Wicked Problems

‘Dilemmas in the general theory of planning’ short article by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in Policy Science 4 pp 155-159

This is a modification of a paper presented to the panel on policy sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Boston, December 1969.

Review by Guest Contributor: Dr Mehreen Faruqi

The use of the term ‘wicked problem’ has recently become popular vernacular as a way of describing complex, multidimensional and interconnected social and environmental challenges such as climate change and global inequity. It may come as a surprise to many that this rather provocative term was coined some 45 years ago by two Professors from Berkeley who provided a critique of technical, rational planning approaches to ‘solve’ problems that may only be ‘resolvable’.

The subject article was written in the backdrop of significant socio-political movements questioning the status quo on environmental protection, the place of women and African Americans in society, and the Vietnam War. This underlying context of anarchy does pervade the analysis as the authors reject traditional mechanistic-thinking in favour of contemporary systems-thinking.

At the heart of this article is the framing of policy planning problems such as dealing with crime, or poverty as inherently ‘wicked’. Ten distinguishing attributes of wicked problems are described including their uniqueness, difficulty in formulation, many solutions (but no true/false answers) based on conflicting views and values, and reliance on the subjective judgement of decision-makers for resolution.

Such complex problems are differentiated from ‘tame’ science and engineering problems such as a mathematical equation which can be solved through step-by-step objective analyses leading to a true or false answer. Since policy decisions affect so many, defining and treating wicked problems as tame is a moral and ethical issue for the authors, especially since solutions may be a complete mismatch, irrelevant and often irreversible.

The language used in the article is dated and gender-biased, but the central theory aligns well with contemporary research on complex systems that endorses the authors’ view of wicked problems having many interdependencies, uncertainties, values-dependent formulations, a plurality of views and no clear-cut solutions. A failure to recognise these difficult-to-deal-with elements has hampered progress on complex issues.

Rittel and Webber do not attempt to clarify how these dilemmas may be resolved or how we might transition from traditional tactics to new ways of thinking and doing. As leadership plays an important role in influencing change, many answers may lie in contemporary views of ‘complexity leadership’. This approach is cognisant of the wicked realities and advocates openness to ambiguity and adaptation, confronting and clarifying conflict, and a shared and collective process for resolving problems.

One Response to Wicked Problems

  1. Re: Wicked Problems

    Greetings,

    We have been applying this concept to the study and modelling of complex policy issues in Sweden for 15 years. If you are interested, you might like to look at this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:

    www.springer.com/business+%26+management/technology+management/book/978-3-642-19652-2

    Regards,

    Tom Ritchey
    SweMorph

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