Tackling wicked problems: 3 lessons from the ‘I Urban Andes International Design Workshop’

How can we design urban settlements to tackle wicked problems such as water insecurity in the face of increasing density? Can landscape architects, urban designers and other built environment professionals collectively influence the next iteration of urban development to sustainably deal with our changing climate?

In August, I joined 20 international design professionals to participate in the ‘I Urban Andes International Design Workshop’ in Ayacucho, Peru to develop strategic projects for tackling water scarcity and rapid urbanisation. The workshop was designed to educate participants on local ecosystems, traditions, indigenous practices, infrastructure and history in order to for them present new thinking for dealing with issues such as glacial retreat due to climate change, and unsustainable urbanisation. The combination of extraordinary field trips, international experience, set-up of the workshop, mindset of participants and access to local expertise created an exciting and dynamic design space with an extraordinary amount of ideas developed, refined, presented and exhibited to local stakeholders.

Wicked problems

The workshop simply provided a starting point for dialogue – however the ideas were strong, well-developed and culturally acceptable. How can we use the lessons from the workshop to replicate this type of problem-solving?

Tackling Wicked Problems Robyn Mansfield

Day 1 of the I Urban Andes International Design Workshop – Examining the receding glacial systems leading to water scarcity – Abra Ritipata Pass, The Peruvian Andes. Source – Robyn Mansfield, 2018

1. Leave your expertise at the door

Mindset beats process. A roomful of specialists may have easily erupted into extraneous opinions. Yet in this case, participants arrived with a focus on learning from others. Was this just a happy coincidence? Was it the broad mix of professions? Or were the problems so vast, so overwhelming and so foreign in nature to the environments we had previously worked in, that everyone was keen to learn and understand?

Participants’ willingness to listen and learn from each other resulted in innovative and challenging responses that were explored through the local cultural lens. Whilst many ideas challenged thinking, the development and feasibility was robust enough to be welcomed as a starting point for new thinking amongst local stakeholders.

As ideas developed, relevant and specific expertise was brought in to up-skill participants in order to progress their designs. Feedback was provided at every stage and a mid workshop check-in presentation to academia, non-government organisations and other expert stakeholders ensured designs were tested, coordinated and connected.

Leaving our expertise at the door ensured a highly interdisciplinary approach where professions were invisible and innovation flourished.

Tackling Wicked Problems Robyn Mansfield

Workshopping ecosystems and design opportunities – Ayacucho, Peru. Source – Robyn Mansfield, 2018

2. Get uncomfortable in order to connect

Understand the place. Feel it. Enjoy the discomfort. Comfort can dull our senses; make us immune to developing a deeper understanding of place.

Our first site visit saw us ascending to an altitude of 5,000 metres then trekking through the mountains to learn about the local subsistence economic practices, the behaviour of water and the impact of a retreating glacier on water contamination, acidity and scarcity. From a site analysis perspective we learnt an extraordinary amount. But we were simply seeing in action the information provided in the scientific reports.

The value of the field trip lay in the deeper understanding of the soul and threats to this extraordinary place. Trekking at this altitude area is dangerous, and before we started we were asked to pick three of our best coca leaves to make a collective offering to the mountain to grant us safe passage. The leaves were then buried under a cairn of rocks, many of which were scattered throughout the area.

It was the sight of these hundreds, possibly thousands of cairns that made me question the use of the term ‘site analysis’ as too easily the very essence of place is overlooked in a superficial response. Perhaps it is that very soul that is often missing from design today.

The physical brutality of the trek showed us an inner strength and desire to help each other, keep each others’ spirits up and share our supplies with each other. I wondered if this helped explain why the local people worked as a community rather than individuals, simply in order to survive the extreme conditions. 

Other site tours included the cities of Ayacucho and Huanta and ancient archaeological sites, to better understand construction techniques, water infrastructure, the impact of loosely regulated mining practices, agriculture and local economies. Our lack of fresh drinking water, hot arid landscapes, precarious building techniques and inadequate sewerage systems were a constant reminder that water infrastructure needed to change, and it needs to happen now to ward off potential disasters for these communities.

Drinking coca tea with the locals as the altitude takes its toll - The Peruvian Andes. Source - Robyn Mansfield, 2018

Drinking coca tea with the locals as the altitude takes its toll – The Peruvian Andes. Source – Robyn Mansfield, 2018

3. What about process?

Mindset alone does not ensure strong outcomes. Process influences mindset, and the right mindset ensures the process is successful.

Whilst we were given a schedule for the workshop, it was continually adjusted to reflect the needs of the group and based on how design ideas progressed. The underlying theme however was to understand and then use local customs and ecosystems as a driving mechanism for design generation.

The format of the workshop was design studio based, and reflective of a university learning environment on the university grounds. It was perhaps this style of set-up that encouraged a learning and creative mindset.

The process was also very simply focussed on generating ideas. Consultation is the brief of the local organisations running the program, and whilst they were able to offer insight to ensure that designs were culturally appropriate, they are tasked with the longer term discussions with relevant stakeholders. The process was also fixed on the conceptual stage with further workshops planned for 2019 to progress these depending on the results of interim consultation.

A mid-workshop presentation allowed participants to hear from relevant stakeholders and ensure that their ideas were understood, relevant and feasible. This ensured that there was a mechanism for connecting the projects and assessing impact of projects on the greater catchment – both for residents in small communities in the higher mountainous region and on the delicate ecosystems. It was also an opportunity to discuss graphic techniques that would appeal culturally, clearly present a strong story, and provide consistency between the projects to deliver the project as a series of connected designs.

Final conceptual designs were presented through an exhibition process allowing for more in-depth discussions with stakeholders interested in particular technical aspects of the designs. Exhibition attendance was over 60 people, and the overall response was extremely positive, with new ideas generating exciting discussion of possibilities for future urban plans.

Tackling Wicked Problems Robyn Mansfield

Unsustainable development lacking infrastructure and subject to landslip – Ayacucho, Peru. Source – Robyn Mansfield, 2018

Is this how we should tackle wicked problems?

The success of the workshop remains to be seen given the project is in its infancy. If success at this stage however, is purely to measure the quality and strength of the conceptual designs then it certainly has provided a good start.

There were areas for improvement for sure. Having participated in other workshops of this nature however, this one appeared to result in a far more holistic approach to dealing with the complex issues of the catchment area, and levels of intervention that would result in major impacts if implemented. This was not a low-hanging fruit exercise. In this case, it’s far too late for that.

Robyn Mansfield

Robyn Mansfield is passionate about designing cities with vulnerable communities and specialises in elevating the voices of children in decision-making processes. Robyn has over 20 years experience as a landscape architect, researcher, writer, community engagement specialist, and a disaster resilience and reconstruction advisor in Australia, Asia and South America. In her spare time, Robyn grows fruit and vegetables and cooks elaborate dinners for her family and friends.