“Wicked problem” is one of the common issues in public policy. Although wicked connotes something terrible, it means, in fact, complex issues that are difficult to describe and solve. The origin of the term comes from Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, design theorists. In 1973, they coined this term to describe complexity and challenges in designing social policy and displaying the difference between scientific or mathematical problems and social issues in that the former are “tame”–having definitive solutions and answers–while the latter are more amorphous and complex. For instance, they involve various factors such as actors, stakeholders, values, politics, morality and thus having many unclear solutions.
Rittel and Webber describes wicked problems with 10 qualities:
- They do not have definitive definitions.
- They do not have certain rules for solutions. For instance, it’s difficult to pinpoint the action that resolves the issue.
- They do not have definite true or false and right or wrong solutions.
- They cannot be experimented or tested for the best solutions.
- They cannot use trial and error because any single solution implemented is irreversible.
- They have no end to the number of approaches or solutions.
- They are essentially unique.
- They might be “symptoms” of other problems.
- Their solutions depend on how we determine or approach the issue.
- Those who solve wicked problems have no right to be wrong.
Common wicked problems in Thailand include homelessness. Some policymakers suggest that the government provide ‘housing first’ with no conditions. Some say that the homeless should be employed first while some will argue that there should be enough housing first.
The solutions also vary from how we describe or approach homelessness. If we address it on the individual level as a housing crisis, the solutions will turn out different compared to framing it as the symptom of bigger issues such as inequality. If we frame it this way, in order to sustainably resolve the issue of homelessness, then we need to solve the issue of inequality as well. Therefore, homelessness is also one of the wicked problems because there is no single or definitive explanation to address homelessness; there are many possibilities for solutions; it might be the symptoms of other bigger issues that operate on the macro level such as inequality.
“If the road to solutions is such a trouble, what is left for us to do?” Labelling particular issues as wicked problems can dishearten those navigating for solutions. However, we should not immediately relinquish our determination; instead, we should get up and redefine wicked problems with new criteria so that we can grasp their holistic view, address their actual challenges and define which actors or factors make them complex issues. And these will help us tackle the wicked problems efficiently.
John Alford and Brian W. Head suggest using “a typology and a contingency framework.” They advised mapping out the factors in horizontal and vertical lines: horizontal for stakeholders and other related institutions and vertical for degree of complexity and solutions. This graph will give more clarity to complex issues and help policymakers untangle their complexity by redefining the symptom and degree of complexity.
We can apply the typology to ‘homelessness.’ On the vertical line, although seemingly intractable to solve, if homelessness can be defined as an economics issue or an inequality-related or an housing issue, it can still be categorised as the “analytically complex problem.”
On the horizontal line, homelessness stems from the limitation of knowledge and the lack of cooperation among stakeholders and thus can be categorised as the “complex problem.” Situated in the middle of the graph, homelessness is not either the easiest or the most difficult complex complex. The analysis may vary depending on each policymaker’s point of view, but it is advisable to use the typology to tackle ‘wicked problems’ for further discussion which will give more clarity to the ways forward.
London School of Economics
Taylor & Francis Online