Wicked Problems

November 28, 2011

Over the summer I revisited Doug Schuler’s book “Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution” (MIT Press, 2008, see website here). The book is wonderful to read on the train, or anywhere where you might have 15-20 minute intervals to ponder a concept.

Following a model used in architecture and also software development, “Liberating Voices” provides patterns related to communications – that is, short descriptions of common issues and best practices for tackling them, or best practice models or methods and why they’re important. That is, the patterns give big picture overviews of ways to think about problems. Read more about the concept of pattern languages, here.

I particularly appreciated the book’s description of the concept of wicked problems (read it, here), and also have been finding this concept quite useful in terms of framing a book Dharma and I are working on.


In short, a wicked problem is a problem that is very challenging or not possible to solve because of the contradictory, incomplete, or shifting requirements that are many times difficult to distinguish. Due to complex inter-dependencies, attempting to solve one facet of a wicked problem can expose or create other problems (Rittel and Webber 1973). So, while the “official” problem may appear simple, there are many additional issues – often less visible, or sometimes less solvable, that contribute to our inability to overcome the problem.

As an exercise to explore the concept of wicked problems I made a series of sketches related to policy issues I’m familiar with beginning with the “big” problem (the one that’s usually talked about) and moving deeper to map sub-issues. For example, doing this exercise in terms of the issue of hunger in the US, it became clear that:

1. The ‘solutions’ to this problem (food banks, food stamps, cheap processed food, etc.) create some problems of their own. This is characteristic of wicked problems.
2. This single issue has elements that relate to many types of policy – e.g. not just food & agriculture policy, but also financial policy, educational policy, health policy, and social welfare policy.

A rough sketch of the wicked problem of hunger in the US:

Similarly, we can think of the digital divide as a wicked problem. For example, sub-problems that contribute to the wicked problem of the digital divide include:
  • Jobs, social services, government documents, etc. are being (or have been) moved online despite the fact that not everyone can get easy access to them there – making the consequences of the divide more costly;
  • Consumers of all types report being overcharged on communications bills, this drives some who were online to go offline;
  • Government assistance programs, such as Lifeline – for reduced phone rates, can be out of date and confusing to use (though are being reformed).

And, perhaps even more challenging:

  • It’s not always clear to decision makers how to best understand the problem of the digital divide;
  • Decision makers must often wade through a complex series of steps to address the problem;
  • It’s many times not clear to the digitally excluded how to communicate with decision makers or affect social change via the policy process;
  • Assumptions are often made about the digitally excluded from statistics, which tell part of, but not the whole, story – and can, therefore, lead to policies and interventions that aren’t especially useful;
  • The digitally excluded themselves aren’t often consulted about their view of the issue;
  • And, as much as we may avoid talking about it, the digital divide is a reflection of larger social divides – and in that way the digital divide itself is one aspect of an even larger wicked problem (inequality).
To learn more about wicked problems, and ways of tackling them, check out the well-written Wikipedia entry on the topic and the references cited.

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Policy, Social Impact