Posts Tagged ‘wicked problems’

How do you determine the popularity of an idea, thing, or person? Number of Google hits? Presence of a Wikipedia entry? Number of Twitter followers? Or what? All of these measures suggest recent popularity, but tend to say little about what was once popular. I wondered if the idea of “wicked problems” was still current, and the presence of a lengthy Wikipedia entry suggests that it is – to someone anyway. 65K Google results… well, reasonably pervasive. No hashtags yet!

The idea of wicked problems was articulated by Rittel and Weber in a classic article published in 1973. The phrase, wicked problem, is used

to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (Wikipedia)

Landscape problems involving small land areas and limited numbers of users are not wicked. But many urban design, community planning, land use planning, and environmental issues are indeed wicked. And some, like climate change, are “super wicked.”  (Yes, this is official academic jargon.) Wicked problems have these characteristics (also from Wikipedia):

  • The solution depends on how the problem is framed and vice-versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)
  • Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.
  • The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources needed to solve it change over time.
  • The problem is never solved definitively.

Wicked urban, community, land use, and environmental problems are commonly place-specific, so problem solving efforts cannot be easily transferred to new locations. Each place and problem are unique, and each proposed solution is an experiment – often a grand one. What should we do with these things? A follow-up post will consider the link between wicked problems and reflective practitioners, ala Donald Schon.

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