Speculative Citizen Design
research project

Open Call

Wicked Problems  |  Horst Rittel & Melvin M. Webber

The term ‘wicked problem’ was coined in 1973 by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber to describe complex, unstructured problems with no apparent right or wrong answers, which cannot be solved once and for all, since they are in constant change. Their criteria for a wicked problem are the following:

1. No definite formulation of the problem.
2. They have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions are not true-or-false but good-or-bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution.
5. Every solution is a “one-shot operation”; there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error; every attempt counts significantly.
6. They do not have an enumerable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations.
7. They are essentially unique.
8. They can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

Rittel & Webber describe wicked problems (such as poverty) in contrast to ‘tame’ problems which can be solved through professionalisation (such as construction of roads and housing or waste water management). Theorists have devised different approaches in response to wicked problems. Design researcher Nancy Roberts identifies three strategies:

1. Authoritative or ‘taming’ strategies, with a strong reliance on experts who do not receive any outside feedback. This top-down decision-making can lead to impatient, costly responses. They often ignore the complexity of the problem and can be an obstacle to the problem solving process. (see also: → Mainliner Design, Tony Fry)
2. Competitive strategies driven by the pursuit of power, always with the risk of tipping into totalitarian approaches (see also: → Liberal Reformer Design, Tony Fry)
3. Collaborative, trans-disciplinary strategies, which focus on joining forces rather than competing. They can be lengthy and unsatisfactory to goal-oriented participants, yet their open-ended process provides room for experimentation.

To these one could add speculative strategies which do not necessarily seek a solution to the problem, but instead acknowledge its ‘wickedness’ and present the problem from a different angle via (near) future or alternate reality scenarios (see also: → Speculative Design, Dunne & Raby).

Further reading:
Rittel, H.W., Webber, M.M. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4: 155-169, 1973
Roberts, Nancy. Wicked Problems and Network Approaches to Resolution. International Public Management Review, 2001