Wicked Problems

Yesterday’s post on prostitution reminded me of a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell from a couple years ago on homelessness. He was writing about the difference between managing an intractable problem and solving it and how doing the latter sometimes flies in the face of logic.

The students at Köln acknowledge that they’re only managing the problem. You can’t fault them for that. It’s not easy to solve; even within the most liberal of societal frameworks. Prostitution is an example of what Horst Rittel called a wicked problem. It’s characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity and there’s no way to even see what the range of options are. These are the kinds of problems that defy an analytical approach.

Richard Buchanan wrote a paper on this subject called “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” for Design Issues back in 1992. Here’s an excerpt [PDF 1.1MB] that’s worth taking a look at. (It’s also in The Idea of Design if you have it handy.)

I’m pleased to see designers taking a crack at this.


  1. Qin

    there has been studies around Complexity Theories (or Chaos Theories) tackling similar kind of wicked problems… although in most cases the theories are set on organisational activities. I guess the social activities are much more dynamic. Perhaps for service design, designing a copping system is more likely to survive the complex non-linear developing future. As far as the society is developing, problems will rise. All we can do as human is copping and reducing the possible damages. I am actually more happy to see more people constantly defining problems rather than presenting any so-called ‘perfect’ solutions, we’ve already got too many ‘perfect’ things in the world. By the way, I am not against problem-solving… that’s human nature, we can’t help trying to ‘solve’ the problem… Just saying that people who can ask good questions should be encouraged, even though sometime they cannot give a good answer to these questions.




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