How do wicked problems and collective thinking overlap?

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(District Heating Plant, Vienna, Austria (Friedensreich Hundertwasser))

What are wicked problems?

In the early 1970s, when Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber  were exploring the complex issues associated with social and environmental planning, they came up with the concept of wicked problems. By wicked problems, they were not referring to problems that were morally wicked. Instead, they were talking about the kind of diabolical problems that society creates for itself. These problems can include so many interests that they can have no single definition. Rittel and Webber went on to explain that there were could be no final solutions to wicked problems, since any solution would create further change, which then needed its own resolution. Resolution of wicked problems therefore cannot be right or wrong, only be the best you can do at that time.

In short, wicked problems are complex problems that can only be resolved by changes in the society that generated them.

Wicked problems such as global warming and endemic violence do not have:

  • a single definition, since so many interests are involved
  • a final answer, since their resolution always brings a fresh set of issues
  • absolute for right or wrong, only a reference to a goal or standard
  • a general solution, since their context is all-important in their creation.


How did Horst and Rittel contrast wicked problems with ‘tame’ problems?

Rittel and Webber contrasted wicked problems with ‘tame’ problems. Tame problems can be resolved by existing solutions or by existing logical methods embraced by the scientific thinking that came out of the Enlightenment. In contrast, wicked problems could not be solved by the same analytic scientific thinking in which every topic is reduced (tamed) to its simplest forms and approached only through objective observations.

Explaining that all public policy issues are, by their nature, wicked problems, Rittel and Webber pointed out that there cannot be a final or definitive solution to a wicked problem. Solutions to wicked problems cannot be true or false, right or wrong, but are the best that can be developed at the time.

To summarise, wicked problems are not tame problems, simple problems or patrial problems, they are serious issues affecting the whole of society. Examples include ethnic violence or global warming.

What are the limitations with the Enlightenment mode of analysis?

The Enlightenment was responsible for a number of positive changes in the way we examine and investigate the world around us. The power system that the Enlightenment created caused our lives to become structured in ways that actively prevent us from working together towards common goals. Institutionalised barriers block collaborative action on crucial matters of economic and environmental management, health, and future community well-being. A strong antidote is needed to access the immense capabilities hidden behind the socially embedded divisions and oppositions that limit much of what we do.

How does collective thinking deal with wicked problems?

Collective thinking is an application of the human mind that can be used to address wicked problems, since it moves beyond the traditional scientific mode of analysis that came out of the Enlightenment, and addresses the complexity involved in dissecting and investigating wicked problems. By reaching across disciplines and embracing the views of multiple stakeholders affected by the problem under investigation, collective thinking shows how to explore it in much greater depth, and provides us with a more effective set of tools to tackle such complex issues.

Would you like to find out more about collective thinking?

Are you interested in how collective thinking can used to explore wicked problems?

Further reading:

Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, vol. 4, no. 2, June 1973, pp. 155–69.

Tackling Wicked Problems

In Tackling Wicked Problems, Valerie A. Brown, John A. Harris and Jacqueline Y. Russell explore how collective thinking can be applied to wicked problems.