Back to Basics 7: Complexity and Wicked Problems


The new trimester at Marlboro College Graduate Center started this week. I am doing my course on (sustainable?) consumption for the second time and giving another for the first time. This one is designed to tie together the four earlier courses in he Exploring Sustainability sequence and carries the subtitle: Ideas into Action. Preparing and teaching a course always refreshes old ideas and brings new ones to expand what I already have gotten familiar with. I always reread the assignments I give the students and this blog post and others to come arise from this practice.

The introductory reading is a great paper with a not so zingy title, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, by H. W. J. Rittel and M. M. Webber, published in 1973, but first delivered in 1969. (Click this link to download the paper.) The social context for the paper directed primarily to [urban] policy planning professionals has changed in the forty years that have elapsed, but the basic message is just as fresh and important now as it was then. The authors introduced, or at least popularized, the concept of “wicked” problems, in opposition of what they called “tame” problems. The essence of their argument is that the promise of so-called rational or synoptic planning had not been realized and, according to them, would not be realized with any significant policy problem.

The reason they gave (many others have observed the same limitations, but few have been as articulate as these two) was that the nature of policy problems created by the failure to achieve aspirational ends was misunderstood by the current generation of professionals. Their context was in areas like urban renewal, welfare, building the great interstate highway system, and more. Some of these issues remain high on the public’s agenda, but others have been replaced by sustainability, budget deficits, the stability of the financial system, engagement in military conflicts, and many more. The level of discord may have risen in these forty years, but the intractability of the problems continues to plug along still under the radar screen. The politicians and associated pundits argue for simple, but often contradictory, solutions to these policy messes. We seem to have less patience now to probe deeply into the nature of these problems and into the kinds of approaches that might work.

While not using the term anywhere in their article Rittel and Webber were talking about complex systems and the nature of complexity. Complexity as an idea is quite old, but it is only in the last several decades that it has begun to built an institutional presence, for example, The Santa Fe Institute, founded in 1984, or the Resilience Alliance, started later in 1999. Large socio-economic-technological systems are always complex, and are intractable by the conventional reductionist methodologies that constitute almost all professions, planners and MBAs alike. When businesses were smaller and government was the dominant institution, business strategists might have gotten away with treating their businesses by closed models and analysis. Their individual fortunes would be aggregated by the miracle of the invisible hand. Public policy issues could (and should) be left to the professional planners and economic strategists.

The world of today is not so simple.The dominance of business in scale and scope has begun to dwarf government and business professionals cannot turn away from taking a more central role in planning for and achieving the same broad social ends we have been pursuing for a long time. Those who continue to argue for an “entirely” free market are ignoring the realities of the now deeply interconnected world, and ostrich-like put their heads into the sand. More and more businesses are adding sustainability to their strategy for survival in the market. I read articles everyday claiming that no business can expect to prosper without a “sustainability” strategy, but very few of these businesses have yet to understand the complex nature of sustainability. Of course, I offer my book as a source for beginning to learn about sustainability and complexity, but I also recommend this paper as a primer.

I’ll finish this blog post with some general introductory excerpts from the paper and follow with a few more blogs that get into the specifics of the consequences for strategists of all sorts. I am thinking of strategists as those who are called on to cope with persistent problems that stymie the achievement of their institutions’ aspirations.

The abstract of the paper outlines their story:

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.

After a prologue setting the context for their arguments, which as I noted is somewhat dated in specifics but not in broad significance, they define wicked problems. The definition, itself, is rather unremarkable when read under the light of what we now know about complexity.

The kinds of problems that planners deal with--societal problems--are inherently different from the problems that scientists and perhaps some classes of engineers deal with. Planning problems are inherently wicked.

As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning--and especially those of social or policy planning--are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not "solution." Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved--over and over again.) Permit us to draw a cartoon that will help clarify the distinction we intend.

The problems that scientists and engineers have usually focused upon are mostly "tame" or "benign" ones. As an example, consider a problem of mathematics, such as solving an equation; or the task of an organic chemist in analyzing the structure of some unknown compound; or that of the chessplayer attempting to accomplish checkmate in five moves. For each the mission is clear. It is clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.

Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they include nearly all public policy issues--whether the question concerns the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime.

What is most remarkable about the article is a list of ten properties of wicked problems that read like a checklist for anyone preparing to attack one. I am saving these for subsequent blogs, but if you can’t wait, download their paper and read on.