GEOG 468
GIS Analysis and Design

Wicked Problems


Our geospatial infrastructure is well past the initial development for the most part. The easy problems have been addressed. Designing systems to meet our current problems is often more difficult because there is typically no consensus on what the problems are, let alone how to resolve them. In their landmark article, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" (Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company Inc., Amsterdam, 1973), Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber dubbed these "Wicked Problems."

According to Rittel and Webber, wicked problems have 10 characteristics:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. Formulating the problem and the solution is essentially the same task. Each attempt at creating a solution changes your understanding of the problem.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Since you can't define the problem, it's difficult to tell when it's resolved. The problem-solving process ends when resources are depleted, stakeholders lose interest or political realities change.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. Since there are no unambiguous criteria for deciding if the problem is resolved, getting all stakeholders to agree that a resolution is "good enough" can be a challenge.
  4. There is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. Solutions to such problems generate waves of consequences, and it's impossible to know how these waves will eventually play out.
  5. Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences. Once the Web site is published or the new customer service package goes live, you can't take back what was online or revert to the former customer database.
  6. Wicked problems don't have a well-described set of potential solutions. Various stakeholders have differing views of acceptable solutions. It's a matter of judgment as to when enough potential solutions have emerged and which should be pursued.
  7. Each wicked problem is essentially unique. There are no "classes" of solutions that can be applied to a specific case. As Rittel and Webber wrote in "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," "Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early what type of solution to apply."
  8. Each wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem. A wicked problem is a set of interlocking issues and constraints that change over time, embedded in a dynamic social context.
  9. The causes of a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. There are many stakeholders who will have various and changing ideas about what might be a problem, what might be causing it and how to resolve it.
  10. The planner (designer) has no right to be wrong. Scientists are expected to formulate hypotheses, which may or may not be supportable by evidence. Designers don't have such a luxury—they're expected to get things right.