An ode to systems engineers—whose invisible work undergirds our life—and an exploration of the wicked problems they tackle.
Our world is filled with pernicious problems. How, for example, did novice pilots learn to fly without taking to the air and risking their lives? How should cities process mountains of waste without polluting the environment? Challenges that tangle personal, public, and planetary aspects—often occurring in health care, infrastructure, business, and policy—are known as wicked problems, and they are not going away anytime soon.
In linked chapters focusing on key facets of systems engineering—efficiency, vagueness, vulnerability, safety, maintenance, and resilience—engineer Guru Madhavan illuminates how wicked problems have emerged throughout history and how best to address them in the future. He examines best-known tragedies and lesser-known tales, from the efficient design of battleships to a volcano eruption that curtailed global commerce, and how maintenance of our sanitation systems constitutes tikkun olam, or repair of our world. Braided throughout is the uplifting tale of Edwin Link, an unsung hero who revolutionized aviation with his flight trainer. In Link’s story, Madhavan uncovers a model mindset to engage with wickedness.
An homage to society’s innovators and maintainers, Wicked Problems offers a refreshing vision for readers of all backgrounds to build a better future and demonstrates how engineering is a cultural choice—one that requires us to restlessly find ways to transform society, but perhaps more critically, to care for the creations that already exist.
About the Author
Guru Madhavan is the Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and senior director of programs at the National Academy of Engineering. He is a prizewinning author of essays and books, including Applied Minds: How Engineers Think. He lives in Washington, DC.
A thoughtful review of how engineers approach their most intractable problems. — Kirkus
Profound, readable, and above all humane—a substantively and stylishly engineered book. — Tim Harford, author of The Data Detective
A wonderful and energizing book.… It is an espresso machine for the imagination. — Rory Sutherland, author of Alchemy
We all struggle with maddeningly complex challenges that defy our efforts to understand, simplify, or effectively address them. In Wicked Problems, Guru Madhavan puts them into focus and then prescribes a systems approach that can allow us to get our minds, arms, and communities around them. As entertaining as it is brilliant.
— General Stanley McChrystal, US Army (Ret.), author of Risk: A User’s Guide
Wicked Problems combines the rigor of engineering with the wisdom of philosophy into a one-of-a-kind strategy guide.… Guru Madhavan has crafted a manual useful from the corporate boardroom to city hall.
— Daniel H. Pink, author of The Power of Regret
Guru Madhavan’s extraordinarily creative ideas and imagination best categorize him as an engineer’s engineer. His Wicked Problems provides an absorbing account of the world’s complexities and ways to deal with them constructively and collectively.
— Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation, winner of the National Medal of Science, author of A Lab of One’s Own
With fascinating and wide-ranging narratives, Wicked Problems highlights the engineering inventiveness and responsibility in tackling tough challenges, and what’s essential for our common future—it should also make us all more mindful of what our everyday lives owe to ingenious engineers.
— Martin Rees, UK astronomer royal, former president of the Royal Society, author of On the Future
Inspired by Edwin Link’s revolutionary work—from flight simulation to deep-sea diving—Guru Madhavan has effectively described the value of systems engineering for society. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Wicked Problems.
— M. Stanley Whittingham, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry