Complexity and Wicked Problems

April 8, 2014 by  


We hear people talking about “wicked problems”. We’re thinking that global warming is a wicked problem but is the conflict in Syria and the Ukraine? Is the missing Malaysian airliner? Is the growing gap between rich and poor in Canada a wicked problem? Is the extreme poverty in developing countries positioned alongside extreme wealth and waste in the developed world a wicked problem? Is traffic gridlock in major cities like Toronto a wicked problem? So we asked ourselves – what exactly is a wicked problem anyway?

Horst Rittel, Professor of the Science of Design, and his colleague Melvin Webber, Professor of City Planning at Berkley are said to have coined the term in a 1973 paper titled Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.

A wicked problem, they wrote, is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in the traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. They are said to be stubborn, intransigent and even hard to describe. It is difficult to actually define “the problem” because there are so many factors to consider.

Lawrence J. Peter (a Canadian scholar famous for describing the Peter Principle) once said, “Some problems are so complex you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them”.

Wicked problems are said to be tough or even impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, dynamic and interlocking factors that are often hard to recognize and describe. Wicked problems resist being de-constructed or de-layered (people refer to the analogy of peeling an onion). Solutions are rarely right or wrong but better, worse, good enough or not good enough, say many social complexity theorists.

So it’s likely that global warming can be considered a wicked problem and maybe the conflict in Syria. The situation in Ukraine seems more straightforward as does the missing Malaysian airliner? The growing gap between rich and poor in Canada is solvable with social policy so maybe not a wicked problem? The global equivalent probably fits the criteria because the solutions are less obvious and more diverse people, cultures, governments and societies are involved and must be engaged to care. Traffic gridlock in major cities like Toronto probably not, since solutions are quite clear – more transit and bike lanes, with incentives not to travel alone by car.

We’ll be watching for more on “wicked problems” and likely revisiting this topic again. We’d love to hear what you think?


One Response to “Complexity and Wicked Problems”

  1. Ann Dempster on April 17th, 2014 7:21 pm

    Have you read the Logical Thinking Process H. William Dettmer ?

    This is overall a very interesting topic. To definitively deal with complexity and complex problems of any kind – all emotion, ego and all personal bias’ and phobias must be removed from the equation. It takes a unique type of human being to step back and become a “computer” or a strict mathematician – applying logic, and only logic. That’s the cleanest way to deal with complexity and come out the other side with solutions. It’s generally impossible for the every-day person to dismiss their “built-in” mechanisms for living and coping, and their life-long prejudices and fears. As long as this dimension exists – it seems complex problems become bigger – rather than smaller, and manageable.

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