Wicked Problems

Wicked problems include poverty, prejudice, climate change, income distribution, and any other complex problem affecting human wellbeing. These problems result from the interaction of multiple sources and forces. Sustainability science emerged to address wicked problems. In sustainability science, these interactions are conceptualized as systems. Systems thinking is acknowledging that any event is caused by multiple factors interacting. The image below is the Iceberg view of Wicked Problems showing how different systems interact.

Rittel and Webber (1973) 1]Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169.  and Kemp, Loorbach, et al. (2007) 2]Kemp, R., D. Loorbach, et al. (2007). “Transition management as a model for managing processes of co-evolution towards sustainable development.” International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 14(1): 78-91.  describe the characteristics of wicked problems. These are listed in the five big ideas below.

Five Big Ideas

  1. People disagree in pluralistic societies on goals and methods
  2. Control is distributed requiring many approvals
  3. Problems are extremely complex making it hard to identify short-term actions
  4. Solutions can be worse than the problem if not carefully considered
  5. Solutions require time but governance tends to be short-term focused

1. People disagree in pluralistic societies on goals and methods

Ultimately, wicked problems are wicked because no one can agree upon a solution(s). The result is political deadlock and inaction. In response, a new field within sustainability science is emerging – Transition Management (TM). Ultimately Transition Management is a discipline seeking to shift or change Structures / Process and Mental Models which underpin wicked problems.

When we seek to confront wicked problems it is necessary to understand both the specifics of a problem and the context. Take climate change and business as an example. It is necessary to understand carbon footprinting and energy, but it also requires understanding the structures/processes that make fossil fuel attractive and the mental models which resist change.

2. Control is distributed requiring many approvals

Only in authoritarian societies is control centralized. Distributed control is a healthy form of governance. At the same time, distributed control makes the change process slow and complex. Change takes building a coalition.

3. Problems are extremely complex making it hard to identify short-term actions

Wicked problems can never be solved but their impacts can be made more manageable or acceptable. For example, we will never completely eradicate poverty. But, we can make our societies fairer and more equitable places to live which minimizes and even eliminate the impacts and burdens of poverty. The complexity makes it difficult to identify short-term solutions creating a paralysis of action. One way to overcome inaction is to take an approach of learning by doing. Small iterative steps are not designed to test solutions but to identify what needs to be done.

4. Solutions can be worse than the problem if not carefully considered

Lock in 3]Unruh, G. C. (2000). Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy, 28(12), 817–830.

5. Solutions require time but governance tends to be short-term focused

Transitions are long-term processes estimated between 10 and 50 years 4]Grin, Rotmans et al. 2010, pg. 11 requiring frequent iterations which produce learning-by-doing 5]Nevens, Frantzeskaki et al. 2013.  

In Summary

In summary, understanding the nature of wicked problems gives clues to how we need to tackle them. The disciple of sustainability science emerged to engaging enigmatic wicked problems.


References   [ + ]

1. Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169. 
2. Kemp, R., D. Loorbach, et al. (2007). “Transition management as a model for managing processes of co-evolution towards sustainable development.” International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 14(1): 78-91. 
3. Unruh, G. C. (2000). Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy, 28(12), 817–830.
4. Grin, Rotmans et al. 2010, pg. 11
5. Nevens, Frantzeskaki et al. 2013