In the 1970s the urban planners Rittel and Webber introduced a rather exotically-termed concept – that of ‘wicked’ policy problems. They used the term ‘wicked’ in the sense of ‘tricky’ rather than ‘deplorable’. They claimed that these problems are different to those that natural scientists and engineers routinely deal with, and are typically are open societal problems. Further, they held that the classical scientific paradigm is inappropriate for addressing them.
So what makes a problem ‘wicked’? In Rittel and Webber’s formulation, each wicked problem is unique, but has no definitive formulation or explanation, with each being a symptom of another problem. These problems have no stopping rule, no immediate nor ultimate test of a solution, and the choice of explanation for the problem will determine the ‘solution’ adopted. There are therefore no definitive solutions for wicked problems,but rather multiple possible solutions (or options for progressing the problem).
Others have contributed similar terminology and concepts subsequently. Ackoff used the term ‘messes’ as distinct to ‘difficulties’ (which are simple problems that can be extracted from ‘messes’ and solved). And Schon talks of the ‘swampy lowlands’ where the confusing problems of the greatest human concern lie, defying technical solution.
Complexity thinking as it is emerging from the social sciences is (rather obviously) directly relevant to this class of policy problem. But what does a complexity take add to the concepts referenced above? True to the complexity field, there is no easy distinction. Some would argue that some of these concepts originate from a complexity paradigm already.
My current take (and I’d love thoughts on this), is that complexity thinking throws a light not only on the policy problem itself, but also on the policy approach to the problem – and that the two are inseparable. A complex problem requires a complexity approach to the activity of policymaking, whereby policymakers realise they are part of the complex policy problem system (Ackoff’s ‘mess’?). There is little agreement even on what the policy should look like, and certainly no on how it should be realised. This complex policy system has to be managed, not ‘solved’, from within, calling for humility, self-reflection, experimentation, understanding different perspectives, putting process above evidence, being agile and responsive. Its about managing a complex policy journey.
Perhaps this complexity insight provides some explanation for why, as Ison notes, over 40 years after Rittel and Webber called our attention to wicked policy problems, we largely don’t identify them as such, and persist on approaching them with tools of the rational, deductive paradigm of classical science.