Don't call me wicked: reconsidering the term 'wicked problems'

As human-centred design enters all facets of industry vernacular and we buoy up the sales of post-it notes globally I kindly ask you to stop to pause for one moment and reflect.

Imagine a 16-year-old girl, she lives in a public housing community in the outskirts of a large city. Her parents were refugees looking for a new life after escaping the horrors that their country foretold. She herself suffers from a mild form of mental illness and her family have difficulties helping her fit in to school life. Whilst their community alone does not dictate their struggles, it is fair to say the residents within area face their share. The nature of the physical environment, the economic and social forces, and personal relationships within breed a sense of lack of opportunity, and informs the network of complex issues faced by some individuals.

Now I want you to look back over that board with the beautifully arranged post-it notes, or consider the talk you’re giving or the report you are writing and explain to her why you describe her community (and inherently her) as ‘wicked’. What about her non-native English-speaking parents? Will they misunderstand you? Sure, this family probably won’t read that shiny report you’ve delivered, but then how does it affect how you see the problem or the people involved?

‘Wicked problems’ are described as ones that are shifting, difficult to define, are interconnected, have no stopping rule and never one correct solution. The term arose in the context of social planning in the 1960s to challenge the use of traditional rational problem solving methods in relation to the nature of social problems.¹ It was formalised in 1973 as a term for the indeterminate nature of problems by Rittel and Webber who went on to provide 10 characteristics of such problems.²

The term is contrasted with tame problems, the type of problems that over time, through a traditional problem solving process can be solved. How many times have you listened to a management consultant speak of a wicked problem to realise that really its on the tame side? Calling them tame does not aim to dismiss the difficulty of them, complicated problems are just that; time, human resources, and knowledge weigh heavily in your ability to solve them. However let’s be clear, they are different and so should your approach.

Moving to the present day practice where designers of all disciplines, management consultants, social policy consultants and the like use the term wicked problems daily I want you to stop and consider it, take a step back from the cool-aid people and catch your breath.

With the acceptance and rapid rise of human-centred design practices - a process and mindset where problem exploration, process and actions are orientated towards physical, emotional needs and behaviours of those involved against a dynamic and rapidly changing context; I hope we can discuss this term further. At what point is calling these problems and inherently the people involved ‘wicked’ human-centred? Whilst you may argue that we speak of ‘the problem’ not the people I would suggest you would find it difficult to disconnect the people from the problem situation in your discussions.

For me the term wicked problems holds more of an associative action with the word ‘wicked’ than I’d prefer, conjuring visual imagery that happens so fast in the brain it’s impossible to stop. The origin of the word wicked dates back to the 12th century as an extended version of wick – derived from the old English term ‘wicca’ meaning wizard. A quick scan of the use of this word in other etymological outlines finds malicious, vicious, shrewd, sodom and sinful. Whilst the word has been used in the ironic sense of ‘wonderful’ since the 1920s, it flooded popular youth culture vernacular in the 1980s. It’s interpretation sees variations on the scale of ‘really/very X’ to ‘cool’, having only to turn on to see UK’s celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for two minutes to understand the term is his world.

Jargon serves certain groups and contexts only, and this particular term has seemingly reached industry jargon gold status. One only has to dive into philosophy lightly to understand the power struggles, linguistic separation, intellectualisation and indeed divergence from reality jargon can both positively and negatively provide. Whilst jargon has its place in creating a common language between professionals, jargon can also reduce communication between diverse groups of people from diverse backgrounds. I believe in this instance labelling problems as such could place an emotional barrier in how we connect with the true human story in the immensely complex problem you may be exploring.

A quick straw poll with colleagues and friends (in and outside the area of expertise) saw many interpretations of wicked problems, from biblical connotations (the bible mentions wicked over 450 plus times), to evil connotations and to slang for awesome. Some like it and some don't. It is the more automatic responses and possible misinterpretation that makes me feel uneasy and I’m not sure it serves our problem solving approach.

Dorst addresses these so called 'wicked problems' rather as problem situations, that are open, complex, dynamic and networked.³ Problems that have no one owner or boundaries, have many elements, are constantly changing and are hyper connected across organisations and indeed nations. In the use of design in practice we are not only seeking solutions to problems, but new approaches to the problem situations and terms that are open to misinterpretation or serve as a hindrance should be reconsidered or used with care.

Of course, it is these problems are deeply interesting and the types we all want to work on! However, if we are to embrace the notion of empathy in practice as a way to create positive social change I ask you to think back to the girl at the beginning of this article and think how best can I understand her?

Churchman, C. West (December 1967). "Wicked Problems".Management Science 14 (4). doi:10.1287/mnsc.14.4.B141.

Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning" (PDF). Policy Sciences 4: 155–169.doi:10.1007/bf01405730.

Dorst, K. (2015) Frame Innovation Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp 7-11

#design #Storytelling #business

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MELANIE RAYMENT I  +44 (0)7494 936 787