Citizen Action Monitor

Welcome to the age of ‘wicked’ problems. Or, why fighting climate change is so difficult

We’d be far better off if we understood what wicked problems are.

No 514 Posted by fw, June 28, 2012

The term ‘wicked’ in this context is used, not in the sense of evil, but in the sense of an issue being highly resistant to resolution. (Wicked problems are also referred to as “complex systems”). Climate change and the global debt crisis are two prime examples of wicked problems.

In this post, Jay Rosen, Associate Professor of Journalism, New York University, provides an introduction to wicked problems — what they are, why they are so damned difficult to resolve, and what kinds of people are best suited to work on them. For alarming proof of just how intractable wicked problems are, just look around you at the ongoing sorry state of global environmental and financial affairs.

This post is a slightly abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the book, This Will Make You Smarter, edited by John Brockman, and published by HarperCollins, 2012. Rosen’s article is also available online by clicking on the linked title below and scrolling down to the fifth entry on the web page. The added subheadings in this post are mine.

Wicked Problems by Jay Rosen (Source: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit? Edge, 2011)

Characteristic features of wicked problems

We would be vastly better off if we understood what wicked problems are, and learned to distinguish between them and regular (or “tame”) problems. Wicked problems have these features:

  • It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts.
  • There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each.
  • The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.
  • Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong.” …Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try.
  • The problem keeps changing on us.
  • It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money.
  • It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems).

Climate change is probably the best example of a wicked problem in our time

Know any problems like that? Sure you do. Probably the best example in our time is climate change. What could be more inter-connected than it? Someone can always say that climate change is just a symptom of another problem–our entire way of life, perhaps — and he or she would not be wrong. We’ve certainly never solved anything like it before. Stakeholders: everyone on the planet, every nation, every company.

General Motors teetering on the brink of bankruptcy was not an example of a wicked problem

When General Motors was about go bankrupt and throw tens of thousands of people out of work that was a big, honking problem, which rightly landed on the president’s desk, but it was not a wicked one. Barack Obama’s advisors could present him with a limited range of options; if he decided to take the political risk and save General Motors from collapse he could be reasonably certain that the recommended actions would work. If they didn’t, he could try more drastic measures.

Rising health care costs are a classic case of a wicked problem

But health care reform wasn’t like that at all. In the United States, rising health care costs are a classic case of a wicked problem. No “right” way to view it. Every solution comes with its own contestable frame. Multiple stakeholders who don’t define the problem the same way. If the uninsured go down but costs go up, is that progress? We don’t even know.


There is no way to know in advance whether or not the problem confronting us is a “wicked problem”

Still, we would be better off if we knew when we were dealing with a wicked problem, as opposed to the regular kind. If we could designate some problems as wicked we might realize that “normal” approaches to problem-solving don’t work. We can’t define the problem, evaluate possible solutions, pick the best one, hire the experts and implement. No matter how much we may want to follow a routine like that, it won’t succeed. Institutions may require it, habit may favor it, the boss may order it, but wicked problems don’t care.

We are operating at a big disadvantage when we can’t distinguish at the outset wicked problems from “tame” ones

Presidential debates that divided wicked from tame problems would be very different debates. Better, I think. Journalists who covered wicked problems differently than they covered normal problems would be smarter journalists. Institutions that knew when how to distinguish wicked problems from the other kind would eventually learn the limits of command and control.

Attributes of people best suited to work on wicked problems

Wicked problems demand people who are creative, pragmatic, flexible and collaborative. They never invest too much in their ideas because they know they are going to have to alter them. They know there’s no right place to start so they simply start somewhere and see what happens. They accept the fact that they’re more likely to understand the problem after its “solved” than before. They don’t expect to get a good solution; they keep working until they’ve found something that’s good enough. They’re never convinced that they know enough to solve the problem, so they are constantly testing their ideas on different stakeholders.


  • Tackling Wicked Problems: A Public Policy Perspective, Australian Government, 2007. — The purpose of this publication is more to stimulate debate around what is needed for the successful tackling of wicked problems than to provide all the answers. Such a debate is a necessary precursor to reassessing our current systems, frameworks and ways of working to ensure they are capable of responding to the complex issues facing us.
  • Increasing wildfire in Alaska’s boreal forest: pathways to potential solutions of a wicked problem. (Report) – Article for BioScience, June 1, 2008. “Recent global environmental and social changes have created a set of “wicked problems” for which there are no optimal solutions. In this article, we illustrate the wicked nature of such problems by describing the effects of global warming on the wildfire regime and indigenous communities in Alaska, and we suggest an approach for minimizing negative impacts and maximizing positive outcomes.”
  • Applications of Complexity Science for Public Policy, OECD Global Science Forum, 2009. — Government officials and other decision makers increasingly encounter a daunting class of problems that involve systems composed of very large numbers of diverse interacting parts. These systems are prone to surprising, large-scale, seemingly uncontrollable, behaviours. These traits are the hallmarks of what scientists call complex systems. For example, the adoption of an exotic new financial instrument can eventually contribute to a chain of stock market collapses and business failures. Clearly, any science-based insight into the behaviours of such systems would be of value to policymakers.  This report examines how the insights and methods of complexity science can be applied to assist policymakers as they tackle difficult problems in policy areas such as health, environmental protection, economics, energy security, or public safety.
  • Tackling Wicked Problems edited by Valerie A. Brown et al, Routledge, 2010. – “Complex and ‘wicked problems’, are common and growing – within societies, regions, locally and globally. They are found in relation to many issues including environmental, human health, urban planning and transport. Importantly, the cross-connections between issues are typically part of the complexity. So far our decision-making processes have not served us well in addressing these issues. Yet the need for more effective decision-making processes is urgent, with anthropogenic climate change perhaps the prime example of a wicked problem in need of urgent action. This book provides an excellent analysis of the inadequacies of our current approaches and the benefits of frameworks based on open transdisciplinary inquiry for addressing ‘wicked problems’.”
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This entry was posted on June 28, 2012 by in climate change, evidence based counterpower and tagged , .
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