What are wicked problems, anyway?

In the interests of not reinventing the wheel and rewriting something that is already worded more aptly than I could, here’s a quote extracted from Jon Kolko’s book, “Wicked Problems: Problems worth solving” (found here):


A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping.

Horst Rittel, one of the first to formalize a theory of wicked problems, cites ten characteristics of these complicated social issues:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. The problem of poverty in Texas is grossly similar but discretely different from poverty in Nairobi, so no practical characteristics describe “poverty.”
  2. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another, unlike the boundaries of traditional design problems that can be articulated or defined.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false. There is no idealized end state to arrive at, and so approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide. Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
  5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem, with the appropriateness of the explanation depending greatly on the individual perspective of the designer.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. The interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems illustrates how, for example, a change in education will cause new behavior in nutrition.
  7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  8. Offering a “solution” to a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.

Here are a few additional things I’ve observed about wicked problems.

  • Over-simplified attempts to “solve” a complex problem make the problem worse. The complexity may be hidden, or change shape, but will not be resolved.

  • In collaborations amongst institutions working on wicked problems, the greatest constraints on the work done are set by the nature of the institutions, the relationships between them, the scope of their awareness of the problem, the limits of the institutions’ jurisdiction, and the conditions of their access to funding for the work, rather than by the nature of the wicked problem itself.

  • We have learned to “control” our reality by dividing it into manageable domains of knowledge and relying on specialists/experts to work within those domains. As a result, the people who are critical for working on wicked problems, which stretch across domains and disciplines, tend to not have the qualifications, fame, and other recognisable markers of “success” that we are accustomed to looking for in our leaders.

  • Many of our habitual cognitive tools fail us when it comes to working on wicked problems. To provide one example – we’re more motivated to avoid losses than to seek gains. However, focusing on “fixing” a problem (to avoid loss), at the expense of looking towards a vision of what we want (to seek a gain), significantly hampers our creativity. Focusing on solving a problem in itself tends to make us think about temporary and partial “fixes”, when what we really need is a better vision of the future that doesn’t have those problems in it.

This is such a useful tool :smile:

I think this hits the nail on the head of much I’ve been wrestling with/realising about approaching such immense problems and complicated situations: searching for true and false, right and wrong, is getting us nowhere. I’m really new to the literature that’s out there already on this; it’s a real pleasure to be working my way through these posts. Thank you.