The Future is Full of Wicked Problems: Artists are the answer


In the future artists will solve the world's 'wicked' problems. In the future everyone will be an artist.

On the flip side of the nebulous, highfalutin and inaccessible practices of fine artists is a determination to work in the face the unknown, to solve unsolved problems. It is solving these problems for which we do not know the answer to that will become our main vocation in the future as we head towards automation and abundance. Everyone's main vocation will be an artist.


Hard Facts and Blurred Creativity

Seth Godin in this amazing talk argues that we as people need to learn more dynamic problem solving skills and less rote routines and facts. Highlighting the importance of taking the path less traveled, defining your career as being undefined, to paraphrase:

"If you can look up the answer to something, you don't need me to solve it... Come to me if you can't google the answer"

This is because our world has been fundamentally changed by the internet. If something can be written down, stored and referenced for later retrieval then what is the worth of storing it in your brain? If you CAN remember a fact, then you should not HAVE to remember it. What is valuable then is what cannot be written down.

This can be applied at the micro scale of individual problem solving and also at the scale of your professional job - if someone else out there can do what you do then you will always loose out to them, and in the future you'll also be competing not just with humans but with automated systems.

So your value will come from what you cannot explicitly define. Sounds a lot like some nebulous, highfalutin career I know...

Enter the Void

Artists are people who face the void of uncertainty, who do and create things that haven't existed - who develop solutions to unsolved problems. Seth argues that this is what people must become in order to be of value in the future - to solve the multitudes of 'wicked' problems we face as a society.

Code Complete defines software design as a 'wicked' problem, a problem you do not know the solution for until you have built one for it.

Wicked problems = uncertain solutions

This is a well known concept to Software Developers; that generally you will need to write a program twice, the first time to fully understand the problem and find a solution and the second time where you write it 'properly' i.e make fully functional and deployable code.

I found this idea fascinating when I first heard it. Then recently when I discovered Seth's blog I found his definition of what an artist does to eerily mirror this. I say eerie because it really symbolizes the dichotomy of being a software developer.

You balance knowledge of rote instructions with creating ingenuous mental models.


You balance learning expendable information with creative problem solving.


You balance the replaceable with what makes you human.


I've always thought that programming is an incredibly artistic practice or rather more truly, that algorithmic design is an incredibly creative practice. That is why I fell in love with Code Complete.

Instead of my other programming books that dive into domains of rote techniques and tricks, the articulated equivalent 'of turn this switch on if X happens', Code Complete instructs you on the problem solving skills of being a software developer - learning about Abstract Data Types (ADTs) by first having an introduction to the historical function of metaphors was the first time I understood the development of these modes of thinking and their importance to our society at large.

I didn't know this before - I wasn't taught the WHY.

When you accept things as dogma, you forget why people started doing them in the first place, breeding ignorance and inability.

That is a very bleak and wasteful future, that will be surely certain.

A Hope for a Wicked Future

My hope is that the future will make such incredible demands that we will be forced to develop this latent human and artistic ability within ourselves and our society. In doing so I hope that we will be able to solve these problems, to turn from what we explicitly do know and face the uncertain with purpose.