The problem police and the problem of problems

Since the creation of problems is deeply related to funding (for research and other projects) and can have many societal and political consequences, it would be great if we would invest a little bit more effort in problematizing problems before immediately solving them. To do so I propose the problem police. By: Martijn Duineveld [For: www.toposonline.nl]

The nicest thing about studying landscape architecture and planning is that you can apply your knowledge and see the result more or less directly. In other studies, you would probably be contemplating endlessly about the reproduction capacities of nematodes, but as a student of the applied disciplines landscape architecture and planning, you learn how to improve society. Whatever problem arises on the horizon, you are ready to tackle it! Yet, being applied is not free from blind spots and flaws. In fact, too many to mention here. So, let’s focus on the most badass amongst them: the problem of problems. Applied studies and projects often depart from clearly formulated problems and their existence is somehow taken for granted, as if they are hanging out in the world out there, patiently waiting for us to discover them: ‘Look, a problem! Let’s take down that m$%^#f^@(.’

Problems, just as unicorns, are made up.

Unfortunately, these assumptions about problems and their existence out there are wrong. Problems, just as unicorns, are made up. They simply don’t exist, independent from our observations, reflections and assumptions. For any piece of reality to become a problem, it needs to be observed as such. Every problem has a problem owner and any time a problem holder aims to tackle their problem, a decision is made that of all the problems possible to observe in the world, this particular problem needs specific attention and focus. Since there are many people and organisations claiming certain problems, it takes a lot of energy to make problems look real (and dead serious). But once your problem is acknowledged as a real problem, voila – the funds for your project are secured!

So, if you want people to listen to you and, ultimately, fund your research project, make sure they believe that you will save the world (at the very least). For example, in a country where everybody complains about cold weather, you can make them believe that heat islands in inner cities are a very important and urgent problem. Or, if you want to pursue even bigger projects or political changes, like building giant walls (it’s huge!). Well then, make the problems that legitimise the wall look so big and threatening it will scare the crap out of everyone (see also: The politics of fear)

The problem police is cool, sexy and rock-and-roll. These agents are dressed in a gender-neutral uniform, a combination of a bra, shorts, and a belt with some special weapons: think of a unisex version of a Lara Croft outfit.

Since the process of problem-making is tied up to money and power and can have many societal and political consequences, it only seems fair if we invest a little bit more effort in problematizing problems before rushing into solutions. To do so I propose the problem police. The problem police is cool, sexy and rock-and-roll. These agents are dressed in a gender-neutral uniform, a combination of a bra, shorts, and a belt with some special weapons: think of a unisex version of a Lara Croft outfit. Their main task is to observe universities, state apparatus, companies and NGOs. They examine and critically reflect upon problems created by governments, administrations, science, planning and landscape architecture. They look at a problem and ask: Why did this problem come into existence and not any other? Who benefits from this problem and who loses?

The problem police agents are armed with a deconstruction gun. Point at a problem, pull the trigger, – pfff – the problem is deconstructed! It will make visible who benefits from making up certain problems. It will show which publics are addressed to help (and get paid) solving the problem and who is marginalised or excluded. The deconstruction gun will also deliver a set of arguments why to maintain or destruct the problem. It might help us to see that a certain problem does indeed hold true for many or that it’s just a justification for a few to pursue their hobby. It can expose that while some problems get way too much attention, other problems are overlooked.

The mission of the problem police is not to make every problem disappear. Many problems are backed up by consensus and/or extensive scientific and political debate. If these problems survive the deconstruction gun, they deserve to be solved. But beware, my dear planner or designer: If you try to overrule democracy by your problem-making politics, as good old planner-technocrats do, the problem police is coming for you.

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