The Origin of Wicked Problems

I learned about Rittel and Webber in my policy course in graduate school. The identified 10 characteristics of wicked problems in their article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, published in 1973. You are fortunate as it is available for free online. If you don’t wish to dive into the article, here is the abstract:

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

And, you’ll be relieved to know that Wikipedia has the Cliff notes (or Spark notes, depending on your age).

I share this research with the classes I teach, including a project management class, where they are generally doing planning in the social sciences, and with my Master’s in Ed students who will become school divisions leaders, often tasked with doing planning. The concept continues to be timely.

In fact, I just started reading a book that uses the concept as a theme. The author attributes is understanding of the concept to a professor but makes no reference to Rittel and Webber. I wonder if it is because the research is so old? At some point, does a concept become commonly understood, an accepted part of the vernacular, so that it is no longer required to cite its creator? I think we need to at least give a nod to the origins for those who might want to learn more and explore the thinking behind the concept.

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