Understanding Wicked Problems

A wicked problem is a form of social or cultural problem that is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to bother with. Yet these are the problems that plague our world and our cities - poverty, sustainability, equality and health and wellness are issues that touch each and every one of us.

These problems can be mitigated through the process of design - through an intellectual approach to design that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning, and rapid prototyping. These are the problems that are addressed at the Austin Center for Design.

We wrote a book about Wicked Problems, called Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving. You can read it online here.

Characteristics of Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel, one of the first to research wicked problems, references ten characteristics that describe this sort of complicated societal issue:

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule, or criteria upon which to determine "solving"
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false; they can only be good or bad
  4. There are no complete list of applicable "moves" for a solution to a wicked problem
  5. There are always more than one explanation for a wicked problem, with the appropriateness of the explanation depending greatly on the individual perspective of the designer
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem
  7. No solution of a wicked problem has a definitive, scientific test
  8. Solving a wicked problem frequently is a "one shot" design effort, as a significant solution changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error
  9. Every wicked problem is unique
  10. A designer attempting to solve a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions

Clearly, not all problems are wicked; in fact, a problem can be incredibly difficult to solve, but cannot be characterized as wicked until it has an indeterminacy of scope and scale. The majority of social problems are, by their very nature, wicked.

A Business and Design Backdrop

Austin Center for Design strives to formalize the process by which design is connected with the public sector. In the last decade, there has been a significant shift in the attitude of corporations and consultancies with regard to strategic innovation. Companies who spent much of the late 1980s and early 1990s emphasizing cheaper products and increased quarterly profits are now evolving to understand the necessity for continual innovation, as the push towards offshore development and commoditization has encroached on nearly all profit-focused industries. Many of these companies have turned to creativity and design thinking to aid typical R&D approaches to technology incubation.

Consultancies like frog design, IDEO and Adaptive Path are now hired to apply design methods and thinking not just in pursuit of product development, but also in pursuit of innovative corporate strategies, and in the design of complicated systems and services. These creative methods of design thinking are characterized as being divergent, abductive, playful, and extremely agile.

Yet this strategic work can be seen as meaningless by designers, when considered in the broader landscape of the human condition. Several years into a career, a designer may begin to feel a sense of misappropriation of their talent – that their creative efforts are misguided, and the hard work and energy they are putting into product development is lacking integrity or honesty. There have been several successful, but small, efforts in formally bringing creativity and design thinking to the public sector.

For example, project H, a charitable organization focused on humanitarian projects, has applied methods of ethnographic research, design synthesis, ideation, and rapid prototyping to issues of international aid and assistance. These projects, however, depend on the generosity of their volunteers, as the majority of the work is performed for free or for only a nominal fee. In many cases, designers that choose to work on projects like this still have a "day job" – their primary work is as professional designers producing mass produced products, and the more humanitarian work is relegated to the status of a "hobby".

Academic institutions offering masters work in design and innovation instruct and encourage students to explore problems that have a social component. Students may investigate issues of sustainability, or a class project may provide pro-bono design services to a local agency or humanitarian group. Additionally, students pursuing a PhD in a design discipline may investigate, in great depth, more complicated social issues such as homelessness or hunger. And, in Europe and Asia, Cumulus – the International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media – has been successful in exploring topics of equality and ethics and in driving ethics and humanitarian design education research.Yet only five US-based schools participate in Cumulus (of well over 100 total member schools), and there is also a strong tendency for design schools in the United States to embrace the financial allure of business, and to offer projects sponsored by large corporations. These projects act as capstones for "professional degrees", where non-novice designers come to advance their skills (and, often, "decompress" from the feelings of dishonesty described above).

There is a gap in understanding how to successfully apply the creative, intellectual methods of design thinking – that have been so successful in generating profit for financially-driven companies – in support of humanitarian causes. This gap exists at a theoretical level, as the existing body of design literature does not focus on the research approaches necessary to investigate these difficult and multilayered problems. This gap also exists at a tactical level, as the existing curricula of most design schools prepare masters students explicitly for professional work in less supportive or impactful causes.

The long-term goal of The Center is to investigate and drive a positive relationship between design thinking and the large "wicked" problems facing the public sector. These problems broadly include issues of poverty, hunger, education, health and wellness, sustainability, and equality; while these issues are typically explored and addressed through policy and politics, little has been done to understand how creativity and less linear thinking can provide assistance.

More Readings