Posts Tagged 'Wicked Problems'



Thorbjørn Mann 2021

The claim we want to examine, as stated by proposed approaches (methods, techniques, perspectives): “This approach can be used to tackle WP’s” seems to accept the understanding of WP’s — the original Rittel/Webber one or a slightly different one of later interpreters, as well as a common understanding of ‘tackle‘ as not only ‘trying’ but actually achieving the development of a ‘solution’ to problems described as WP’s: ‘solving’ such problems. It was already pointed out in the first post of this series that of course any group is entitled to ‘tackle‘ (understood as ‘trying to solve’) any problem with any approach it deems appropriate. The question then is whether the claim actually can be seen as a believable promise that a problem with the WP properties will be solved usingthe approach or method. (The possibility that the very concepts of ‘problem’, WP, ‘solving’ these, etc. might themselves need critical scrutiny was be taken up in a the second post of the series).

So what are the criteria that might be used to determine the merit or validity of a claim of the above nature? Put crudely: what would make a client confident to hire a company using an approach X claiming that the approach will solve the client’s WP?  Would a first step be to look for answers to the question of how the proponents of the approach would respond to each of the mutually accepted and understood WP properties? Two questions: 

a) If the respective property is seen as a significant obstacle to the achievement of a solution‘ to WP’s, what will enable X to overcome / respond to that obstacle?


b) What if the WP property is serious, what are its implications for application of approach X? E.g.: If the property requires an adaptation of the approach or the general understanding of ‘solution’: what would those adaptations look like? 

What other critical question might be asked? The attempt to examine a few competing approach ‘brands’ might help improve this first set of questions. 

The examination of the answers — their generality or specificity, the strength of supporting evidence  or argument, and fit to the problem at hand —  might help to assess the merit of the claim, even if it may not be sufficient to establish a sound basis for preferring one approach X from a competing method Y. This is, in essence, an invitation to entities aiming to work on the world’s WP’s, to contribute their response.

Not being a representative or promoter of a particular ‘brand of this kind, but feeling obliged to offer an example of what answers to these questions might look like, I will sketch a few sample answers from a less controversial ‘approach’: the predominant political parliamentary process. The answers are not intended as a comprehensive set of possible responses, but to clarify what such responses might look like, and start the discussion:

Some potential responses of the ‘parliamentary process’ (‘PP’) as a problem-solving ‘approach’, to the WP properties: 

  • No definitive problem formulation

The PP accepts ‘problems’ on its ‘agenda’ as the justification for proposed ‘solutions’ in the form of proposed ‘bills’ that aim to remedy them. That is, problems statements dealt with as stated by the legitimate participants in the process (elected representatives of defined constituencies). Such statements may be questioned and debated in the subsequent discussion prior to a decision. That is, the issues of what problem formulations will be entered for discussion and consideration is entirely the task of the participants (though they may be responding to statements in the media and public domain).

  • Every wicked problem is essential unique:

Each ‘bill’ for legislative action is accepted without regard to its uniqueness or similarity to other cases, though it may have to be stated in formal terms defined by procedural rules, terminology, and conventions. 

  • Any ‘solutions’ for WP’s are not ‘correct’ (true) or ‘wrong’ (false) but, in the opinions of affected parties, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. 

The terms ‘true or false’, ‘good, bad’ etc. may be used in the discussion of proposed measures, but the outcome of the process is (sidestepping this issue?) is simply ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’. 

  • Every WP can be explained in many different ways, but can also be seen as part of, or as a symptom of another problem or set of problems.

The debate offers the opportunity for presenting such considerations. The issue may best be included in provisions or justification statements for introducing bills for decision: these should include evidence of having explored different explanations or underlying problems of which the stated reason of the bill could be a mere symptom. 

While the issue of ‘tests’ (or their substitutions by systemic prediction or simulation models) may be and perhaps ought to be more forcefully entered into in the debate of a proposal, the viability of proposed legal actions is left to the judgment of each participant. (In theory, unless constrained by factors such as ‘party discipline’).

  • There are no immediate nor ultimate tests for the goodness or appropriateness of proposed ‘solutions’.
  • There are no well-described and finite sets of admissible operations that can be brought to bear on WP’s.

If this means that the process should deliberately be kept open to new ideas and ‘operations’, it of course applies to the phase of development of solutions before they are presented to the decision-making body for approval or rejection, which then does rely on agreed-upon procedural rules. The debate itself remains open to offering new ideas, or they may be assigned to special groups for more systematic analysis.

  • There is no enumerable set of potential ‘solutions’ to a WP: the ‘solution’ space is infinite and multi-dimensional.

In PP practice, solution proposals are simply presented to parliamentary bodies for approval. The debate may make claims of having explored the entire solution space, but the support for such claims and their counter-arguments must be judged by the participants. Claims of there being ‘no alternative’ to proposed solutions are always flawed and should be avoided: there is always at least one alternative: that of ‘doing nothing’. 

  • WP’s have no inherent ‘stopping rule for efforts to deal with them.

This being true for all possible approaches, the question becomes one of adopting meaningful and practical ‘problem-external’ stopping rules. Common examples in parliamentary bodies are the rule of ‘no more comments / objections’ serving as triggers for proceeding to the decision-making (e.g. voting) phase, or agreed-upon simple time limitations. Provisions like the ‘filibuster’, pretending to ensure that there will be enough time to present ‘all’ concerns for ‘due consideration’, should be amended with rules preventing mere repetitions of arguments already heard.

  • Every WP is essentially unique. 

This feature should be seen as a warning against relying exclusively on precedent cases for the justification of proposed solutions: again, it is a suggestion for the debate to explicitly examine the unique aspects of the problem the solution claims to address.

  • Every effort to deal with a WP is a ‘one-shot operation’ 

Like other WP properties, in the PP,  this should be seen as ‘stock’ reminder for the debate to address.

  • The WP-planner hasno right to be wrong’ (as in ‘trial and error’) but is liable for the outcomes of any actions taken. 

The issue of accountability for actions taken or not taken by parliamentary bodies is a perennial one. Traditional provisions of holding representatives or officials by the threat of denying re-election, or (for more egregious issues: removal from office) arguably are in need of improvement. Especially in view of other rules such as term limits: If representatives can only one serve a single term, or two terms, there is no accountability remedy for flawed actions during the ‘last’ term. There is no logical reason against the parliamentary system making such improvements. 

     * The ‘distributed information’ feature of WP’s:

This admittedly serious issue is one that should — and arguably can — be addressed in the provisions for preparation of action proposals (bills) to parliamentary bodies.

* Nonlinearity, ‘loops’ and counter-intuitive patterns in the behavior of the system affected by a proposed action:

Like some other assessment aspects (such as quantitative measures of performance of proposed solutions), this issue may not be sufficiently well dealt with in traditional parliamentary debate: Rhetorical debate arguments tend to focus on simple cause-effect relationships, and — for quantitative issues — highly aggregated but therefore abstract indices such as ‘growth’, ‘Gross National Product’ or ‘Deficit spending’. Systemic analysis and representation of complex systems aspects should be made required components of the preparatory justification documentation of proposed bills, together with provisions for sending proposals ‘back to the drawing board’ to include new and insufficiently detailed concerns brought up during the debates, or in outside public comments accompanying the debate.

   * The ‘doorknob’ syndrome: 

This aspect is related to the ‘WP as a symptom of other problems’ feature. It should properly be dealt with in the preparation phase of bills, with a summary of its treatment in the justification documentation. 

   * Making decisions on behalf’ of others, such as actually affected parties: 

In the PP, this question is addressed by the assumptions 

a)   that by constituencies electing their leaders and representatives, thereby entitle them to make decisions on their behalf, and 

b)  that conflicts of interpretations in the constituency as well as conflicts in the decision-making body are adequately settled by majority rule voting. 

It must be admitted that these provisions do not meet the aim of ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ design for all parts of the constituency. In fact, the majority rule (in all its variations to ensure more fairness) allows all concerns of the voting minority to be summarily dismissed. The remedies for this are seen in the ‘re-election’ provisions — calling for efforts to develop better ‘accountability’ tools (as discussed above).

   * The ‘making a difference’ syndrome:

Contributing to the uniqueness of WP’s, this aspect can be seen as not adequately served by the rules of the PP. It must of course be balanced against the necessity for agreed-upon procedures that can be fairly and equitably applied to all similar public projects. Such common rules include the principle of separating the ‘projects’ of generating and reaching agreement on general project rules from the specific planning projects to which those rules apply. Specific ‘unique’ aspects of individual projects may require exceptions or modifications of the general rules. (To prevent conflicts that could derail constructive planning projects, the general rules must and can contain provisions for such possibilities). Individual participants’ desire to ‘make a difference’ will mainly be constrained by such rules in the main decision-making phases of the PP, but arguably can find opportunities for creative application in the preparatory and support activities.

Summary observations:

This tentative discussion suggests that while the Parliamentary Process as practiced may fall short of adequate provisions to avoid pitfalls related to some WP properties, but that needed improvements are quite possible. A common denominator is that such improvement provisions will be situated in preparatory activities such as developing the specifics of plans and other support functions, before the final plans are presented for approval in the main decision-making phase. This may remain a problem, because any such supplementary functions may or may not be called upon, at the discretion of the ‘official’ members of the main decision-making assembly. 

Another potential problem of the parliamentary process — common to many other ‘approaches’ — is that the final decision-making tools such as majority voting have the potential of marginalizing or entirely ignoring many of the contributions and insights achieved in supporting and preparatory activities, and even overriding key concerns of minorities, in the main decision body. This feature of common planning and policy-making is not addressed in the WP ‘properties’: Should this issue be included in that set, or be seen as a separate but ubiquitous wicked problem that affects many or all other WP’s? 

The Parliamentary Process, in its many forms, currently is a main governance planning tool, up to the highest international institutions. Can it be expected to be easily and smoothly replaced by a ‘better’ system any time soon? The main competitive ‘approach’ currently being authoritarian rule, which arguably offers few assurances for meeting the PP promises of ‘listening to all concerns and give them all due consideration’ in making decisions, much less guarantees for attending to WP pitfalls. (But it may deserve a chance to present its case, not just to violently take over?) 

Barring convincing demonstration that a better approach will emerge, is the best hope we have that meaningful improvement provisions such as those related to the concerns expressed in the WP (and others!) can be integrated into the PP structure? A wide, structured, and thorough discussion of other competing ideas is urgently needed, and it should include the response of each approach to the Wicked Problem features. 

— o —



Thorbjørn Mann 2021

This is the second post on the question of claims by proposed problem-solving ‘approaches’ to successfully ‘solve’ Wicked Problems.

Looking for reassuring answers to the question whether some approach, method or ‘perspective’ can be expected to live up to claims that using the respective approach will reliably result in ‘solving’ Wicked Problems, it may be useful to turn the question around and look at the concept of ‘wicked problems’ itself, and its understanding. Are its ‘properties’ and implications really justifying the frequent automatic rejection of such claims, or claims of a technique guaranteeing solutions? The following first attempt, for discussion, takes a stab at this question, examining each of the WP properties:

* “No definitive problem formulation”:

This feature reflects the fact that different people involved in a project will have very different opinions about the problem, and that the acceptance of one view of ‘what the problem really is about’ is a choice or decision. It is a stern challenge to the habitual recommendation to begin a problem-solving process with a ‘clear statement of the problem’. The implication: to avoid controversies and disruption from occurring later in the process it is necessary to not only begin such a process with a widely open invitation to affected and interested parties to contribute many different perspectives of the problem, but to keep the process open to emerging insights on this issue. 

* “Every WP can be explained in many different ways”: 

The same recommendation holds for this WP property: 

* “Every WP can be seen as a symptom of another problem or set of problems.”:

One obvious implication of this feature is that any proposed ‘solution’ idea, however promising, can be dismissed as ‘only treating the symptom’. The question should therefore be raised early in the process to be discussed, and any necessary decisions resulting from it agreed upon – such as having to shift the entire effort to a different institutional level or entity – before devoting much time and energy to develop a ‘symptom-treating’ solution. 

* “Every wicked problem is essentially unique”:

The implication of this feature is that ‘tried-and true’ methods and lessons from previous cases may not be applicable to a new WP.  However, could it be that the stark formulation of the property unnecessarily hides the fact that the significance of similarities and differences between the new problem and similar cases are a matter of degrees? There may be part of the problem that are sufficiently ‘similar’ to warrant the application of known tools. The process should address this question by looking at details and make decisions about using known methods where applicable and devote efforts to develop new tools as needed. 

* “WP ‘solutions’: not ‘True or False’ but ‘Good  or Bad’:

This reminder was especially necessary at the time the WP issue was raised and published: there was a veritable movement of stressing ‘fact-based’ decision-making, that is, using ‘objective facts’ about a proposed solution’s measurable performance as the decision criterion. This trend seems to re-emerge periodically, (under slightly different banners such as ‘science’ or ‘expert advice’), perhaps because of inappropriate populist switching to decision-making based on ill-informed intuitive ‘goodness’ judgment or insistence on ideological principles decrying the facts presented by discipline experts as ‘elitist oppression’. So the reminder should perhaps be revised to reflect that the real issues are 

    –  the selection of the performance measures for which the ‘facts’ are then established – of course factual information must be provided and assessed for any problem, wicked or tame;

    – these ‘facts’ will always be qualified by probability; especially the  predicted ‘facts’  offuture solution performance (which of course aren’t even facts yet!); and

    – the necessity of communicating about how fact-measurements and predictions relate to the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgments (the process Rittel called by the somewhat problematic name of ‘objectification’); and

    – the most important question of  whose judgments  should determine the common decisions about accepting or rejecting proposed ‘solutions’. 

* “No immediate nor ultimate tests”:

This property refers to the difference between scientific hypothesis-testing and the discussion of proposed plans to remedy social problems, as well as to the feature that plans and policies will have chains of consequences that make ‘immediate tests’ meaningless even if we had such tests and ‘ultimate tests’ un-specifiable because the time span of those consequences is indefinite. However, any reaction of doing without any ‘testing-like’ efforts is seriously mistaken. Two considerations:

    – Simulation models used properly (that is, to explore the possible consequences of different actions and strategies taken today) can be considered a kind of test or better ‘evaluation’ – the best tools we have for predictions, none of which are establishing true facts since they all deal with future developments: probabilities.  And

    – Argumentative discourse: The sharing and assessment of the proverbial ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments about proposed plans.In which simulation model results may play a significant role, but the essential difference is that planning arguments contain the ‘ought’ premises that are not properly assessed as ‘true’ or ‘false’ and thus the same ought claim may be ‘plausibly’ seen as ‘ought’ or ‘desirable’ by some affected parties but as ‘not desirable by others. The degree to which a plan is perceived as achieving the ‘ought’ state (of a problem perception) is the basis for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgments of the plan. 

I have suggested that to Popper’s advice about scientific hypothesis-testing: 

“We are entitled to accept a hypothesis as corroborated (only) to the extent we have done our very best to show that it is false, plausible and it has survived all those tests” 

the closest analogous ‘test’ we have in design and planning is the following:

We are entitled to accept a plan as plausible and ‘supported’ (only) to the extent we have done our very best to expose it to all the most plausible counter-arguments  (‘cons’) and those have all been shown to be flawed or outweighed by supporting arguments (‘pros’). 

Evaluation procedures and approaches to develop measures of plausibility of individual judgments of planning arguments have been described, as the closest we have to ‘testing’ plan proposals.  

* “No well-described, finite sets of admissible operations”

This feature is set against disciplines like mathematics where the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division etc. are the admissible operations that define ‘tame’ problems. It warns that approaches attempting to specific a finite set of such operations for WP’s are liable to encounter new ways to tackle them – ‘anything goes’ if it works. 

* “No enumerable set of potential solutions to a WP”:

The insight that the ‘solution space’ for WP’s may be infinite and impossible to define implies that claims of finding ‘optimal’ solutions are meaningless: there may be even better solutions somewhere in regions of the solution space that were not explored. This constrains the discussion to the more modest quest for solutions that are ‘good enough’ within the regions an approach is able to examine: a feature that was earlier proclaimed as ‘satisficing’?

* “No inherent ‘stopping rule’ for efforts to deal with WP’s”:

The implication of this feature is simply that stopping rules  for efforts to tackle WP’s are not provided by the problem itself but by constraints outside the problem but acting on the task force working on it – and as such ‘arbitrary’ and debatable: financial and time constraints being the most common such limitations. For the problem itself, ‘we can always try to do even better”. 

* “Every effort to deal with a WP is aone-shot operation’”: and

* “No trial and error’”:

These two properties are intimately related. We cannot rely on the trial and error strategy to learn how to ‘solve’ a WP: Any actions on the problem itself will expend resources, generate new consequences: the ‘next trial’ will now be a very different problem.  

* “The WP-planner has no ‘right to be wrong’:

Like the hypothesis-testing issue above, this aspect refers to a fundamental difference between science and WP-planning. The scientist having performed a test that refutes a hypothesis may be disappointed — but that is making a legitimate and rightful contribution to scientific knowledge. The would-be WP- solver failing to remedy the problem is actually ‘making things worse’. The plausible implication then is the call for holding the planner – or the decision-maker for the implementation of the plan liable’ — ‘accountable’ — for the failure. More often than not, such calls are rather meaningless, if there is no ‘account’ involved (other than perhaps a decision-maker’s position or ‘reputation’: how does it balance suffering of people affected by the problem of the wrong solution?). Should efforts be devoted to finding better ‘accounts’ for this issue? Rittel suggested one implication: the ‘complicity model’ of planning. Taking this aspect seriously, no decision-maker would be able to accept responsibility for major decisions if it required ‘investments’ equal to the risks of failure of plans. It would be necessary to find ‘accomplices’ willing to share that risk. Again, what kind of ‘account’, what ‘currency’ might be used for this?  (I have sketched one possible idea: the use of the ‘reputation’ account of ‘merit points’ earned for the value of contributions to the public discourse to have decision-makers ‘pay’ for important decisions.) 

* “Distributed information”:

This issue refers to several aspects of large public WP’s: 

    – The need to assemble ‘factual’ information about how the problem – and any proposed solutions — affect many different parties ‘out there’ – that are not yet documented and certified in knowledge bases and experts’ knowledge. This may require research and information-gathering for which the need will only become apparent as the discourse proceeds, so that initial estimates of needed resources will be unreliable; and initial surveys to gather such information will be insufficient: the questions to be answered will only emerge later on: the information-gathering effort must accompany the process throughout;

    – The question of ‘getting ‘ the information may require offering some incentives for people to contribute it – early enough to be useful (rather than complains after the fact) – and mechanisms for assessing its truthfulness or validity;

    – If the property of ‘not true or false but good or bad’ is valid, and thus should determine the decision, these judgments will have to be the judgments of the affected parties. This will require a clear distinction between ‘factual’ information (that must be ‘verified’) and goodness/badness judgments that must be accepted as individual’s assessments and aggregated into overall statistics of sentiments of approval or disapproval. This task is not adequately addressed by many ‘approaches’; the effort to achieve consent or even consensus in small task groups seems to sidestep rather than systematically and transparently confront it. (See also the issue of ‘making decisions ‘on behalf of others’, below.)

* “Nonlinear and counter-intuitive system behavior”:

It is the merit of ‘systems modeling’ to bring this issue to the attention of planners and decision-makers. The simulation models aim at overcoming the resulting prediction difficulties of this ‘complexity’ of the systems involved in WP’s. The connection between the prediction results and the ‘goodness’ judgments (of the many affected parties) has not been sufficiently well explored much less convincingly resolved.

* “The ‘doorknob’ syndrome:” 

The warnings against getting lost in the upward or downward ‘cause’ or ‘symptom’ issues of WP’s are understandable but carry the risk of under-estimating the reality and significance of such relationships.  The rules that can guide decision about how much attention to devote to them, like the ‘stopping rules’ discussed above, are often extraneous to the problem – which can lead to flawed decisions. 

* “Making decisions ‘’on behalf of others”: 

Governance and planning decisions on public issues have traditionally been taken by leaders, officials, or representatives of the community, with the justification that these decision-makers are sufficiently familiar with their constituencies to make decisions ‘on their behalf’.  This can mean one of two things: Either they know (or claim to know) ‘what’s best’ for the community — even if there are people in the community who disagree — or they know the basis of judgment (the way the community members relate their goodness judgments to the facts of the matter) well enough to make judgments ‘as the people themselves would’. Both assumptions have been questioned, and current efforts to validate either assumption are cumbersome and unconvincing, adding to the wickedness of the problem at hand. 

* “The ‘making a difference’ syndrome”:

Many people are perfectly content with the provisions of planning decisions being made by leaders, officials or hired consultants: delegation of work allows us to focus on ‘our’ work and priorities.  But to the extent people are – in the name of ‘citizen participation’ – becoming more extensively involved in public problem- solving issues, this makes that involvement a part of their lives, in which they may want to ‘make a difference’ – a somehow outstanding contribution. Consciously or subconsciously, this may mean ‘doing things differently’ from the way things have been done, or from what some recommended ‘approach’ or method is proposing. The planning process itself becomes a part of the plan, and they want to make it ‘theirs’. Regardless of how appropriate or allowable this may be in the view of other participants or approach promoters, this will introduce unforeseen complications into the process. If it is seen as part of these individuals’ ‘right to pursuit of happiness’ – that governments are supposed to ensure: should all public planning efforts include provisions for such efforts – and what would they look like? 

There may be some commonalities of implications in these properties that are not apparent in the individual items, and that deserve closer examination.  One such common assumption is the reference to the ‘WP solver’. Is this an unspoken and unquestioned assumption of a single designated person or team to do the problem-solving ‘on behalf’ of the community affected? The reality of public projects is that there are always multiple institutions with various decision-making responsibilities – the task then also involves the organization of constructive coordination between all these entities. 

A larger common aspect is that meaningful response to WP properties requires some common communication and coordination platform. For all the progress of information technology over the last decades, an appropriate and effective platform for this purpose remains to be developed.

The platform, finally, will also be the venue for reaching decisions. None of the WP properties mention this explicitly, but their implication is that the traditional decision-making modes (such as voting) do not meet the expectations of suitable responses to the issues – e.g. being based on transparently explained individual ‘goodness’ judgments. Especially for problems transcending existing governance boundaries with different decision-making entities and rules, this will become an urgent consideration. 

Are these sketchy observations indicating an urgent need for wider discussion? 

— o —

Can ‘Approach X’ be used to tackle Wicked Problems?

An invitation  to examine claims of design and planning approaches 

to effectively ‘solve’ wicked problems.

Thorbjørn Mann 2021

(This post is the first part of several attempts to explore the question, in comments or further posts)

The question whether certain design and planning approaches can be used to ‘solve’ or ‘tackle’ wicked problems [1] is an issue raised anew with each new ‘approach’ being brought out on the market. Such claims have been made for widely popular ‘thinking’ ways — ‘systems thinking, ‘design thinking’, ‘holistic thinking’, ‘sociocracy’ and Pattern Language [2], for example: 

The question may have to be restated somewhat. Of course every such approach ‘can’ be used to try to address wicked problems. If we only have one tool, that will be the one we will, indeed must use. But the real question is about the validity or plausibility of claims that an approach will reliably be effective and successful (indeed: the only or better one than others on the market). It is the one we must ask: the more so, the more serious and global and ‘wicked’ the emerging problems facing humanity are seen to be. 

Wicked problems (‘WP’ in the following) are expressed as statements of discrepancy between perceived real conditions and perceived opinions / desires about what those conditions ought to be. The wickedness resides in what Rittel and Webber called their properties — which cannot be stated often enough, (because many comments tend to omit or re-state them in ways that change their meaning): 

  • There is no definitive problem formulation that systems thinking or other approaches, Pattern Language etc. could ‘resolve’ by appropriately react to. Traditional problem-solving methods insist on starting by ‘clearly stating’ the problem; this is the first serious issue the WP view is raising: there are many ways a WP can be stated and explained.
  • Every wicked problem is essential unique: though there are always similarities with other, known problems, there are always new features that can make traditional ‘tried and true’ solutions inapplicable.
  • Any ‘solutions’ – proposed reactions – to WP’s are not ‘correct’ (true) or ‘wrong’ (false) but, in the opinions of affected parties, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, – and different parties tend to have different and opposing opinions as to which is good and which is bad. 
  • There are no immediate nor ultimate tests for the goodness or appropriateness of proposed ‘solutions’;
  • There are no well-described and finite sets of admissible operations (‘recipes, ‘approaches’, procedures, techniques, tools, and we may add: ‘thinking’ kinds, that can be brought to bear on WP’s.
  • There is no enumerable set of potential ‘solutions’ to a WP: in other words, the ‘solution’ space is infinite and multi-dimensional.
  • WP’s have no inherent ‘stopping rule‘ for efforts to deal with them — that is, a stopping rule inherent in the problem statement, that can tell the problem-solver to end the effort: we can always try to do a little better.
  • Every WP can be explained in many different ways, but can also be seen as a part or symptom of another problem or set of problems (the sets Ackoff [3] called ‘messes’).
  • Every WP is essentially unique. This implies that there are no ‘experts’ that can claim expertise from previous work on WP’s.
  • Every effort to deal with a WP is a ‘one-shot operation’ – each attempt to solve it counts significantly; ‘trial and error’ approaches are inappropriate, and any ‘another try’ is now a different problem – and will have consequences that can be seen by different affected parties as new problems.
  • The WP-planner has no ‘right to be wrong’ (as in ‘trial and error’) but is liable for the outcomes of any actions taken. 

Some additional aspects or implications of one or more of the above features can be added to this list:

     * The ‘unique’ aspects, especially regarding the ways a problem or the attempts at solving a WP affect different individuals or groups in the overall affected community, is that the information about these effects is distributed, not yet reliably collected in documentation or existing data bases, or in the memory and skill set of ‘experts’. The effort to confront a WP may involve the development and application of entirely new tools of information collection, analysis, and testing.

   * The connections and relationships between the components of ‘systems models’ of wicked problems and their context, can be multiple and contain various ‘loops‘ that add nonlinearity and sometimes counter-intuitive patterns to the behavior of the system over time: effects that many descriptions summarize as ‘complexity’ and excuse that wicked problems ‘can’t be solved’ (which doesn’t prevent some promoters of new approaches to claim that their approach can be used to solve WP’s…) 

   * The reality of problems of the wicked kind is that they are prime examples of the syndrome that even earlier systems efforts to describe systemic planning method recognized as the ‘doorknob syndrome‘ [4]: the problem of designing a better doorknob is inextricably embedded in 

a) ‘upward’ design issues: of the design of the door to which the doorknob will be attached, which may be accepted as ‘given’ — but perhaps included in the design considerations: (should it be a single-leaf or double-leaf or a sliding door, which depends on the wall into which the door will be set?) as well as the design of the spaces on either side, and so on until it ends up mulling the design of the society creating and inhabiting the building and the economic conditions of its production; and 

b) ‘downwards’ design issues and their context: the choice of material for the doorknob and its surfaces, which involves the production modes for each material choice, the available materials and their composition, supply chain etc. down to the atomic level of its components. 

The problem as it first is brought to attention can escalate in both directions, and the ‘context’ to be accepted as given at each level is not a matter of the logic of the problem itself. It is a choice on the part of the ‘planner(s) and as such involves another layer of uniqueness. 

Some ‘social’ aspects of public planning that, I feel, have not been sufficiently well acknowledged so far are the following: 

   * The discussions about WP talk about ‘the planner’ or entity (consulting firm) attempting to develop a plan for addressing the problem on behalf of the client community, or for a ‘governance’ decision-maker client who has the legitimacy and/or power to actually set in motion the plan the planner just recommends. The WP features seem to imply that the community as a whole should be both: planner and decision-maker, which may become part of the doorknob syndrome; but in any case raises the question of the appropriate (design of the) process and decision-making modes and criteria. This inevitably makes any WP a political problem, in addition to its own complexity;

  * To the extent the people respond to the demand for participation by devoting time and effort to public planning, this makes the planning process itself an inextricable part of the whole problem, — and of their own lives. People may have visions and desires of ‘making a difference’ in their participation in public affairs, making the entire project, planning process and outcome distinctly ‘theirs’. Consciously or unconsciously, they may work to not just accept any part of the work — attributes of the resulting plan as well as the process, but to do things distinctly ‘differently’ from traditional ways. Doing it ‘their way’, — objections of invested experts in the domain notwithstanding, who insist on having things done ‘professionally’ and ‘properly’, ‘according to standards and (collectively assumed norms and expectations. This desire to ‘make a difference may be intolerable to some who, like Aristotle, demanded to exclude any ‘subjective opinions’ from the resolution of public issues. But others, a key part of the very purpose of society is to empower and facilitate access of all its members to their own ‘pursuit of happiness‘. The need to ‘balance’ these two opposing forces makes the entire process of any significant planning process a wickedly unpredictable one — almost by definition.

Against this onslaught of wickedness stand the calls from victims of problems that ‘something ought to be done’. And what possible judgment can there be against any effort and approach to bring whatever tools and procedures and principles to bear on the problems we face? In principle, any theory, approach, method, perspective for working on problems, wicked or not, must be welcomed for discussion.

But given the variety of so many different ‘approaches’ and the impossibility of having them all work on the challenges we face, the question of ‘what makes an approach or method more or less likely to succeed in the battle against wicked problems?’ is equally legitimate and urgent. 

What are the strategies we might pursue in looking for answers to this question? The question can be stated more specifically: How can we assess the likelihood that a proposed approach will prevail against the different Wicked Problem Properties? 

Apart from the strange and isolated suggestion [5] that because they can’t really be solved, WP’s aren’t really problems — so we shouldn’t waste our efforts trying to solve them, — except maybe some tame aspects that admittedly are part of all WP’s? A few distinct strategies can be seen in the efforts of some proposed approaches to convince us that they indeed can ‘tackle wicked problems’. 

One possible strategy consists in reducing the impression of wickedness of the WP properties. The examination of this strategy would call for looking at each such proposal’s answer to each of the problem properties. 

Another strategy consists in pointing out how projects addressing WP’s have produced outcomes (‘solutions’) that have received enthusiastic approval by not only the ‘clients’ of projects but more importantly by the teams and participants working on them, as the main success criterion.

A third tack consists in ‘adapting’ the approach claiming to be useful tools for dealing with WP’s. For example, redirecting the focus of approach away from claiming that constructing solutions from ‘valid’ components will lend validity to any of potentially multiple solution generated so that only one such solution needs to be generated and does not need additional validation or evaluation) towards sets of general procedural recommendations that should be given ‘due consideration’. 

Two variants of this strategy, at opposite ends of a scale of quality ambition, are the ‘axiomatic’ approach (following e.g. the example of geometry) starting from ‘self-evident’ true first statements that don’t need further explanation or evidence to generate true theorems by combining the first axioms with equally valid logic arguments; and the example of government regulations e.g for buildings. The former must be followed to generate ‘valid’, beautiful buildings according to mostly qualitative aspects. Then, the validity of outcomes is ensured by following the process. The latter must be met to ensure minimal acceptable standards of e,g. safety and other objectively measurable criteria to get a permit. It involves minimal ‘evaluation’ efforts — checking whether the rules have actually been met. Qualitative concerns assessed by subjective judgments are more difficult to address with this approach.

These difficulties lead to efforts to construct ‘axiomatic’ theories for qualitative concerns — e.g. is Alexander’s effort to declare qualities such as ‘value’, ‘beauty’ and ‘life’ of built environments to be ‘matters of objective fact’ is an example of this strategy? Because the ‘axioms’ are not as universally accepted as ‘self-evident’ such efforts are considered controversial. 

Are there other possible avenues for building support for the position that a planning approach will be able to convincingly ‘tackle’ wicked problems? This post is an invitation to explore that question for discussion. Pending development of such strategies, it may be useful to examine the specific considerations needed for acceptance for some the above strategies in some detail. This will be the subject of follow-up posts: the first one of which will be the issue of how a given approach might respond to each of the WP properties to establish its validity.

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[1] Rittel, H. and M.Webber: “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” [Panel on Policy Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 4, (1969) 155-169].

[2] e.g. Douglas Schuler, Aldo de Moor and Greg Bryant: “New Community Research and Action Networks : Addressing Wicked Problems Using Patterns and Pattern Languages.” 

[3] Ackoff, Russel: Resurrecting the Future of Operational Research | SpringerLink › article › jors.1979.41

[4] ‘Doorknobbing’ — a term and story I remember from my student days, warning against ‘over-thinking’ any given design problem, I do not remember its original author 

[5] Nelson, Harold: From a FB or WP SciO SystemsThinking discussions, I partially noted: “Wicked problems are indeterminate and thus are not real problems in any normative sense. Rittel chose politics as the strategy for dealing with them. They also reveal the difference between describing and explaining real-world systems (actually framing and naming them) and creating systems that are considered to be desirable by someone.”  

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A personal note on Pattern Language applications in other fields

I have noticed a number of recent adaptations of Christopher Alexander’s ‘Pattern Language’ idea in areas that are quite different from architecture and urban design, [1] were the subject of his first trilogy of Pattern Language books — ‘The Timeless Way of Building’, ‘A Pattern Language’, and ‘The Oregon Experiment’. [2] This is somewhat curious because at the same time, a similar rash of references is occurring about another familiar idea from the same time and place — Horst Rittel’s concept of “Wicked Problems”. [3]

Both Alexander and Rittel were teaching at Berkeley when I was there as a graduate and then postgraduate student, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Both belonged to the ‘design methods’ movement, a group of people who tried to remedy what was widely seen as a lack of research and adaptation of the new ‘space age’ insights in architecture and urban design and planning. They tried to bring ideas and tools from operations research, the emerging computer applications and systems studies to bear on architecture and planning. However, Alexander dramatically disassociated himself from that group, after a first disappointing attempt at devising a computer program to produce architectural designs. [4] He then focused on his ambitious pattern language project. This was seen as a move philosophically opposing the methods and systems efforts — efforts whose early applications in the sociopolitical arena had seen some spectacular failures.

It is interesting to attempt a brief, crude comparison of the reactions by Alexander and Rittel to these experiences.

Rittel’s recognition of the ‘wicked’ nature of not only architectural design problems but especially these large scale social policy problems led him to what he called the ‘second generation’ design methods, facing the significant role of the information needed to deal with these problems — information that is largely ‘distributed’ in the population affected by the problems and proposed solutions, and therefore calls for wide and open participation by the public. He therefore launched the development of ‘issue based information systems’ (IBIS) and ‘argumentative planning information systems’ (APIS) in which that distributed information would be collected and discussed and argued: the “Argumentative Model of Planning”. [5] A model in which resulting decisions are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ or ‘false’, due to the wicked nature of the problems, and the fact that the ‘deontic’ (ought)-questions involved do not admit of true or false answers that can be scientifically determined. Thus, solutions can only be judged (subjectively) as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The argumentative model and information systems aim at facilitating participants’ efforts to explain to each other their basis of these subjective judgments; at best, to ‘objectify’ the judgments, by showing each other how their ‘good/bad’ judgments relate to objective features of the solution. This is a model whose essential dependency on participation required openness to creativity (new ideas), common language, avoiding discipline jargon as much as possible (or translating jargon into common language), and openness to different frames of references about the matter under discussion.

Alexander’s Pattern Language can be seen as representing a very different view. It was an ambitious, eminently insightful and creative attempt to establish a different ‘way of talking’ — a language — about architecture, construction, and urban design, addressing aspects that contemporary architecture and urban planning as well as the efforts of the systems approach as well as the building systems developers (another area of research and study at Berkeley) had largely been missing, and as such immensely valuable.

But essentially, the Pattern Language is another element in a long line of what may be called ‘rule books’ or recipe books – a somewhat dismissive label that does not do justice to its significance was ‘cookbook’ — for building and urban design. A collection of solution elements that — like a good cookbook — promised, even guaranteed a ‘good’ solution if the solution was put together by properly following the recipe. Potential objections such as that of resulting uniformity were countered by pointing to the large number of different possible combinations of the patterns, and the claim that designers could ‘apply the same patterns a thousand times without doing it the same way twice’ — obviously by virtue of dimensional, that is, parametric variations of the pattern elements. But the patterns had to be applied to solve the problem it claimed to address: Alexander sternly warned that if you are not using the pattern, you aren’t solving the problem…
An added attraction for some minds: since the patterns are so timelessly valid and true, there’s no more need for discussion, argument. Disagreements about pros and cons of solutions can be shut down just like Alexander shut up a young developer at one of his presentations who dared ask a question about the economic implications of the approach: “We are talking about serious things here…”

I was of course working in the ‘other’ (Rittel) camp, trying to make useful contributions to some challenges of the argumentative model, such as developing tools for more systematic and transparent evaluation of planning arguments (the pro and con arguments about planning proposals, that did not receive much attention by the disciplines ‘in charge’ of argumentation because they contain deontic claims that are not ‘true’ of ‘false’ in the same way as the claims about the facts of the world, and because their structure does not meet the formal logic criteria for deductive validity.) And thinking about better ways to link the eventual decisions to the merit of the arguments and other information provided in the participatory planning and policy discourse, as well as better platforms for the planning discourse, especially for global problems — problems for which there are no useful recipe or cook books yet.

But I was fascinated by the Pattern Language effort, and tried to develop a different ‘way of talking’ about architecture in response to it, that in my opinion left more room for more room for creativity in addressing changes in people’s expectations of and responses to buildings, avoiding its exclusive ‘timeless’ aspect. [6] I also wanted to reopen the question of evaluation of solutions (in view of solutions and arguments that are not yet in the rule books) that the Pattern Language had subtly circumvented with the (implied) assurance that “if it’s done according to the rules and recipes, it is automatically good.”

Some of the Pattern Language adaptations I see in other areas seem to suffer from a common shortcoming of many ‘ways of talking’ — that of requiring would-be participants in the discourse to first learn yet another ‘language’, a new vocabulary. This is, in my opinion, a problem for the many ‘systems’ approaches and models, and arguably a reason for the lack of wider public acceptance of systems tools some systems thinkers complain about. It is a syndrome that can carry the danger of stifling participation, precisely by those people who have some of the desperately needed ‘distributed’ information. It also seems to — again, after Rittel’s and others’ valiant critique of the ‘expert model of planning’ — favor the role of experts — the ones who master the new vocabulary and therefore control the process and decisions — but who might be missing vital information; experts whose judgment about what makes a good solution may be disastrously different from those who will have to live with the consequences of the plans.

This leads me to the following urgent suggestion: that all proposed ‘Pattern Language’ adaptations in other realms be amended with the routine ‘Wrong question?’ reminder: Are the patterns in the rule collection appropriate and applicable to the respective situation — a situation that may be unique, new and unprecedented? Are there legitimate differences of opinion about the outcomes? And if there are even slight doubts in that respect, to include provisions for opening the discourse to information contributions that are not necessarily framed in the adopted pattern vocabulary, as well as abandoning the assumption that the quality or ‘goodness’ of solutions generated by the pattern language recipes is guaranteed by having followed the recipe.

Notes and references:

[1] Since the Pattern Language is not one of my prime areas of concern, I did not keep careful track of all these projects and thus may have missed many of these efforts. Helene Finidori’s report on a pattern language development on the issue of the Commons – ‘A Pattern Language (re)Generative of Commons’ by The Commons Abundance Network ( — triggered closer attention since the Commons issue was one of the major proposed answers to the Ban Ki Moon call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ at the 2011 World Economic which led to a huge LinkedIn discussion on the STW network, and I studied some of the issues related to the Commons in more detail. Other examples of PL applications to fields outside of architecture and urban design that I ran across are the following (in no particular order, and just to indicate the variety of topics):

– Perkins, J et al :‘A Cleanroom Pattern Language: A Pattern Language Enters the Cleanroom – A Strategy for Humanizing the Cleanroom’. M+W Group Architecture USA Cleanroom Focus Group/ (
– Pollard, D.: ‘A Pattern Language for Effective Activism’ (;
– ‘Group Works: A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings’ (
– ‘A Pattern Language for Infosec’ (
– Shuler, D.: ‘A Pattern Language for Living Communication’ / Liberating Voices Pattern Language System; (
– Shen, L:‘A Pattern Language for Residential Energy Efficiency’ (
– Kelly, Allan: ‘Business Patterns for Software Developers’ (E-book: John Wiley & Sons, 2012)
– ‘A Proposal for Collaboration on a Pattern Language for Service Systems’ (Science, Management, Engineering and Design) by David Ing (;
– ‘A Database Integrity Pattern Language’ by O. P. Rotaru and M. Petrescu, Leonardo Journal of Sciense, Issue 5, July-December 2004 pp 46-62;
– S. Denef, R. Opper,amm, D. Keyson: ‘Designing For Social Configurations: Pattern Languages to Informs the Design of Ubiquitous Computing’, International Journal of Design Vol. 5 No. 3, 2011;
– Kyle Denlinger: ‘Pattern Language for eLearning’ (;
– Robert Waller, Judy Delin et Martin Thomas ‘Towards a Pattern Language Approach to Document Description’ Discours: Revue de linguistique, psycholinguistique et informatique. 10, 2012; (
– The 2013 ‘Pattern Languages of Programs Conference, Monticello, IL. hosted a number of papers on Pattern Language Applications, e.g.:
– Brown, K: “Cloud Computing Patterns”
– Goswami, D: “Hierarchical Rules Patterns for Validating System Configurations”
– Overbey, J.: “Immutable Source[Mapped Abstract Syntaxt Tree: A Design Pattern for Refracturing Engine APIs”
– Reza, J: “Mobile Apps Multi-Platforms Design Pattern Featuring Translator for Interactive Animation Components”
– Rubis, R and I. Cardei: “The Common Business Object Pattern”
– Correia, F and A. Aguiar: “Patterns of Flexible Modeling Tools”
– Reza, J: “Supervenience as a Design Pattern: Its Realization in Object-Oriented Languages”
– Villareal, I, Fernadez, E., Larrondo-Petrie, Hashzume, K: “A Pattern for Whitelisting Firewalls”
– Preschern, C, Kaitazovic, Kreiner, C.: “Security Analysis of Safety Patterns”
– Mana, A, Fernandez, E., Ruiz, J., Rudolph, C.: “Towards Computer-Oriented Security Patterns”
– Li, Y., Runde, R., Stole, K.: “Towards a Pattern Langauge for Securoity Risk Analysis of Web Applications”.

[2] Alexander, Christopher (1975). The Oregon Experiment. Center for Environmental Structure. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0195018240.
Alexander, Christopher et al.: (1977). A Pattern Language. Center for Environmental Structure. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0195018240.
Alexander, Christopher (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Center for Environmental Structure. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 978-0195024029.

[3] While Rittel had been talking about the concept of ‘Wicked Problems’ for some time in his lectures at Berkeley, the first publication was the 1972 Policy Science article by Horst W.J. Rittel and M. Webber: “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”.

Since many references and proposals advertised as tools for ‘solving wicked problems’ as well reviews referring to them as problems that ‘can’t be solved’ are often based on misunderstanding and misrepresentation of these problems, it may be useful to summarize their key features (summarized from the ‘Dilemmas’ paper:

– There is no definitive formulation of a WP. Every statement about their definition is a statement about one of many conceivable solution ideas (so the problem can’t be definitively stated until a ‘solution’ has been adopted);

– A WP can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

– Every WP is essentially unique.

– There is no well-described set of permissible steps or operations to be brought to bear on WP’s (as in the basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication etc. in mathematics): anything goes;

– The discrepancy representing a WP can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.

– WP’s have no stopping rule (such that the procedure tells problem-solvers when they are ‘done’); any ‘solution’ can be refined and improved, or there might still be other alternatives that could be investigated and examined;

– The information needed to solve WP’s is not exclusively found in textbooks or experts’ professional knowledge, but is typically ‘distributed’ in the population of people being affected by the problem or by proposed solutions (so that the affected population changes with every different solution alternative considered…)

– WP’s do not have an enumerable (or exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions. There may be many ‘solutions’ to the problem, or none at all;

– Solutions to WP’s are not ‘correct or ‘false’ — they are judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — and people differ in their judgments about this (depending on whether they are getting the benefits of a solution or having to bear its costs…);

– There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a WP.

– Unlike ‘tame problems’ where you one try again if a first solution attempt has not worked out, WP solutions are typically ‘one-shot’ operations: any intervention effort consumes resources and creates new conditions that make it a different problem. There is no opportunity to learn by trial and error: every attempt counts significantly.

– Unlike ‘tame problems’ in science, where ‘failed’ attempts to confirm a hypothesis do have merit (contributing to our knowledge about what ‘works and what doesn’t, WP-solvers have no ‘right to be wrong’ and are liable for the consequences of solutions or for the failure to provide a solution.

With WP’s understood in this way, consultants’ claims that their approaches will help clients ‘solve’ Wicked Problems should be regarded with suspicion.

[4] The split, as I remember, was pronounced in an 1970 interview in the ‘Design Methods Newsletter” (later Design Methods and Theories Journal).

[5] Key publications of these proposals were:
– Kunz, W. and H. Rittel: (1970) “Issues as Elements of Information Systems”, Working Paper No. 131, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California, Berkeley, 1970.
– Rittel, H. W.J: APIS: A Concept for an Argumentative Planning Information System. Working Paper No. 324. Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California, 1980.
A number of experimental applications of the underlying concepts were studies done at the ‘Studiengruppe für Systemforschung ‘(‘Systems Research Group’, Heidelberg), e.g. a proposal for an issue based information system for the West German Parliament, using demonstration material on proposed legislation on urban renewal for the West German Parliament; a study on improved utilization of higher education resources in the Federal Republic of Germany, and a proposal for an international Environmental Planning Information System (‘UMPLIS’).

[6] In a first 1980 paper in the Design Methods and Theories Journal, ‘Places and Occasions’, I suggested the aim of architecture to be to provide places inviting and facilitating the occasions our lives consist of, and that the design of the places should evoke imagery supporting the users’ own image concepts of who they are (or ought to be) and what kind of activity is involved in the occasion. Later papers addressed the development of techniques for measuring the image appropriateness of designs, testing the theory by using it for the interpretation of historical buildings, and suggesting its use to develop measures of value of built environments. Key differences between this perspective and the Pattern Language are that the core concepts or elements are not the physical design patterns but the activities they accommodate, and the images they evoke to support and inspire those experiences. The role of past information is acknowledged, but I suggest that this view better explains the changes in built environment design over time, not just focusing on ‘timeless’ patterns), accounting for the desire of each new generation to ‘make a difference’ by creating its own way of life while building on the past; different groups developing their own occasions and corresponding image expressions in the details of their building and cities.