment by ignoring the hard facts about wind.

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Wind Energy (Light)

My previous post on wind energy was long. Here’s the executive summary, followed by two corrections resulting from reader comments.

Based on current or foreseeable grid and energy storage technology, wind energy cannot supply base-load power. It therefore cannot play a major role in energy-independence or reduction of greenhouse gases. If utility-scale storage existed, wind energy might be economically viable. Even if storage and transmission capability existed, the low energy density of wind farms combined with rarity of high-quality wind resources in the US mean that wind cannot contribute significantly toward our energy goals. Without utility-scale storage, building more wind farms also requires building more conventional electricity sources, which do not meet our greenhouse gas reduction goals.

John Droz, called “anti-wind crusader” by the Sierra Club, challenged my claim that wind receives less money than other forms of electric power, noting that this hasn’t been true in recent years. Based on US Energy Information Administration data John is indeed right and I stand corrected on that point. John observes, in his presentation materials (slide 85), that the 2010 wind subsidies exceed those to all conventional sources combined. John doesn’t include all tax breaks in his calculations, but I have done so in the chart below. Even with tax breaks added, his point on subsidies is still nearly as strong. In absolute dollars, wind subsidies plus tax breaks greatly exceed those of coal, gas or nuclear, while wind’s contribution to net power is tiny. Also note that only a small fraction of wind subsidies is R&D; most goes to direct expenditures.

Architect and Design-Thinker Richard Heimann observed that my chart of levelized costs of different energy sources made wind look too good because wind without a base-load provision isn’t realistic. In other words, there is no such thing as wind energy by itself (a point also stressed by John Droz). The second chart below (click to enlarge) shows what wind would look like if base-load capacity were added using the lowest-priced gas option (ACC gas). This raises the cost of wind considerably, putting it on the same scale as solar photovoltaic.

None of this makes wind look any better of course.

2010 Energy Subsidies

Levelized Energy Costs by Type

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Is Clean Energy a Wicked Problem? – Part 3

 

WitchIn two previous posts I looked at the established definition of wicked problem and tested whether a rough statement of the clean energy problem met the 10 (adjusted to 11 by me) points of that definition. I found that clean energy met about half the requirements to qualify as wicked. Next I want to look at whether characterizing the problem of clean energy as wicked is productive.

Outside the usual hyperbole of climate journalism, there are a number of serious, credible authors who use the term. The Hartwell Paper (London School of Economics, 2010), referenced in yesterday’s post, features it rather centrally. Its authors sought a means of putting climate policy on track after failure of the Copenhagen climate conference. They made some excellent points and recommendations, noting that climate policy and energy policy are not the same thing. They suggested that reframing the climate issue around matters of human dignity will likely be more effective than framing it around human sin and atonement. They also asserted that the UNFCCC/Kyoto model was doomed to failure from the start because it approached climate change as a tame problem when in fact it is a wicked one. I believe The Hartwell Paper errs considerably in concluding that mischaracterization of a wicked problem as a tame one was the main reason for failure of Kyoto. Doing so implies much too sharp a distinction between tame and wicked and overstates the value of that distinction in determining how to attack a problem. Kyoto’s failure can be understood by simple economics; some parties saw insufficient benefit for the cost.

The Hartwell Paper says that presence of open, complex and/or nonlinear systems make a problem wicked. Hartwell does not address nonlinearity by name, though one of its authors, Gwyn Prins, does in related discussions. Though I agree with most of the conclusions reached by Hartwell and separately by Prins, I think Prins’ work might benefit from a better understanding of systems engineering and design and less reliance on the notion of wickedness. To clarify, my only quibble with Prins is terminology, not intent or conclusion. The terminology wouldn’t matter except that it becomes fuel for trumpery and creates an air of unsolvability.

For example, Prins contrasts the wicked problems of climate and energy with the tame problem of aircraft carrier design (The Wicked Problem of Climate Change on YouTube). He offers that in the case of an aircraft carrier, after a certain amount of study into metallurgy and propulsion systems, you can know that it’s time to quit studying and start building, but the lack of definitive formulation of the climate problem prevents us from identifying a similar point in the problem solving sequence for climate.

But this comparison – fix climate change versus build aircraft carrier – is inaccurate. The goal in the case of an aircraft carrier is not an armored boat with 40 fighter jets on it. The carrier is a system, itself a component within a larger weapons system having the objective of national defense. National defense might further be elaborated something like the capacity to defend the US and allies against various military threats, to operate efficiently with minimum risk to its occupants while being reliable, maintainable and fuel-efficient.

In other words, a better comparison would be national defense versus climate change. These problems probably have similar wickedness. If national defense were a tame problem, we could, with a finite amount of analysis and calculation, derive the horsepower requirements of an aircraft carrier’s nuclear-driven turbines and the BTU requirements for its cooling system, through some complex but finite analytical process, from the requirement for national security. But translating peace-keeping and defense-readiness into horsepower first requires making a bunch of subjective and qualitative decisions using an arbitrarily large number of very human judgments. These judgments have no stopping rule; the design has an infinite number of potential solutions, and is close to a one-shot solution that is prone to unintended consequences (case in point, the French carrier Charles de Gaulle). Once implemented, products like the aircraft carrier have no ultimate test of efficacy. Weapons system design – and almost all engineering design problems – are wicked problems using Rittel’s criteria. So how useful is the characterization of wickedness?

One potential value of calling a problem wicked is to convince management and government that study is needed before quantitative requirements can be set, but I think that point is now firmly established. Many engineers would see this as the usual need for requirements analysis, which has always been a subjective and social process involving operations analysis, identification of stakeholders, ethnography, focus groups, scenario and persona modeling, interviews with subject matter experts, consensus tools, fall-back methods, and possibly a dictator or tie breaker.

Steve Rayner of Oxford is another fan of wicked problems. He’s done great work in bringing rationality and pragmatism to climate policy, but his application of wickedness (e.g., Wicked Problems: Clumsy Solutions) can easily be read (erroneously) as an admission of insolvability. If the category wicked once had value, it now seems a liability – an immobilizing one at that. We have work to do; roll up your sleeves.

Rittel and Webber concluded their paper with no advice on how to deal with wickedness; but they imply early on a need for the social professions to advance beyond the view that “instruments of perfectability can be perfected.” I take that to mean they see limits to the utility of science and flaws in viewing organizations, governments and societies as mechanisms. I agree; the mid 20th century was rife with such flawed thinking. However, governments, managers and product design teams have always had to deal with deciding what to tell the engineers to build. If this is the reason climate and energy writers find their topic to be wicked, the term is useless.

A related problem revealed by press covering climate and energy wickedness is that many journalists confuse the difficulty of reaching consensus with the difficulty of making calculations. An open system in physics is merely a means of modeling a physical process; we model problems as open or closed as a convenience for analysis. Social scientists use open system to discuss adaptive agents, co-evolution and social or political interactions. They’re both good definitions in the their contexts, but confusing them leads to the bad conclusion that physical open systems are unanalyzable by the tools of science. The same applies for the term, nonlinearity. In engineering, it means a second- or higher-order system – standard engineering stuff. In new age literature, it sometimes (at its worst) implies a style of thinking that refutes logic and rationality. We can’t blame equivocation of the terms open system and nonlinearity on the use of the term wicked problem, but we can recognize that choice of language has a dramatic effect on popular uptake of science (see post Toward a New Misunderstanding of Science).

Assigning wickedness to the problems of climate/energy or national defense adds little value toward dealing with them. Nor does calling them super-wicked as do Levin et al in “Playing it Forward: Path Dependency, Progressive Incrementalism, and the ‘Super Wicked’ Problem of Global Climate Change,” which does, thankfully, take pains to avoid a lost-cause position. But wicked and super-wicked do have the power to bewilder and demoralize because of our inability to divorce wicked from its more traditional context. Characterizing the problem as wicked is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it convinces that if some of the questions are unanswerable then no action can be taken. We don’t have to know how the global climate works in order to know how to avoid interfering with it any more than we currently do. We know that China is booming  and will accept no external constraints that hamper its economic growth. But we also know that China’s air pollution kills half a million people a year, that the US is good at inventing things, and that China is good at manufacturing them. We also know how to calculate the extent to which solar and wind can contribute to US and global clean energy. We know that governments can stimulate demand as well as supply. That’s something to work with, despite the lack of consensus or transcendent authority.

Further, we can know that solar-powered cell phone chargers, biodegradable phones, eco-beer, and gloves heated with USB-power are truly wicked, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. They’re wicked because of the point made by Rittel, Webber and Churchman in their original papers on wicked problems. Taming a small part of a wicked problem is morally wrong, as is outright faking it – surely the case with much of the greenwash. But even where there’s no fraud, minor taming with major fanfare is still reprehensible. It creates an illusion of progress and distracts us from the task at hand.

Next I want to look at whether our major clean energy efforts – wind and solar power, biomass, hybrid cars and the like  –  are wicked and morally wrong for these same reasons.

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The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance – Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener

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