Home > Uncategorized > Problem-solving Frameworks (17 May)

Problem-solving Frameworks (17 May)

The next generation will have an accumulation of environmental debt that will hamper its ability to grow and develop economically as well as in terms of its quality of life. The financial debt that is also growing will contribute to the difficulty of dealing with making society work in concert with the natural systems that support so much of what civilization values (clean air, water, stable climate, quality environments to live and play in, etc.). To the extent that these future challenges represent PROBLEMS, figuring out what to do, is going to be a key element of many organizations — public, private, NGO, etc.


The work has been going on, but a greater and more comprehensive involvement of everyone will need to happen to make a difference. The approaches/frameworks that you read about are just some of the responses to the oncoming situation that people have thought of. What do you think of them and their chance of being applied successfully to our current suite of problems? What are some other approaches that should be adopted to help turn the tide on the accumulating debt? As an inheritor of this future, how do you feel about the situation? What do you want to do about it?

Hard questions that you and others will probably be thinking about for many years….

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Dan Hale
    August 4, 2010 at 6:26 pm | #1

    Jeffrey Hughes’ book “Environmental Problem Solving” encouraged me to think more critically about solving even the most basic problems. In defining a problem as simply desiring something to be different, a multitude of problems appear. Hughes has merit in showing that the “people factor” can be one of the most difficult obstacles to navigate. It is impossible for anyone to be absolutely objective, especially when someone has anything personal invested in the issue. He then demonstrates how we can work toward objectivity and see the problem from multiple angles.

    Another thing that wouldn’t have immediately crossed my mind is that the problem is not always easy to find. The first step in DOC’S KEY is to define the problem. This also requires that one specifically convey what you would like to be different, and then set out clear and measurable objectives. Once again, what would seem to be common sense must not be overlooked. Another term I’ve heard for this is the desired future condition. This a necessary aspect for real progress. Identifying constraints is also essential in that the solution must be realistic with the resources available. In outlining management recommendations for non-native invasive species control, we had to consider that money and time are limited, and that certain infestations require years of follow-up to achieve complete removal. Therefore some of the worst infestations have to be let go, and only the least established can be controlled.

    The rest of DOC’S KEY (S KEY) is rather straightforward. Once the real facts of the problem have been rooted out, brainstorming, selecting solutions, trying them out, and moving forward are the logical next steps. This closely resembles the scientific method in that many hypotheses are generated, one is chosen, and it’s experimented with until shown to be effective. While much of what I’ve read is not surprising or particularly groundbreaking, I’m finding it very useful to simply step back and think more critically about the process of creating positive change.

    Reading the “Leverage Points” paper by Donella Meadows showed me that by changing one crucial aspect of a system, drastic positive change can be jump-started. I was impressed by the simple experiment of relocation a household’s electricity meter to a front hallway. Just by making tenants more aware of their power use, they used 30% less power. It was also eye-opening to learn that many positive feedback loops create an effect leveraging systems into the wrong direction. By making fish more expensive, the industry becomes more profitable and more fish are caught, degrading the ecosystem. Creating more low income housing without the necessary job creation increases and prolongs poverty. It’s sad to think that very often entire infrastructures are designed inefficiently and incorrectly.

    John Todd is a man who really impresses me with his unique problem solving techniques and great success in implementing them. He observes natural systems and works to mimic them technologically in our society’s infrastructure. He looks at waste as excess nutrients that could be used by plants and animals; purifying the air and water, and turning and economic and ecological profit. Mr. Todd is also very hopeful. I was amazed to read that he believes the human imprint can be reduced by 90% by putting nature’s intelligence to use. While many environmental problems are deeply rooted in some backward paradigm’s and profit-seeking infrastructures, John Todd is working to show that lasting positive impact can be made by stepping back and imitating the natural world. It takes some modesty to realize that human technology and industry have created a mess, and that answers to our problems exist not in our heads, but in time-tested nature.

    David Orr’s commencement address first pointed out the hard facts that we live with today. We are becoming disconnected with nature, our population is gigantic and growing, our oil will not be so cheap and easy very soon, and the global climate is changing due to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Ouch. These facts are hard to swallow, but must be dealt with in shaping the future of humanity. Orr went on to mention how these crises present the opportunity for us to do our Great Work, which will be seen in the historical context as an “ecological enlightenment that joins human needs and purposes with the way the world works as a biophysical system.” This to me is huge. The rift between nature and society must be bridged, and according to David Orr, we are the ones that must do it now. The framework he lists is simple and poignant:

    use nature as the standard;

    power the world on current sunlight;

    eliminate waste;

    pay the full cost of development;

    build prosperity on a durable basis.

    While his address is of course very general, the framework sets out principles to live and design by. He is basically outlining “the way things should be,” which is helpful every now and then to wake up and recall.

  2. Deane
    May 23, 2010 at 7:16 pm | #2

    As Jessica indicates, paradigm change is not an easy task in most cases. Having no paradigm seems like anarchy. However, we are in the midst of some paradigm changes (at least in some ways). Organic food has hit the mainstream. Local food systems are the rage, and small farmers and CSA’s are growing in number throughout some parts of the U.S. Architects and engineers are all trying to build better LEED Certified Green Buildings. Whether global change, peak oil, and carbon footprints can stimulate more change remains to be seen. Clear thinking may be the most valuable asset for meeting the uncertain future. Problem-solving approaches may help with this clarity.

  3. Jessica Fefer
    May 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm | #3

    Although environmental problems are extremely complex and un-structured, reading about some approaches to problem solving was quite motivating. Jeffrey Hughes provided a clear framework for first identifying true problems, and working to solve them. Although he continued to emphasize the complexity of environmental issues, he provided a framework that works well for simple problems, and can be easily expanded to work well for complex problems as well. Although the framework seems a bit glorified, and I found myself doubting that this could be easily applied to the real world, it provides hope and organization in a realm of negatives and unpredictability. Hughes chapters were an enjoyable and educational read because it was filled with ideas that seemed quite obvious, but not obvious enough to those who work hard to solve problems everyday. For instance, he categorized problems into three different types: right-wrong problems, rule-laden problems and un-structured problems. These types, although they seem so obvious now that they have been explained, were something that I had never thought of before. These chapters made me step back from where I was and really think about everyday concerns and problems in a more structured sense.

    After reading Hughes chapters, I went on to read the supplement readings. By the time I finished, I noticed that they seemed to share a common theme, that of systems and inter-connectedness. I agree with these authors when they say that you can’t just focus on one aspect of a specific problem and that you must take into account everyone and everything affected. The readings seemed to focus on the fact that we need to step out of our own worldview, and realize that there are needs of others to be considered, and that not everybody agrees that my paradigm is the correct paradigm.

    The ecological design approach, which John Todd focused on specifically, seems to be a very viable solution to many environmental problems. He solves problems of water quality, air quality and food shortages using the same design and technology. I strongly agree with him when he uses the incredible abilities of natural systems to do good for humanity. This approach, out of all others that I have read about, seems to be one of the most promising. I think this is due to the fact that he isn’t keeping humanity out of his solution, and that he is concentrating nature’s ability for the good of the people.

    Although I like to think that I am optimistic, after reading David Orr’s article, I would be better off saying that I am hopeful. Most of these approaches seemed quite viable, and I have faith that through design we can slow or reverse the environmental debt that we have gotten ourselves into. Although Donella Meadows made it clear that changing the structure of a society wasn’t a very influential leverage point in a system, if we slowly replace the existing water purifying technology that creates more waste with those that are designed to work the way nature works, it seems that we can slowly make change through changing our societies structure. Although the list of influential leverage points provided by Meadows is an interesting way to observe (and make change to) systems as a whole, I can’t say that I agree with every assumption she makes, or the order that she presents them in. Although transcending our paradigm and trying to not hold onto any paradigm at all sounds like a great way to solve problems and see everything as it is, with no bias, is that really realistic? Nobody lives with out a paradigm; everybody has a view of the world out of their own lens, whether they want to or not. But changing paradigms is a different story. I think it is far more likely that a group of people or an individual can change their paradigm, rather than let themselves go and have no paradigm at all. Living in this generation, and being a part of the future that is to come, I think it is necessary that everybody do some soul searching and change the way we view our society as it is today. If that can happen, than maybe Donella Meadows leverage point could truly be put to the test.

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