Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Properties 1 & 2)


This is my first post as an octogenarian; my birthday was yesterday. It doesn’t seem much different today. The world out there is in just as bad shape. My last post was an introduction to the idea of wicked problems. Here’s the next installment. Rittel and Webber list 10 properties of this class of problems. I’ll take a few at a time. It’s important to make a connection between their discussion and complexity. With just a small adjustment, their characterization fits any attempt to govern or guide a complex system. The “problem” to be addressed is usually a difference in the present state of the system and that desired. In the cases I write about the problem is the difference between the present world and one where flourishing is present. A rather large “problem,” not to be solved in one step, but nonetheless one that fits the idea of wicked.

R & W start off with property 1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. This seems pretty straightforward. The mere recognition of a difference between what exists at this moment and what we wish for the future is insufficient to characterize the problem. The present context is always, except for trivial cases, going to be full of possible clues to the missing elements and many avenues to follow. Which is the exactly correct one will never be certain, Here is what R & W say:

This is not possible with wicked-problems. The information needed to understand the problem depends upon one's idea for solving it. That is to say: in order to describe a wicked-problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory of all conceivable solutions ahead of time. The reason is that every question asking for additional information depends upon the understanding of the problem--and its resolution--at that time. Problem understanding and problem resolution are concomitant to each other. Therefore, in order to anticipate all questions (in order to anticipate all information required for resolution ahead of time), knowledge of all conceivable solutions is required. . . .The formulation of a wicked problem is the problem!

To address sustainability, one has to ask what are the root causes, not a simple questions. Is hyper-consumption the culprit. Is it the huge inequalities in income and wealth that drive unsustainability. Is it too many people? And on and on. And what if it is all the above and more. Where does one begin? These are the questions that are huge obstacles contrasted with the formulation of “tame” problems—problems that can be reduced to a few analytic expressions where the initial and boundary conditions are clearly defined.

Wicked problems like sustainability are virtually always attacked by a large body of “problem-solvers“ including the many stakeholders interested in the outcome. And because these stakeholders see different aspects of the problem, they will define the issues according to their own framing. And if those managing the project, whether it is the development of a plan to wean energy use away a reliance on fossil fuels or a project to create a local currency, do not involve the stakeholders in the formulation of the program from the get-go, the outcome of the efforts will rarely satisfy those brought into the process later.

This characteristic of wicked problems is at the heart of my much repeated litany that reducing unsustainability (greening) is not the same as creating sustainability. Greening always involves only tame problems. Get the toxics out of the detergent. Make the product more recyclable. Reduce the carbon footprint. Solutions to these problems may not be easy but they are tame in the sense that they can be reduced to a bounded set of characterizations of what is wrong and then what has to be done. Companies can take on the problems in their laboratories and product development ateliers without any consultation with outside stakeholders, claiming that the problem is purely technical. The answers may not be nice to live with as, for example, when the technical solutions do not line up with their economic consequences.

Greening solutions always address only a minute part of the sustainability challenge. Flourishing is a property of the entire global system or a major portion thereof. One firm’s actions or even a coordinated effort by a group of actors cannot reflect the complexity of the issue of sustainability. Progress toward sustainability can be made only after all those involved in aiming toward it accept the wickedness they are dealing with. All the stakeholders must be brought in. Since some of these are non-human and others not yet born, the problem holders (those with a commitment to take action) will always have a huge barrier to even get started. The need to involve many stakeholders suggested (to me) that governments or large NGOs must play the convening role. Business has too narrow a focus and little competence in this role. Until the major players of this moment in time accept the wicked nature of sustainability problems, little progress can be made. The inability of the appropriate existing institutions to step out of the conventional reductionist, disciplinary frameworks further confounds progress. Time is passing and the problems are likely to become more and more wicked.

The next property in the list is 2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. The nature of the context out of which wicked problems materialize is one of constant change. The world in which we seek sustainability is always in a state of flux. The solution path we began to follow earlier may no longer be constructive and the underlying roots of the problem may have changed. R & W say:

The planner terminates work on a wicked problem, not for reasons inherent in the "logic" of the problem. He stops for considerations that are external to the problem: he runs out of time, or money, or patience. He finally says, "That's good enough," or "This is the best I can do within the limitations of the project," or "I like this solution," etc.

The planner in R & W’s context corresponds to some institutional body that undertakes a program to solve the wicked problems of sustainability. So far no organization has taken up that challenge, so the implications of item 2 are moot. It may be that potential organizations already recognize this feature of wicked problems and know that they do not have the institutional patience or time to make a commitment. The attention span and programmatic horizons of the US political system are much too short to enable a realistic embrace of the whole problem of sustainability.

The way we have dealt with the financial crisis of 2008-9 exemplifies these two characteristics of wicked problems. Those seeking to recover the health of the system erred in looking for the singular culpable party or causal factor. The political system charged with keeping this system healthy just cannot deal with wicked problems. Congressional hearings need to produce quick and simple answers that the politicians and the media can compress into sound bites. Then the actual response has to be sure and work quickly, ignoring the second feature that argues that any solution must be seen as temporary in the sense that the system has to be watched very carefully and continually adjusted as those in change acquire more understanding about what is happening. Now, stop and think about the context for sustainability. Don’t linger too long as the result may be a severe case of depression arising from the awareness of the immensity of the task and the inadequacy of the response.

These features of wicked problems—culture change by design is always a set of wicked problems—is what convinced me that the best chance for success is a small-scale, subversive program. Every activity would take on a small set of cultural factors and attempt to replace them with new structures that would move cultural behaviors toward those aligned with sustainability. Greening is not the same as it leaves the root causes in place. The subversive framework looks quite messy compared to the nice neat solutions offered up to deal with the tame ones, but maybe their very messiness is better designed to the world of wicked problems.

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Tiago Cruz said:

Happy Birthday!