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wicked problems

April 8, 2019

I was at a conference on the philosophy of sport in Oxford last week (where I gave a paper on whether international sporting fixtures inflame nationalist feeling) and during one of the talks I discovered a new term which I rather like: wicked problems. A wicked problem is not an evil problem, but one that is fiendishly spiky and complicated, that resists resolution. It is not merely an expression of frustration but a precise term; not just any old annoying problem is wicked. Wicked problems have ten defining features, listed in a 1973 paper by Rittel and Witter. I won’t go through them all but they include: a wicked problem cannot be definitively formulated; proposed solutions can only be better or worse, not right or wrong; there is no clear test of a solution to a wicked problem; every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem; and anyone who tries to solve wicked problems gets blamed when their solution fails. Wicked problems are contrasted with tame problems – which may be serious, but at least you know what you are supposed to do about them.

The term was originally used in social policy, but is also used in design, in international relations, and indeed in the philosophy of sport.

Wicked problems. I have a feeling I shall be using that phrase a lot.

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2 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    That’s a pleasing phrase. There is the engineering term Elegant Solution which is finding the simplest most attractive way of resolving a problem which can be harder than just finding an an answer.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    This is really good Brandon; I shall make sure to find a way of using this phrase myself. It is rather akin to the formula of ‘good enough parenting’ coined by Donald Winnicott, the paediatrician and psychoanalyst, in his famous book ‘Playing and Reality’. We must keep a list of these snappy but penetrating phrases.

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