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About “uncertain journeys” and “wicked problems”

How can we shape a desirable future in the face of all the current and upcoming challenges and crises? This is what the 6th Weizenbaum Conference will be about. We spoke to the chairs Thomas Kox, André Ullrich and Herbert Zech about the theme, program and their hopes for the conference.

→ Register for the 6th Weizenbaum Conference now!

“Uncertain Journeys” and “wicked societal and environmental problems” - how did you come up with the conference theme?

André Ullrich (AU): The topic arose from our day-to-day work. In my research group, we conduct research on digitalization, participation and sustainability, the latter in an ecological sense, but also in a social sense. So of course it was quite obvious for me to make this a topic.

Herbert Zech (HZ): I have to admit, however, that I previously viewed the term “twin transformation” or “twin challenge” - i.e. digitalization and climate change - rather critically. Both are certainly important transformation processes at the moment, but topicality alone does not make a connection. But in fact, these two transformations are not only mutually dependent, but where there are relationships and points of contact between the two, things get really exciting. And that's what we wanted to explore further with this topic.

Thomas Kox (TK): Climate change is certainly one of the key challenges of our time. Adaptation to climate change as well as the digitalization of the state, economy and population are transformation processes that are also changing the way we deal with future risks. Digitalization is changing the possibilities for data analysis, governance and knowledge management. This is a discussion that we have been having here at the Weizenbaum Institute for a long time: What kind of society, what kind of future do we want to live in?

What are wicked (societal and environmental) problems?

AU: Wicked problems are defined, among other things, by their social relevance, complexity, lack of transparency and unclear inherent dynamics. As a rule, there is not one simple solution, but rather various solutions that are often unclear and difficult to identify and achieve. In terms of digitalization and climate change, the solutions for one often influence the other. A simple example: a data center that provides the infrastructure for calculating climate models or makes our power grid smarter also consumes a lot of energy, which is multiplied significantly with the increasing use of artificial intelligence approaches. To find a good solution, we need to look at both.

TK: Anticipating the future - or more precisely, the future due to the multitude of possibilities - is becoming more important. Risks are characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and a lack of knowledge. This involves technical challenges for infrastructures as well as for society.

Why is the topic of the conference important now?

AU: With all the complexity, perhaps also due to this very complexity, a technological solutionism is currently spreading, i.e. the idea that we can get these problems under control with technology. It's not that simple. Our technology is not only part of the solution, but very often and very clearly also part of the problem.

HZ: Yes, I would like to emphasize this point. In the digital space in particular, for example, we increasingly have problems with the autonomy and sovereignty of the individual. We don't want to lose sight of the question of whether a certain technology has created certain problems in the first place.

Were there any surprises in the submissions for the conference?

TK: Well, we were impressed by the quality of the submissions. But what really surprised us was that the contribution that was rated best by the external reviewers came from a Master's student. A clever, critical and creative submission that we were very pleased about.

But isn't that rather unusual at such conferences? Don't rank and name often play an important role? Or: what criteria did you use to select the contributions?

AU: We kept the criteria for selecting the contributions quite classic: Suitability to the topic, relevance, validity, clarity, etc. But of course it cannot be denied that rank and name often play a role. We were actually primarily interested in the quality of the content and its fit with our topic. The reviews follow the so-called double-blind procedure, which means that the reviewers do not know the names of the authors and vice versa. That's why they didn't look at positions and that's why we were all the more pleased that we were largely in agreement.

HZ: Yes, the article critically examines current discourses on artificial intelligence and the extent to which they hinder or slow down the socio-ecological transformation. A great fit with our topic. And a strong signal for young scientists: take courage!

This time there is also an exhibition. How did this come about?

AU: We take an interdisciplinary approach at the institute and engage in intensive exchange with other disciplines. However, as the challenges outlined above cannot be solved by research alone, we are convinced that other stakeholders and groups from politics, business and civil society need to be involved. In the sense of such a transdisciplinary approach, we also want to provide a platform for practical solutions directly.

HZ: Yes, we always see our research here at the Weizenbaum Institute as transfer-oriented. We want to impart knowledge through dialog, but also learn something new ourselves. Demonstrators are part of an event like this.

What do you want from the conference? What do you want the participants to take away with them?

AU: I hope that we can raise awareness of the many non-obvious connections between digitalization and sustainability. You can't look at one without the other. I also hope that everyone involved will gain lots of interesting ideas, make new contacts and that we, as well as the participants, will leave the event feeling satisfied.

HZ: I'm hoping for interesting new research perspectives, and that should explicitly include broadening my own perspectives - for myself and all participants.

TK: As the challenges we are discussing require social change and collective efforts, I hope that our conference will also establish contacts, networks and relationships that will initiate processes and projects that go beyond science.

HZ: If we succeed in doing that, then it will have been a real Weizenbaum Conference. Because we want our institute not only to conduct excellent research, but also to be an international place of exchange that has an evidence-based and value-oriented impact on society.

Thank you very much for the interview.

→ Register for the 6th Weizenbaum Conference now!