Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 9)


Eight down and two to go. Rittel and Webber assert here that it is fruitless to try to resolve differences about how to solve a wicked problem by any sort of scientific or conventional "rational" argument. 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.

The belief and norm filters kick in at this point in discussing the essence of the problem and the choices available to "solve" it. Schön and Rein, in Frame Reflection, develop a larger theory about this issue in particular. George Lakoff has also written about the importance of framing and the way people "see" problems. In the political context, campaigning and other political rhetoric tends to focus on wicked problems without using this or any similar label. Listeners hear the rhetoric through their filters, not to the 'rationality' built into the arguments of what is needed to address the problems being presented. As a result, modern political rhetoric is often said to be a dialogue of the deaf.

R & W say this about this extremely challenging property:

In dealing with wicked problems, the modes of reasoning used in the argument are much richer than those permissible in the scientific discourse. Because of the essential uniqueness of the problem (see Proposition 7) and lacking opportunity for rigorous experimentation (see Proposition 5), it is not possible to put H to a crucial test. That is to say, the choice of explanation is arbitrary in the logical sense. In actuality, attitudinal criteria guide the choice. People choose those explanations which are most plausible to them. Somewhat but not much exaggerated, you might say that everybody picks that explanation of a discrepancy which fits his intentions best and which conforms to the action-prospects that are available to him. The analyst's "world view" is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy and, therefore, in resolving a wicked problem.

The problematic of sustainability is the epitome of wicked problems. The context for thinking about sustainability is about as large as is possible with leaving the Earth's for space travel. There are literally thousands or maybe even millions of programs dealing with sustainability underway today. With almost no exception, all of these are run by people who have the "answer" to one part of the problem set or another, but I have yet to see any organized program in either business or government or NGOs that is willing to dive into the unknown core of the system that has begun to malfunction badly. Nor have the universities in spite of their much diminished role in asking questions.

All of these institutions are trapped in the modern paradigm and its insistence on having the right answer to every problem. Another way of interpreting property 9, above, is that, if everyone sees these kinds of problems through their our historical mind set, there are as many possible routes to solution as there are people involved. One route maybe the most effective way to go by the consensus of the group, but it is not the "right" one as being the logical solution to the problem at hand.