Complexity thinking and ‘wicked’ policy problems

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.


4 thoughts on “Complexity thinking and ‘wicked’ policy problems

  1. Are there any examples of wicked problems being solved? A case study would be useful to understand the nature of wicked problems and how complexity thinking allow us to approach them better.

    As to your question, it seems to me that complexity thinking is a way of talking about the approach to a policy problem and the policy itself, and how the policy came about too (so yes, I agree with you). What I don’t understand is how this helps us to understand the problem any better, let alone get closer to solving it? Other than perhaps being able to describe the problem better?


  2. So it is claimed that wicked problems are ‘insoluble’. But my understanding of this, from reading around the concept of wicked problems a little, is that this is more to do with the word ‘solve’ than a doom and gloom view of the future. The verb ‘solve’ turns out to be a slippery little word if you go the dictionary route. It often seems to be defined with reference to ‘finding an answer or explanation’, or ‘a solution’ (which then refers back to ‘solve’. I suspect this is the issue then, that that act of finding one answer for, or explanation to a problem, is not appropriate for wicked ones.

    As to your second question – it all becomes rather problematic if the goal is not to ‘solve’ problems. What does ‘solve’ say about those attending to it? What could it mean to be differently in relation to these problems? How can ethics be employed to guide us?


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