The Wicked Problems

Situations containing complex systems – “wicked problem”, Horst Rittel in 1970s. – Easy problems have been solved, only difficult ones left as they cannot be defined let alone resolved.
Ten significant characteristics (Webber and Rittel, 1973):

  1. No definitive formulation e.g. problem of poverty in Texas is very similar but subtly different from poverty in Nairobi – no practical characteristics describe poverty.
  2. Traditional design problems have articulated & defined boundaries, wicked problems do not making it hard or impossible to measure/claim success.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems either good or bad, not right or wrong. No ideal state to arrive at – improve situation, not solve it.
  4. No standard approach to wicked problems, each has to be tackled on its own merit.
  5. More than one explanation, appropriateness of each depending on perspective of designer.
  6. Wicked problem is symptom of another problem, e.g. interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems – change in education causes new behaviour in nutrition.
  7. No mitigation strategy for wicked problem has definitive scientific test as human invented – science tries to understand nature.
  8. Solution offered to wicked problem has only very limited applicability as any significant change will minimise ability for trial & error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers must be responsible for their actions.

List extracted from /1_wicked_problems.php
Note: Not all hard-to-solve problems are wicked problems, only those with indeterminable scope and scale such as poverty.
Rittel, Horst. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences, 1973: 155-169.





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