What are wicked problems?

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Eluding formulation and early definitions

Two Berkeley professors, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber defined the problems of planning and wicked problems already in 1969. Here are a few excerpts of their article published in Policy Sciences in 1973.

“A great many barriers keep us from perfecting such a planning/governing system: theory is inadequate for decent forecasting; our intelligence is insufficient to our tasks; plurality of objectives held by pluralities of politics makes it impossible to pursue unitary aims; and so on. The difficulties attached to rationality are tenacious, and we have so far been unable to get untangled from their web. This is partly because the classical paradigm of science and engineering–the paradigm that has underlain modern professionalism–is not applicable to the problems of open societal systems.

Planning Problems are Wicked Problems

1. There is nodefinitive formulation of a wicked problem.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot  operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly

6. Wicked problems do not have an innumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution

10. The planner has no right to be wrong

Horst W. J. Rittel & Melvin M. Webber: Theory of Planning in Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp. 160-167.

Johanna Ollila

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