Wicked Problems

Not all problems are created equal. Some problems are tame. Tame problems can be defined, and solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Get a man to the moon? Check. But not all problems are like that. Some problems are hard to define, and so hard to solve. These problems aren’t tame. They’re wicked, as in wicked hard.

After World War 2, our society’s ability to tackle large-scale problems jumped to a new level. With our technological and organizational skills, nothing seemed beyond our reach. We sent a man to the moon, built interstate highway networks, brought electricity, clean water, and telephones to every house, and eradicated dread diseases. But in 1973, two scholars – Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber – observed that we were failing terribly at solving other problems. They noted that some problems—for example, poverty, crime, drugs, and world peace—seemed to defy solution. They argued that these intractable problems weren’t just harder than the problems we’d solved so well, but they were actually of a different kind.

Unlike tame problems, wicked problems are essentially unique. That means we can’t just apply a solution that’s worked elsewhere for a different problem “like this one.” Wicked problems like origins and sexuality are hard, if not impossible, to define, and so they’re hard to solve to everyone’s satisfaction. They’re challenging, frustrating and divisive. They cause conflict. 

Additional Resources:
Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”
Jeff Conklin, “Wicked Problems and Social Complexity”
Matt Ferkany and Kyle Powys Whyte, “Environmental Education, Wicked Problems, and Virtue”