With developed economies reaching the end of the process of industrialization, we have witnessed the rise of new forms of highly complex challenges that have moved to the forefront of social concerns. Challenges such as climate change, inequality, environmental degradation, terrorism, global financial instability, multicultural integration or cyber security.
These are challenges of a qualitatively different kind when compared to the core issues we faced during the process of industrialization. If we turn the clock back a one or two hundred years, the kind of challenges we faced, although complicated, were much simpler in their nature. For example, the challenge of building and coordinating the railroads, of building the modern nation state and the bureaucracy required to provide its public services effectively. We had the challenge of building skyscrapers for the first time, of flying around the world or landing someone on the moon. Today, however, we can manage complicated rail networks that span the entire European continent. We expect to have a nice meal and watch a film while on flight to the other side of the planet, and we can build skyscrapers, virtually anywhere in the world, like we are cutting out cookies. Although these problems are certainly not simple, they are of a different nature to a problem such as escalating inequality, and it is these complex systemic challenges that are a central part of 21st Century reality.
In fact, we may note that many of these wicked problems can be understood to have derived from the set of solutions we developed during the Industrial Age. These industrial age systems of organization that were once great achievements have, in many ways, reached the end of their life cycle and we are left with some of the limitations in their initial design. The combustion of fossil fuels that served us so well for centuries, being a classical example. As Einstein would say “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” These wicked problems we face today require a new skill set and new more collaborative systems of organization to tackle.
Wicked problems are highly complex problems. They are unstructured, open-ended; they are multi-dimensional, systemic and may have no known solution. In many ways, we can think of wicked problems as essentially dysfunctionalities within a complex system. Where we have the complex system of the human body, we have the wicked problem of healthcare. Where we have advanced economies, we have the wicked problem of extreme inequality, and where we have the internet, we have cyber-crime. In all these cases, the problem can not be isolated and separated from the system. These wicked problems are systemic in nature. They can be understood as an emergent phenomenon of how the local components interact, of how the system works, and not simply one part of the system that can be isolated, tackled and solved in a linear fashion.
The concept of a wicked problem first derives from social planning and political science. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber formally described the concept of wicked problems back in the 1970s, contrasting it with relatively “tame,” solvable problems. So let’s talk about some of these tame problems first. Examples of tame problems might be solving a jigsaw puzzle, finding the shortest route from A to B on a map, or repairing a computer. These standard problems share a number of features in common. Firstly, they have a clear boundary. There is a well-defined and stable problem statement, which has a definite stopping point. that is, when the solution is reached. It is relatively simple to say what is part of the problem and what is not. Next, there are a finite number of elements interacting, and, given enough analysis, we can fully understand the system, the drivers in the system, and the causes and effects. Think about fixing a car. It may be complicated but there is a manual somewhere where all the parts and interactions within the car can be known. There are widely shared values to the nature of the problem. Thus, it becomes a technical problem where there is a solution that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong. And lastly, we are dealing with a static problem. It does not change over time. Think of fixing a light bulb. The actual problem stays the same throughout the process.
Tame problems can be standardized. That is, they belong to a class of similar problems, which can all be solved in a similar way. And thus, over the course of the past few centuries, with the rise of modern science, we have developed a powerful and standardized set of methods within mathematics and engineering for solving tame problems, even when they get very complicated.
Wicked problems are qualitatively different from tame problems, largely due to the fact that we are dealing with open systems instead of closed ones. Climate change is one of the best examples of wicked problems, as is the challenge of global governance or multiculturalism. All of these challenges have a number of features that make them highly complex and non-amenable to our traditional approach, in which problems are defined, analyzed and solved in sequential steps.
Firstly, because we are dealing with open systems, they are often unbounded in space and time. They cross disciplines, borders, and departments, making them very difficult to structure. You will often hear the word ‘messy’ used when people talk about wicked problems. They are also open in scope. The more you probe into the problem space, the more it expands into different dimensions. Unlike our tame problems, they have no stopping rule. Terrorism might be an example of this. It slips through the fingers of powerful governments and searching for its root cause will take you on an open-ended exploration of many different social-cultural, political and economic dimensions. Wicked problems are then multidimensional. Not only are they interconnected on many scales from the micro to the macro, but they are also composed of multiple different social, economic, technical and environmental factors. There is no one standardized global solution that fits all. Coupled with this is the fact that these problems involve a strong cultural dimension. They are deeply qualitative, involving human values and deeply entrenched socio-political dynamics. Again, climate change is a good example, as is systemic political deadlock.
These problems have also many deep interconnections and interdependencies. The systems we are dealing with in these wicked problems are intricately interconnected, interdependent and nonlinear. The problem of tackling poverty might be an example of this. It is strongly interconnected with many different areas from economic inequality to racism, to education, to public services and so on. With these highly interconnected problems, when you try to pull on one part, you end up getting the whole thing.
Lastly, complex problems are dynamic. They evolve over time. Events are continuously changing. Problems and solutions are entwined as they co-evolve, with the definition of the problem itself also evolving. Coupled to this is the fact that the different components are often autonomous and adapting to their own incentives and local environment with limited central authority. The challenge of global governance is a good example of this, where authority to act still resides on the national level, and thus, the international political environment is the product of continuously evolving local level interactions and adaptations. Overcoming this to find common global consensuses and coordination is proven very difficult.
In response to the intimidating nature of wicked problems, many people feel overwhelmed and respond with denial of the problem or resignation and determinism, resulting in inertia. Another typical response is to try to turn a complex problem into a simple one in a number of different ways, such as describing a related problem or a sub-problem that you can solve and declare that to be the problem. Or creating objective parameters by which to measure the solution’s success with whatever is not measured, being then free to absorb the real problem. That is to say, just shifting the problem from one place to another, which is very easy given the scale of the problem. Attempting to tame a wicked problem in this way, while appealing in the short run, will clearly fail in the long run. The wicked problem will reassert itself perhaps in a different form, or worse, the tame solution may exacerbate the problem.
Truly tackling complex problems requires systems thinking to see the bigger picture, and to integrate the many different perspective and dimensions to the problem. By seeing the system as a whole, we can get a real idea of the true nexus that makes up the core constraints at the heart of the problem. We need to gain a fundamental perspective that encapsulates the most diametrically opposed views and then work backwards to be able to contextualize the diverse perspectives on the problem.
Wicked problems involve social complexity, and thus, we need to develop a platform for building a common understanding of the problem. This means being able to communicate the complexity of the problem in a way that is accessible to all, creating a paradigm within which people can integrate their own context and meanings. Tackling these problems requires a strong infrastructure of trust and collaboration to overcome the need for a long-term sustained investment where there is a lack of short-term incentives. Analysis of the stakeholders and the power dynamics surrounding the situation are critical to successfully designing stakeholder collaboration. Empathy and active listening are required to be able to effectively map out the diverse set of views and opinions that we need to integrate. Finally, after having created a platform for the co-creation of solutions, we need an iterative, experimental approach to developing the project due to the co-evolutionary nature of problems and solutions.