I just finished reading Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning by Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber (1973) (pdf) a paper introducing the concept of wicked problems
“Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (Wikipedia)
One of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be. Diverse values are held by different groups of individuals – that what satisfies one may be abhorrent to another, that what comprises problemsolution for one is problem-generation for another. Under such circumstances, and in the absence of an overriding social theory or an overriding social ethic, there is no gainsaying which group is right and which should have its ends served. Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved – over and over again.
The characteristics of a wicked problem is:
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem – The formulation of a wicked problem is the problem!
The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one’s idea for solving it. That is to say: in order to describe a wicked-problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory of all conceivable solutions ahead of time.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule
Because the process of solving the problem is identical with the process of understanding its nature, because there are no criteria for sufficient understanding and because there are no ends to the causal chains that link interacting open systems, one can always try to do better.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad
Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgments are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem
With wicked problems any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended – virtually an unbounded – period of time.
- 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
With wicked planning problems every implemented solution is consequential – every trial counts.
- 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
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique
Despite long lists of similarities between a current problem and a previous one, there always might be an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
One should try to settle the problem on as high a level as possible.
- 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
There is no rule or procedure to determine the “correct” explanation or combination of them.
- The designer has no right to be wrong
Designers are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate