Wicked problems and wicked systems

A wicked problem is defined by Rittel and Webber (1973) as one characterised by the following:

  1. There is no definitive formulation.

  2. Any solution is not true-or-false, but rather good-or-bad.

  3. There is no immediate and ultimate test of any solution.

  4. It is a ‘one-shot operation’ since there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error.

  5. There is no 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.

  6. It is essentially unique.

  7. It can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

  8. It results from a discrepancy that can be explained in numerous ways, and the choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.

  9. It does not allow the planner the right to be wrong.

Item 8, where the explanation of the problem is crucial to perceptions of how it can be resolved, is central to the design thinking in this paper. A wicked socio-technical system is, therefore, one that is made up of people, supported by technology, who appreciate that they are dealing mainly with these wicked problems. This includes most human organisations. Although not explicitly mentioned in the list above, these problems are also dynamic; they change over time due to a mixture of events, including new technology, new knowledge and possible shifts in participants’ perspectives. The design task is, therefore, to allow actors in a wicked strategic problem situation to self-organise in order to produce what they see as an acceptable resolution.

This paper will discuss self-organisation and small-worlds phenomenon, providing two examples of wicked problems.