1 What is a Wicked Problem?

A wicked problem is a problem, usually social or cultural, that is challenging or impossible to solve either because not enough is understood about the problem, the number of stakeholders involved, the number of varying opinions, the economic burden, or the impact of these problems with other problems. For example, poverty is closely related to education, health, and nutrition.

Horst Rittel has cited ten characteristics of these hard-to-solve social and cultural issues:

  1. Wicked problems are hard to define and neatly categorize. Poverty is different in Concord, New Hampshire than in urban China. Therefore, “poverty” is not the same everywhere.
  2. Because wicked problems are hard to define and melt into each other, they are also hard to declare “solved.” It’s too difficult to measure success.
  3. There are no “solutions” to wicked problems, only “good” or “bad” measures. Since it’s hard to define an end goal to a wicked problem, it’s more productive to focus on trying to improve a situation, rather than attempt to solve it.
  4. There are no standard approaches to wicked problems. The problem of each situation is unique and requires its own approach that is often developed on the fly. Every wicked problem is unique.
  5. Explanations for wicked problems vary because no single observer can claim to have fully analyzed and understood the full scope of the problem.
  6. Wicked problems are the results of other wicked problems. Addressing one problem may result in improving the situation for other wicked problems. For example, improving education will have positive implications on health, nutrition and family planning. On the other hand, addressing one problem may result in other problems getting worse. For example, building low-income housing to address homelessness issues may result in high unemployment rates in concentrated areas.
  7. There is no definitive scientific test for the solution of a wicked problem because they are human caused and not natural phenomena.
  8. Attempts at solutions are often small-scale because too much new understanding during the process often reveals new information that changes the approach.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique so attempts to solve one wicked problem are difficult to adapt to other wicked problems.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.

Not every hard-to-solve problem is a wicked problem, though most social problems are wicked. Wicked problems can’t be “fixed”. Approaches should be focused on how to best mitigate their immediate impact. Finally, wicked problems require an interdisciplinary approach with an understanding that no quick result will be forthcoming. Addressing wicked problems is time-consuming and iterative, requiring long-term dedication.

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