What’s the link between wicked problems and systems thinking?
The first person to call wicked problems so was professor Horst Rittel of the University of California Architecture Department, presumably at a seminar on problems in urban planning, in or prior to 1967. There are many other fields where wicked problems emerge, among them climate change, poverty, sustainability, brain drains, obesity, ageing, migration, interminable conflicts (Vietnam, Afghanistan), the war on drugs, tax havens, the banking system, law & order, social work, education, international development, and business. In fact, West Churchman (1967) – jokingly? – suggests that non-wicked problems are only to be found in kindergarten and academia.
Wicked problems are mischievous – and perhaps even evil – because their “solutions” often turn out to be worse than the symptoms. Wicked problems are social systems problems (and therefore public policy problems) that cannot be solved using classical planning methods, whereby the problem is defined, information is gathered, and a solution or intervention is designed by one or several professionals, more or less in linear fashion. Instead, problem formulation is impossible, the information is confusing, values are conflicting, and the impact of the intervention is indeterminable, or found to be so after some time.
Yet, wicked problems, too, must be addressed. They require “taming”, so to speak. But this is not possible using conventional methods, whereas alternative approaches are often neither considered nor applied. Instead, deceptive methods are used, consciously or not, “as if” wicked problems are tame. West Churchman gives the example of operations research, the domain he helped create: typically, only the feasible part of the problem is solved – conventionally -, leaving the untamed part untouched, often just generating a good feeling or consensus – temporarily. West Churchman advocates an open debate about this deceptiveness, which may well be at the root of the anti-professional movement.
Rittel & Webber (1973, full text) suggest that the West has run out of feasible problems, such as schools, hospitals, sewers, roads, industries, and housing. In most cases, these “easy” problems were equity-oriented and efficiency-based. Combined with their “easiness” these problems generated societal consensus about what to do, and led to the professional class needed to actually solve them. But around 1960, the approach started to have diminishing returns, which reinforced valuative pluralism, which in turn further complicated the problems, in the end turning them wicked, i.e. no longer suited for conventional, professional handling.
Wicked problems share certain characteristics. In the case of societal problems they are complicated by pluralism in the sense that there are multiple publics to take into account, who hold multiple values. This makes it difficult to agree on a common goal. In many cases, the goals shift along the way, making problem definition elusive. As a result, there can be no solutions, only “resolutions”, i.e. successive attempts to resolve the “problematic situation” (Checkland, 1999). From this follow 10 distinguishing properties of wicked problems (Rittel & Webber, 1973), including: (1) there is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem; (2) wicked problems have no stopping rule; (3) there is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem; (4) every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem; and (5) the planner has no right to be wrong.
To save the planner from this predicament, he would need an ideal planning system that continually and simultaneously searches goals, identifies problems, invents strategies, simulates alternatives, forecasts contextual changes, monitors relevant conditions, and feeds these back into the the planning process. Such a planning system, which resembles the ultimate chess Grandmaster, is unattainable. Instead, the planner must acknowledge that he cannot mimick science and engineering. He also must learn to accept that social processes are the key links in systems of systems that are interacting and unpredictable. Instead of narrowing down these system (for detailed analysis), he must expand their boundaries (for higher synthesis). And finally he must state the problem(s) in a valuative framework. In short, Rittel & Webber advocate what we now call a systems approach.
What occurred to me is that international development (in all its forms, including rural development) is also a wicked problem, but this is not always – in fact rarely! – recognized to be so. As a consequence it is often treated as a tame problem with disastrous results for aid effectiveness and responsible communication to the wider public. I daresay that any development professional and decision-maker who doesn’t first ascertain that a problem is not wicked before throwing a simple solution to it deserves all the condemnation of the world. What we need are valuative frameworks that work. Two hurrahs for systems thinking. It’s not ideal, but there is no alternative.
This post was produced using concept mapping and structured writing (see other posts). It is mostly based on the following two articles:
- Churchman, C. W. (1967). Guest editorial: Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4). http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2628678?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101552108367. [Requires access to JSTOR]
- Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730. http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf.
An excellent overview of systems approaches can be found in:
- Williams, B., &Hummelbrunner, R. (2010). Systems Concepts in Action: A Practitioner’s Toolkit [partial preview].