Wicked Problems

Today, I had an interesting discussion with Khaled on these family of human problems:

A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. The term was originally coined by Horst Rittel. Wicked problems always occur in a social context. The wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem.

According to Rittel and Webber [1], wicked problems have 10 characteristics:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. Formulating the problem and the solution is essentially the same task. Each attempt at creating a solution changes your understanding of the problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Since you can’t define the problem in any single way, it’s difficult to tell when it’s resolved. The problem-solving process ends when resources are depleted, stakeholders lose interest or political realities change.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. Since there are no unambiguous criteria for deciding if the problem is resolved, getting all stakeholders to agree that a resolution is “good enough” can be a challenge, but getting to a “good enough” resolution may be the best we can do.
  4. There is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Since there is no singular description of a wicked problem, and since the very act of intervention has at least the potential to change that which we deem to be “the problem,” there is no one way to test the success of the proposed resolution.
  5. Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences. Solutions to such problems generate waves of consequences, and it’s impossible to know, in advance and completely, how these waves will eventually play out.
  6. Wicked problems don’t have a well-described set of potential solutions. Various stakeholders have differing views of acceptable solutions. It’s a matter of judgment as to when enough potential solutions have emerged and which should be pursued.
  7. Each wicked problem is essentially unique. There are no “classes” of solutions that can be applied, a priori, to a specific case. “Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early what type of solution to apply.”
  8. Each wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem. A wicked problem is a set of interlocking issues and constraints that change over time, embedded in a dynamic social context. But, more importantly, each proposed resolution of a particular description of “a problem” should be expected to generate its own set of unique problems.
  9. The causes of a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. There are many stakeholders who will have various and changing ideas about what might be a problem, what might be causing it and how to resolve it. There is no way to sort these different explanations into sets of “correct/incorrect.”
  10. The planner (designer) has no right to be wrong. Scientists are expected to formulate hypotheses, which may or may not be supportable by evidence. Designers don’t have such a luxury—they’re expected to get things right. People get hurt, when planners are “wrong.” Yet, there will always be some condition under which planners will be wrong.

EXAMPLE: consider what it would take to “solve” terrorism, where even the term terrorism is highly controversial and difficult to define.

[1] Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

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