Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 6)


Today’s property from Rittel and Webber follows from the earliest items in the list. 6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (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.

Sophisticated problem-solving algorithms and programs (linear programming, for example) that are used in operations research or decision science will not work. R & W write:

There are no criteria which enable one to prove that all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered. . . Chess has a finite set of rules, accounting for all situations that can occur. In mathematics, the tool chest of operations is also explicit; so, too, although less rigorously, in chemistry. But not so in the world of social policy. Which strategies-or-moves are permissible in dealing with crime in the streets, for example, have been enumerated nowhere.

The number of possible chess moves is extraordinary large, but is, in theory, enumerable. Big Blue, the chess-playing IBM computer incorporates algorithms that can solve the problem of what the next move should be and win even against grandmasters. The developers of Big Blue’s computer program were facing a tame, but very complicated, problem and obviously were able to solve it. Not so with the problems that must be solved before sustainability can emerge form the complex global system. All significant problems connected to the striving for sustainability are social policy problems in the sense of the quote above. Societal behavior must be changed such that patterns of consumption come to stay within the limitations of the Earth’s resources. Remedies for inequality involve fundamental policy issues, and cannot be found merely by tinkering with tax policy.

The implications of this property are stark when viewed in the context of current institutional problem-solving frameworks. Taking the United States as an example, problems are solved by using two distinct frameworks; some form of (systems) analysis subject to a set of boundary and initial conditions and another set of evaluative criteria, or by some form of adversarial process such as our legislative (problem-solving) process has become. The analytic frame produces truth according to the criteria used to bound the problem. The adversarial process produces truth as the outcome of the process, whether it be a vote in Congressional committee or a jury’s verdict. Other than appealing the outcome, the actors walk away from the problem and leave it to others to put the findings into play. Finding the “true” answer by these two or any other methodology is tantamount to a claim that the number of possible solutions is finite, contravening this property of a wicked problem.

This property then can be read as a negation of virtually all policy-making and implementation processes for problem dealing with sustainability, and many other current problems. R & W go on to write:

In such fields of ill-defined problems and hence ill-definable solutions, the set of feasible plans of action relies on realistic judgment, the capability to appraise "exotic" ideas and on the amount of trust and credibility between planner and clientele that will lead to the conclusion, "OK let's try that."

This is a reasonably concise definition of pragmatism, with the added feature that the problem-solvers must be trusted in the context of social policy problems. Pragmatism finds truth by testing solutions to problems against the desired outcome(s). If those outcomes are unsatisfactory, another solution must be constructed and tried. And so on and on. “Realistic judgment” can and should incorporate scientific evidence and the results of complicated analytic exercises and simulations. Putting something into play cannot be delayed indefinitely while awaiting for science to provide the information that would allow the solvers to put some sort of estimate of the probability of it working as planned.

The prognosis for coming to grips with unsustainability is poor, based only on this property of the problems that must be faced. The institutions responsible for solving this set of issues have neither enough trust or are stuck in the wrong methodological frame to be effective. Trust is essential in a pragmatic system so that those working on the problem can legitimately make mistakes, which, after all, are part of the basic pragmatic approach. All the more reason for adopting the subversive bottoms-up approach I have promoted in my book, including small-scale experiments in places that do have proper institutional machinery in place. Trust often diminishes with distance as those who must become trusting have less and less opportunity to assess those they would need to trust. Losers in any adversarial process are not likely to trust the winners to seek truth on their behalf.

It is not only the problem-solvers that must change their spots. Positivism with its practical ability to discover eternal objective truths is not equipped to handle the important problems of today, many of which are the unintended consequences that positivistic solutions have created. (This last point will reappear when we get to property 8.) It’s use is preferable to the dogmatic framing that preceded the Enlightment. It is an essential foundation for the creating and operating the technological, technocratic society we have become. It cannot however, produce a future that exhibits sustainability. The educational system that we count on to produce our leaders is built on a foundation of positivism, but perversely produces exactly the kinds of people who are disinclined to see pragmatism as a credible alternate to conventional policy-making and problem solving. Pragmatic action does and can work on a large scale. Gandhi described himself as a “pragmatic idealist.” Nonviolent protest is a pragmatic action. Consumer who care bout the future of the Planet can act pragmatically through their actions in the market place. If at first, any such action doesn’t success, try another, paraphrasing a common aphorism that reduces the philosophy of pragmatism to a very familiar phrase. Let’s get on with it.