While our world has become more dynamic and more complex, so have our problems. Wicked problems, such as climate change, terrorism, social inequality and destruction of natural habitat are extraordinarily difficult to deal with because they are almost impossible to define accurately. However, if we change our perspectives and reframe the issue in a new way we can overcome the wickedness of the challenge.
“[Wicked problems are a] class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing”- Horst Rittel
The definition of wicked problems is as complex as the problems themselves. Wicked problems have been a topic of discussion since the 1970s when Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber published their article, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. The authors explained how wicked problems differ from engineering problems in that they are almost impossible to define.
To illustrate, let’s imagine that you have a rising drug problem in your city. The root problem appears to be a new gang that is importing large amounts of drugs to the city from overseas. After identifying the gang leaders, the city police finally apprehends the gang leadership in a large raid and confiscates all the drugs. For a while it seems that the amount of drug offences is decreasing. Surely the problem has been solved, right?
In reality the opposite is the case. In the following months a violent gang war ensues and the amount of people detained for drug abuse is actually increasing! The reason? By eliminating the dominant gang, the police created instability in the hierarchy between other rival gangs in the city and in the drug markets. This instability was then corrected by a violent power struggle between the gangs that remained.
The police had therefore introduced only a temporary solution to the drug problem. In fact, the real problem is not the use of drugs, which is only a symptom of the underlying cause. The use of drugs and other criminal activity were the result of a variety of other societal problems, such as poverty, racial issues and bad city planning. These underlying, systemic issues were not addressed by getting rid of one gang, which is why the drug problem only got worse.
Here are some other examples of wicked problems:
- Climate change
- Global terrorism
- Nation-wide obesity
- Acidification of the oceans
- Deteriorating biodiversity
All of the above problems consist of several interconnected parts. For example, climate change cannot be reduced to one problem definition with simple cause-effect relationships, because the climate itself is very complex and hard to understand. The climate is not a singular thing, like a mountain is, but the cumulative effect of all the streams of air, water and heat in our planet.
Understanding the nature of wicked problems is absolutely necessary for today’s problem solvers and decision makers because most problems worth thinking about are essentially wicked. It is easy to become paralyzed after realizing how challenging it is to solve wicked problems. However, I believe that by reframing the issue we can unleash our creative thinking and turn the problems into an opportunity
What if I told you that climate change, inequality and other similar issues are only problems if we choose to define them so? In fact, I like to think of wicked problems as signals telling us that change is necessary – that we need to start doing something fundamentally different from what we’re doing now. It means that we need to design new and better economic, social, governmental and physical systems than the ones that are now in place. Therefore, our biggest challenge is in fact overcoming our unwillingness to change.
Change is sometimes very difficult, but whenever there’s fundamental change involved, there are also great opportunities. Furthermore, we humans are experts in change! Just think of how different our world is from a hundred years ago – or fifty, or even twenty years ago. The automobile, the airplane and the advent of ICT have all changed our lives and the society so fundamentally that our forefathers would think they’re in a different planet if they saw our world today. So there’s nothing new to systemic change – it is already happening all around us.
Therefore, what we need to do is reframe wicked problems as opportunities. They are opportunities for creating new value, new business and new, more sustainable ways of living. I am happy and inspired to see many companies, such as Demos Effect, Plantagon, MBA Polymers, Ecovative Design, Piggybaggy, RePack and thousands others, adopting this attitude.
There’s a lot to do, so let’s not waste time trying to solve problems because it leads nowhere. Let’s instead choose to change our perspective and begin creating the world we want to live in.
Here are some suggestions how you can reframe wicked problems:
- If you or your organization are faced with a difficult challenge, ask yourself whether it’s really an opportunity disguised as a problem.
- When dealing with a wicked problem in your own life, instead of trying to solve the problem, try to think of ways you can re-design your life.
- If you hear someone talking about a difficult challenge, try to identify the social systems that are involved in the issue. Then try to think of how we could go around the problem by designing the systems better.
Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences. vol. 4. pp. 155-169.
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues, vol. 8. no. 2. pp. 5-21.