Wicked problems.

The future’s problems – at least the ones that matter – are wicked.

Today’s young people use this word for emphasis. Go on the streets or hangout in coffee shops and you can catch phrases like, “that car is wicked cool!” or “that checkout line was wicked slow!”

Do you like sudoku? Then you know that the puzzles pose degrees of difficulty, ranging  all the way up to diabolical or evil. But even the most wicked of these are simple – compared, say, with the task of solving those five coupled equations[1] for weather prediction that we discussed in Tuesday’s post. Surely that’s a wicked problem! Ah, but now the astrophysicists scoff. The stars they study consist of plasma – a gas of electrically-charged ions and electrons. To model stellar behavior requires taking account of electrical and magnetic forces, and incorporating an additional four equations[2]  – making a total of nine equations to be solved simultaneously. What could be harder?

But here’s a surprise. The truly wicked problems exist not in the inanimate universe of physics, but in the realm of social sciences. Sociologists use this term to describe a class of challenges that societies find themselves poorly equipped to overcome.

Horst Rittel formulated this notion, in work dating back to 1967, but for a more readable account, and one that makes application to environmental problems, take a look at Steve Rayner’s 2006 Jack Beale lecture. Steve listed six (Rittel had a rather larger number) attributes that make a social problem “wicked:”

-         characteristics of deeper problems (Steve gives a great example here. How to explain educational underperformance? Well, poverty plays a role. And what’s the root cause of poverty? A caste system contributes. And what factors determine caste? Education, for one. See? The arguments tend to get circular.[3])

-         little opportunity for trial-and-error learning (One example: mitigation approaches to climate change. Hit the carbon-dioxide “off” switch and maybe one hundred years from now we’ll be glad we did. Well, maybe. But we can’t run a controlled experiment to make sure.)

-         no clear set of alternative solutions (Our problem is not choosing among, say, three policy options)

-         contradictory certitudes (We hear a lot these days about how scientists need to treat and communicate uncertainty. But when it comes to wicked problems, curiously enough, most people aren’t in doubt. They know how to deal with climate change. Trouble is: Al Gore and Senator James Inhofe – picking two names totally at random – don’t agree. In fact, seven billion of us will give you seven billion opinions.)

-         redistributive implications for entrenched interests (you and I think it’s important in principle to pay the true cost of burning fossil fuels, but we’re loathe to pay that cost to either a utility or to the government. We’d rather keep the cash for ourselves.)

-         no solutions, just coping strategies (Very similar to the problems faced by diabetics – there’s no cure; only therapies.)

In his lecture, Steve gives an excellent discussion about how environmental issues such as climate change and the other challenges in our top five are increasingly taking on the character of wicked problems.

Steve’s list of characteristics, however, stops short of the true difficulties here. Others have since noted some additional aspects which make challenges such as climate change even more problematic. These so-called “super-wicked” problems include attributes such as the following:

-         time is running out

-         no central authority

-         those seeking to solve the problem are causing it

It’s easy to recognize the fresh seeds for difficulty in the climate-change problem inherent in this triad.

Had enough for today? Depressed? Well don’t be. In the next post we’ll introduce four powerful tools that we can bring to bear on these wicked problems.


[1] The so-called Navier-Stokes equations, named after two (among many) of the fluid dynamicists who contributed to their formulation.

[2] Maxwell’s equations

[3] Reminiscent of those water-cooler discussions that end with “now that we’ve solved the world’s problems…”

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3 Responses to Wicked problems.

  1. Pingback: The Real World? Might be broken. Where’s that toolkit? | Living on the Real World

  2. Pingback: Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways, and be wise! | Living on the Real World

  3. Pingback: Outed…as an ENFP | Living on the Real World

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