Learning complex problems and ways to address them.

Our course, CCA 190, is Creating With Generative AI: Shaping the Future. I named it this way for a few reasons.

  1. It’s a studio-type course: We create. Much of the course involves learning design processes, ways of thinking, and creating outcomes.
  2. We learn the tools by using them. This includes learning when to use the tools and when they are not useful or harmful.
  3. Using tools will change the future. We examine the intended and unintended consequences of using Generative AI and the possible futures they will create.
  4. These students hold the future. There will come a day when they will be the decision-makers. AI is part of that future day. That means we need to practice solving complex problems.
  5. All the pressing problems are wicked. They are complex. They are social. There are no tight answers.

So, this week, CCA 190 moves from learning the tools to learning problems. We shift to examining wicked problems, how to dissect them, and where communities can gain leverage to work collaboratively to reduce these problems.

Here’s the assignment as posted in our course.

geometric pattern
star icon

Assignment Framing tricky problems.

Putting Problems Within Reach

Some of the most challenging problems that our society faces are wicked problems. These are ill-defined problems, and people with different backgrounds view them differently. When people groups do not share the same values, come from different backgrounds, and have different experiences, they don’t always agree on how to solve problems. As shapers of the future, we must be adept at framing problems to understand better how to address them. For this assignment, we will learn some skills for understanding problems so we might, along with generative AI, better understand how to frame wicked problems.

What’s Due?

What Format Where Who
One Wicked Problems Chart Miro Wicked Problems S24 Miro Board. Post a comment to this Canvas assignment page to complete the turn-in. Everyone

Why Are We Doing This?

Regardless of the subject matter you are studying, you will be called upon to address challenging problems with no solutions. The better you are at framing the problems, the more likely you and your teams will be able to create solutions that can positively impact them.



This activity counts as a Methods assignment. Power up!

Learning Outcomes

Strive to produce work that is Successful for each learning outcome.

  • Align AI Outcomes With Stakeholder Needs: Use generative AI tools to create outcomes that match stakeholder needs.
  • Create Detailed AI Outcomes: Create outcomes with generative AI tools with a high degree of formal and functional detail.
  • Use AI Ethically: Demonstrate ethical use of generative AI tools.
  • Anticipate AI Consequences: Analyze AI’s intended and unintended consequences at varying scopes.
  • Identify Assumptions in Wicked Problems: Identify assumptions that underlie wicked problems.

This assignment will be complete and count toward your final grade if the work accomplishes all learning outcomes. There is no partial credit.


Form Groups Around Topics

In class, we will form groups within the following topics:

  • Communication
  • Energy
  • Health
  • Education
  • Social Inequality
  • Imagination
  • Governance
  • Economics

Once we form groups of 4-5 students, move to the next step.

Define a Wicked Problem (Group Work)

During class, groups will define a wicked problem within one of the above topics. Groups may define any problem they like within their topic. It’s okay if these wicked problems are general at first. We’ll revise them in class during the next step.

Wicked Problem Characteristics (Group Work)

Use Horst Rittel’s ten characteristics of wicked problems as a guide. I have placed these on our Miro Board (linked above). Work as a group and write at least one sentence per characteristic for how your wicked problem satisfies each one.

Causal Layered Analysis (Individual Work)

Each student will use Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) to investigate the problem independently. Make a copy of the CLA Starter on our Miro Board (linked above). Input images and text for each of the following layers:

  • Litany (Surface Level)
  • Social Causes (Systemic Causes)
  • Worldview (Discursive Level)
  • Myth/Metaphor (Deep Mythic)

Each layer goes deeper into a problem, providing a way to understand its root causes better and identify the core issue. I provided prompts for each layer in Miro. Add the following for each layer:


At least three images with a caption representing ideas or entities and three sentences or bullet points.

Litany directly shows and describes the problem as commonly discussed without assumptions. Think of this level as how a problem is seen in the media.

Example: Consider the problem of increasing urban air pollution. At the litany level, we focus on the observable aspects, such as high levels of pollutants in the air, increasing cases of respiratory diseases, and visible smog.

Social Causes

At least three images with a caption representing ideas or entities and three sentences or bullet points.

Systemic “Social” causes describe reasons underneath the surface level. These policies, processes, and interconnected systems perpetuate the problem. Think of governmental, economic, social, and logistical systems for this level.

Example: For urban air pollution, this could include examining the reliance on fossil fuels, inadequate public transportation, lack of stringent environmental regulations, and rapid industrialization without adequate environmental safeguards.


At least three images with a caption representing ideas or entities and three sentences or bullet points.

Now, we get to values and deeply held beliefs. How do people view the problem based on their experiences and backgrounds? These shape how people perceive the problem and sustain it. Worldviews can become deeply ingrained and can be hard to change. They’re the big-picture narratives that influence policies and actions (including the entities in the Social Causes layer).

Example: In the case of air pollution, a relevant worldview might be the societal emphasis on economic growth over environmental sustainability or a belief in the inevitability of industrial progress at any cost.


At least one image with a caption representing the idea or entity and one sentence or bullet point.

We’re now at the layer of the subconscious—or unexamined beliefs that underpin worldviews and perpetuate problems. They shape our understanding of the world and our place in it. Myths and Metaphors can be difficult to define and describe because they feel like “they have always been there” inside us. This level has the most opportunity for changing minds and behavior.

Example: A myth might be the “conquest of nature,” implying humanity’s right to exploit natural resources as it sees fit without considering the environmental consequences. This myth influences how societies approach nature and resource use.

For Miro Board work: Post a comment in this Canvas assignment that the work is ready and turned in on time. Thanks! 👌

Execution Level

Shoot for completing this work at or beyond the level indicated below.

a written work

Review Copy: This document contains all relevant content to assert its claims so that initiated readers can understand its intent. The content is thorough enough for a reviewer to assess its claims’ validity and what revisions to make next.

Details about execution levels are in the Course Reference module.

Feedback and Revisions


Work can receive one of the following feedback results per learning outcome (specification):

  • Success: You’re done! The work meets or exceeds the specifications. Wow, you learned a lot. 🙌
  • Not done yet: Close, but needs revision. The work doesn’t quite meet the goal for this assignment. Give it another go. 💪
  • Incomplete: Hmm. Something’s missing. Check the specifications to find what was missed. 🤏

Work that meets all the specifications listed on this assignment page will count toward semester completions for the grade track you’re pursuing.


You can revise the work unlimited times to achieve a “Successful” result. Revisions are due by the Final Revision Date around week 13 or 14 of the semester. Check Canvas for the exact date. Keep going! You can do this.


Spend a token to turn this work in late with no penalty. Enter your request to spend a token in the Comments text field in the Canvas assignment before the due date. Yes, you can use a token at 11:58 p.m.!


  1. Split into groups in a topic area (in class).
  2. Work as a group to select a wicked problem (in class).
  3. Work together as a group to describe the 10 characteristics of your selected wicked problem (in class).
  4. Individually use causal layered analysis to describe the four layers of your wicked problem.
  5. Turn work in as indicated on this page.
  6. Miro Board Work: Post a comment to this Canvas assignment page that your work was turned in.
  7. Check feedback in Canvas and directly in other documents (if we used Miro, Google Docs, Figma, etc.).
  8. Make revisions if needed.
  9. Post a comment to this Canvas assignment page that your revision is ready for review so I will know it’s ready.
  10. Learn, grow, and be amazing—because you are, no matter how you feel today.

Technology and Materials

  • Internet access

References & Related

Wicked Problems Article at IxDF

Causal Layered Analysis at Shaping Tomorrow

Deep Cuts:

Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01405730

Inayatullah, S. (1998). Causal layered analysis: Poststructuralism as method. Futures, 30(8), 815–829. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0016-3287(98)00086-X 

Go Big

So what’s the problem that is meaningful to you. This is your chance to tackle a pressing issue!

“We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.”
Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute

Students have identified some compelling and complex problems in just one day of work. By the end of the week, we’ll all have a better grasp of how to address these kinds of challenges. After spring break, we’ll use Generative AI to address these problems in four phases: ideation, research, creation, and testing. I am looking forward to the future!

Dennis Cheatham

Associate Professor, Communication Design

Miami University

Select Your Experience