What Are Wicked Problems?

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Wicked problems in policy sciences are social problems that perplex planners and policymakers because they lack clear solutions, and even possible solutions can lead to more complex problems.

Wicked problems are quandaries without a clear solution methodology. Social science, public policy, urban planning, and design theory are all examples of wicked problems. Because they contain contradictory or evolving elements, such social issues are difficult for activists and problem solvers at the municipal and federal levels to address. Wicked problems are problems worth solving, and they frequently necessitate collaborative effort, but potential solutions may open the door to new ones.

Climate change is a major wicked problem of the twenty-first century. Moving away from fossil fuels could be one solution. Nonetheless, without the infrastructure to implement the change and knowledge of how it would affect mining workers in poorer communities, such a shift poses new challenges. It necessitates innovative design thinking as well as meticulous social planning.


What Is the History of Wicked Problems?

Horst Rittel, a German design thinker, coined the phrase "wicked problems" in a seminar at the University of California's architecture department in the 1960s to contrast tame problems with clear-cut and achievable solutions. C. West Churchman, an American theorist, questioned the moral obligation of taming wicked problems in a 1967 editorial in Management Science.

With the 1973 Policy Sciences article "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," Rittel and American urban designer Melvin M. Webber popularized the concept even further.

Instead of something malicious, the adjective "wicked" in "wicked problems" refers to the resistance to resolution. Wicked problems are referred to as "social messes" by some scientists and design theorists.


Wicked Problems Examples

Global warming: The effects of climate change, including global warming, are a major consideration in today's social policies. Each new day brings new data and increasingly complex, unique problems as politicians look to adaptive solutions and sustainability as a way forward.

Health care: Health care is another example of a wicked problem due to the number of issues it raises and its interdependence on nutrition, wellness, aging, air quality, and a variety of other issues. The issue of assisted suicide is one such difficult issue in health care.

Homelessness: Homelessness is a terrible problem because of its ties to capitalism, which gives unhoused people little power over those who can control housing prices in a free market.


4 Characteristics of Wicked Problems

Wicked problems may exhibit some of the characteristics listed below.

1. Wicked problems are symptoms of larger problems. A bad problem is usually a symptom of another issue. Wicked problems are real-world issues that interact with other socioeconomic issues. Global climate change, for example, is linked to homelessness—rising sea levels, for example, may force people to flee their homes.

2. Wicked problems have facts but no true-or-false answers. There are no true-or-false solutions to wicked problems, only better and worse ones based on the criteria of the problem solvers.

3. Wicked problems do not resolve themselves through trial and error. Trial and error are essential in the solution of design problems. In wicked problems, each trial accounts for so much that it is more akin to a one-shot operation, whereas a less complex problem can withstand frequent small experiments.

4. Wicked problems do not have a stop rule. The stopping rule in case studies tells stakeholders when to stop or continue a prototype trial run based on previous events and data. Wicked problems lack this fundamental component of the scientific experiment, which means the issues linger, muddying decision-making.


3 Ways to Approach Wicked Problems

Because of the inherent difficulties of wicked problems, researchers have long studied how to approach them. Nancy C. Roberts, a researcher and professor emerita at the Naval Postgraduate School, proposed three approaches for moving forward in 2001:

1. Be authoritative. This strategy places the handling of difficult problems in the hands of a select few, with the understanding that reducing the number of stakeholders reduces complexity.

2. Be collaborative. Collaborative solutions engage all stakeholders to combine their best ideas during the problem-solving stage.

3. Be competitive. A competitive solution pits companies against one another in order to accelerate the development of viable solutions.

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