UTS Library

Wicked Problems

In this guide:

What are "wicked problems?"

Rittel and Webber first identified the concept of "wicked problems" in 1973. 

Rittel, H.W. & Webber, M.M. 1973, 'Dilemmas in a general theory of planning', Policy sciences, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 155-69. 

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are "wicked" problems, whereas science has developed to deal with "tame" problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about "optimal solutions" to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no "solutions" in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

Rittel and Webber assign ten characteristics to wicked problems:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. 
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into  the plan     
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem 
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution
10.The planner has no right to be wrong

Modern context

In Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, Kolko (2012) defines a wicked problem and its complexity in this way. It is a “social or cultural problem that is difficult to solve for four reasons: 1) incomplete or contradictory knowledge; 2) the high number of stakeholders, people, and opinions involved; 3) the potential of a large financial burden to make progress; and 4) interconnection with other problems.”

Kolko, J. 2012, Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving - A Handbook and a Call to Action, Ac4d.

Available as a free e book: https://www.wickedproblems.com/read.php


Working with wicked problems: Philippe Vandenbroeck at TEDxUHowest


In our rapidly changing world we seem to be increasingly confronted with intractable problems that escape final solution. Why is that? And what can we do about it? In this talk I will argue that these 'wicked problems' challenge our capacity for systemic thinking and doing. Cookie-cutter approaches won't work. We need to be very clever and sensitive in crafting interventions that mesh systems thinking, dialogue and design into powerful 'learning factories'.