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What's a Wicked Problem?

In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term "wicked problem" in order to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of addressing planning and social policy problems. Unlike the “tame” problems of mathematics and chess, the wicked problems of planning lack clarity in both their aims and solutions. In addition to these challenges of articulation and internal logic,  they are subject to real-world constraints that prevent multiple and risk-free attempts at solving. As described by Rittel and Webber, wicked problems have 10 important characteristics:

1) They do not have a definitive formulation.

2)  They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.

3)  Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.

4)  There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.

5)  They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”

6) There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.

7) All wicked problems are essentially unique.

8) Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.

9) The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.

10) Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”

Climate change, like problems in education policy and public health, is a wicked problem. It avoids straightforward articulation and is impossible to solve in a way that is simple or final.  Our changing conversations around climate science and conservation, the unique regional factors that determine the local consequences of climate change, and our ability to present endless possible solutions (as well as the irreversibility of these solutions) require we approach climate change with holistic and collaborative reasoning in search of long-term, future focused solutions. 

As scholars who work in the environmental humanities our goal is to understanding the problems of climate change while also critiquing the language and methods we use to articulate those problems. 

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169. https://www.cc.gatech.edu/fac/ellendo/rittel/rittel-dilemma.pdf .

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