For the mathematician solving an equation or the chemist probing the makeup of a mysterious compound, “the mission is clear,” wrote Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in their paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” “It is clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.”
Questions of “the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime” are different, they wrote.
“Planning problems are inherently wicked,” they said.
This editorial page recently provided a picture of a wicked problem — the location of Anniston Middle School. The portrayal is uncomfortable, something many would prefer to not confront. However, confront it we must.
Placing the school was controversial from the start. Its location in north Anniston was seen as a compromise — a place that pleased no constituency.
Yet, the passage of time has produced an upside-down twist. Now moving the school from the location no one wanted 30 years ago is difficult. A couple of years ago, then-City Councilman Herbert Palmore initiated a conversation about closing the school. His arguments were decreased enrollment in the school and the property’s potential for lucrative retail.
The Anniston City School Board looked into the matter. After months of study and facing a recommendation to close the middle school, the board punted just at the end of its four-year term. The whole mess was handed off to the new school board, which took office in November. It decided to … (wait for it) … study the issue some more before deciding.
The researchers at the Kettering Foundation have handy advice when it comes to persistent issues. It’s often helpful to ask: What’s the name of this problem? In other words, is there something deeper at play?
So, what’s the name of the Anniston Middle School problem? Allow us to speculate.
First off, let’s suggest what it’s not. This is not a problem of real estate, at least in the sense of developing property near the north end of Veterans Memorial Parkway and two major thoroughfares. Anniston’s economy has surely taken enough punches that there’s no credible argument to prevent retail development along McClellan Boulevard.
The name of this problem could be trust. Or, said more accurately, mistrust. Anniston’s residents might not trust school officials and city officials to make these changes. A status quo — even an imperfect one — might be preferred over changes involving the middle school.
Perhaps we’d label this as longstanding racial tension. As we’ve illustrated, racial matters were at the heart of the school’s creation and its location. Perhaps the inability to move forward is a hangover from decades past.
Or is this a lack of salesmanship? Are leaders not making the right arguments when it comes to pushing forward a plan that ought to win the public’s support? Are they paralyzed by fear, unable to move forward because of potential blowback?
David Mathews, a native Alabamian and the president and CEO of Kettering, has said, “Wicked problems are those that take advantage of a diminished sense of community and then further loosen the ties that bind people. Conventional remedies don’t work on these problems. Following business as usual is like treating cancers with the plaster casts more suitable for broken bones. Unlike fractures, our most serious community problems result from multiple factors, more human than technical.”
Seems like it is time to dig into the causes and find resolution to Anniston’s wicked problem.