Professor Dirk Primus congratulates Nick Leitkowski '19, for his winning Wicked Problem.
Professor Dirk Primus congratulates Nick Leitkowski '19 for his winning Wicked Problem, which asked: How might we reduce energy consumption on the Bryant campus?
Wicked Problems initiative inspires 'positive collisions'
Nov 05, 2018

The Wicked Problem of the Week initiative, a brainchild of Assistant Professor of Management Dirk J. Primus, Ph.D., is capturing the imaginations of Bryant students, faculty, and staff and bringing them together to create innovative ways to improve the world around them.

The problems cover a range of issues. For example:

  • How can we reduce food waste and energy consumption on campus?
  • Could we transform the campus into an ecological commons with wildflowers, bees, and indigenous plants?
  • In what ways can the region's opioid epidemic be addressed?

The goal of the 10-week initiative, supported by a Faculty Innovation Grant, is to promote what Primus calls "positive collisions" in the University's Brown/Quinlan Academic Innovation Center.

Promoting “positive collisions”

Primus explains: “You have art pieces that are wonderful. And you can look at them, and you can marvel. But the thing about art is that no painter has ever been inspired for the next painting by looking at a painting.” It is the conversation or the argument, he notes, that sparks something special.

“I wanted to find an idea that creates traffic, collisions; that is ‘a little messy,’ not perfectly aligned and clean. I wanted to create a healthy amount of messiness in the AIC. That was my starting point,” Primus says.

"I want to get people to have an appreciation for really spending time on the question, before you see the answers.”

To that end, the large mobile whiteboard in the AIC’s Janikies Family Innovation Forum is now filled with "how might we…" questions that prompt viewers to ponder and pose their own "wicked problem" to be addressed. (Editor's note: New Englanders use the word "wicked" as an intensifier.) A short video offers prospective submitters an overview of how to best frame their question.

"It's actually hard to frame a question well," Primus says. "Sometimes, you get the wrong solutions because you frame the problem wrong. And I want to get people to have an appreciation for really spending time on the question, before you see the answers.”

Weekly winners receive a $50 voucher for the AIC’s coffee shop.

Primus is more than pleased with the engagement his initiative has inspired.

People are creative for two reasons, he says. The first is that they want to produce a creative output, and the whiteboard bears examples of that. The other, he notes, “is that it generally increases people's, especially groups’, well-being. That's my belief.”

Beyond posing challenges that could be incorporated into Bryant’s IDEA (Innovation and Design Experience for All) program for first-year students or into other design thinking projects, the Wicked Problems initiative allows a glimpse into what makes the Bryant community tick, Primus says. “What do they care about? What do they like? What do they not like? What would they have more of? You actually get a pulse for what moves people.”

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