Wicked Problems in Design and Ethics

Ben Sweeting
21 January 2019

One of the most important intersections between design and systems is their shared concern for ethics. When we think of ethical considerations in either context, we often do so in terms of applied ethics—as the application of ethical insight to guide practice, addressing issues such professional standards of conduct, and our relationships to the environment and to each other.

There are, however, difficulties with thinking of the relationship between ethics and practice in this way. To see ethics in terms of application is to imply that it is external to practice, a view that can lead to us seeing ethical considerations as something to be traded off against other goals. In any case, it is not as if ethics is a settled body of theory that can authoritatively guide our actions. Depending which theories or ideas we refer to we receive different guidance as to what to do.

There are parallels between this situation and the wicked problems that are commonplace in design and systems practice, such that the ways in which we design and organise the world may have as much to contribute to ethical theory as vice versa. Drawing on ideas from design, systems theory and cybernetics, this talk develops an understanding of how ethical questions may be implicitly integrated within how we act in the world, such that they need not be understood in terms of external limitations or competing priorities.