The enduring challenge of ‘wicked problems’: revisiting
Rittel and Webber
•Brian W. Head
Published online: 6 November 2017
Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017
Abstract There is, in the twenty-ﬁrst century, an intense interest in the nature of wicked
problems and the complex tasks of identifying their scope, viable responses, and appro-
priate mechanisms and pathways towards achieving improvement. This preoccupation is
timeless, but the discussion over several decades has beneﬁted from Rittel and Webber’s
(Policy Sci 4(2):155–169, 1973) path breaking conceptualisation of wicked problems and
the political argumentation needed to resolve them. This review revisits Rittel and Web-
ber’s work and its enduring signiﬁcance, reﬂecting upon its broad uptake and impact in the
policy sciences, an impact that continues to grow over time. We revisit how the classic
1973 paper came to be published in Policy Sciences, its innovative depiction of social
problems, its rejection of rationalistic design, its acknowledgement of the subjectivities
involved in problem identiﬁcation and resolutions, and the consequent need for argu-
mentative-based solution processes. We ﬁnd great resonance in the paper with contem-
porary problem solving preoccupations, not least that the political context is crucial, that
argumentation must be transparent and robust, and that policy interventions may have
consequences that cannot be easily controlled in open and highly pluralised social systems.
Keywords Wicked problems Horst Rittel Melvin Webber Systems
theory Policy solutions
Brian W. Head
School of Social Sciences, Politics and International Relations, Private Bag 22, Hobart, TAS 7000,
School of Political Science, University of Queensland, St Lucia, QLD 4072, Australia
Policy Sci (2017) 50:539–547
The impact and origins of ‘wicked problems’
Horst Rittel and Mel Webber’s paper ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ (1973),
which introduced the concept of wicked problems to a general audience, is the most highly
cited paper published in Policy Sciences. It had achieved over 3137 citations and 13,000
downloads by 2017. Google Scholar, based on a wider set of sources, recorded 10,682
citations to late 2017. The paper is highly signiﬁcant on three Policy Sciences indicators:
citations and downloads; an increasing trajectory of citations, which achieved double
ﬁgures annually in the 1990s, and over 100 annually from the late 2000s; and a strong
cross-disciplinary uptake across a broad range of journals.
Of the ﬁfty journals with papers
citing Rittel and Webber, there are ﬁve times as many in environmental journals (focused,
for example, on environment, marine and oceans, sustainability, energy, and cleaner
production) than in systems and design, or policy and planning journals. The Policy
Sciences journal alone includes twenty-two papers to date that cite Rittel and Webber in
two key areas: (i) policy theory, design, and practice and (ii) environmental problems,
governance, management, conﬂict, and reforms. The only such contribution to substan-
tively extend the notion of wicked problems, in a theoretical and applied sense, is again
one with a broad environmental focus, Levin et al.’s (2012) paper on ‘Overcoming the
tragedy of super wicked problems’.
The story of how such a paper came to be published, and how its themes were anchored
in the academic debates of the late 1960s, has been sketched in several reﬂections pub-
lished by their colleagues and students. It is clear that Horst W. J. Rittel was the principal
architect of the ‘wicked problem’ conception (Churchman 1967; Protzen and Harris 2010).
He was a design theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, who taught rather than
practised design and architecture; and he also had interests in broader design aspects of
planning, engineering, and policymaking. As a ‘design planner’, he linked the ﬁelds of
design and politics and, with his University of California team, instigated ‘ﬁrst-generation’
and then ‘second-generation’ design methods, the latter drawing critical attention to the
politics of design and the political argumentation needed to tame wicked problems (Rith
and Dubberly 2007). He ﬁrst proposed the notion of wicked problems in a seminar in 1967
to refer to ‘that class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the
information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with con-
ﬂicting values, and where the ramiﬁcations in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’
(Churchman 1967, B-141). He presented these ideas to students and colleagues in courses
and seminars, including a paper to the Panel on Policy Sciences at the American Asso-
ciation for the Advancement of Sciences in Boston in 1969, and again in Norway in 1971,
before publishing a paper on planning crises, design methods and wicked problems in 1972
(Rittel 1972) and the classic paper the following year (Rittel and Webber 1973).
The ‘ﬁrst-generation’ iteration of design methods that Rittel helped establish in the early
1960s had adopted a rigorous, rational, scientiﬁc, system- based approach, but had mor-
phed by the late 1960s into a ‘second-generation’ iteration with a cybernetic emphasis
upon communication and feedback (Rith and Dubberly 2007). The turbulent context in
which ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ was published reﬂected the contradic-
tion between the achievements of technological systems (where rationality, order and
control allowed NASA to put a man on the moon) and the evident social complexities and
policy chaos of the USA in the face of relentless social challenges (Wildavsky 1973). The
Citation information is available at Policy Sciences—http://citations.springer.com/item?doi=10.1007/
540 Policy Sci (2017) 50:539–547
seminar at which Rittel proposed the notion of wicked problems was organised by systems
theorist West Churchman (1967,1968), who at that time was exploring ways to transfer
any lessons from managing the space programme technology into the contrasting ‘world of
urban problems’ (Skaburskis 2008, p. 277). The ten differences between scientiﬁc and
social problems that Rittel listed at the 1967 seminar were tested and reﬁned in Rittel’s
teaching, and with only slight adjustments formed the complex deﬁnition of wicked
problems in ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’. Melvin M. Webber, who was then
a colleague teaching at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of
California, Berkeley, attended the seminar and was also of the view that rationality was a
myth in the planning context. Skaburskis reports that Webber spent years trying to nudge
Rittel into publishing the wicked problems paper in a US journal before they ﬁnally
collaborated in writing the 1973 version (Skaburskis 2008, p. 277).
Dilemmas in a general theory of planning
Rittel and Webber’s basic aim was to reject both a systems-based, rational-scientiﬁc, grand
theory of planning and the ‘classical paradigm of science and engineering’ as a basis for
framing ‘social science’ and ‘modern professionalism’. Their motive for revisiting and
redeﬁning the role and capacity of planning theory and the planning profession was the
social dissent, riots, upheavals, and protest movements that radically disrupted America in
the 1960s and 1970s. They argued that social problems could no longer be addressed by
assuming, as science does, that they are ‘tame’ or ‘benign’, or deﬁnable, separable, and
solvable, and thus able to be characterised, analysed and planned for by adopting a rational
systems perspective. Wicked problems, which include ‘nearly all public policy issues’
(1973, p. 160), are indeed the opposite. They are ‘ill-deﬁned’ and ‘malignant’. They cannot
be ‘solved’, but are reliant instead upon ‘elusive political judgment for resolution…over
and over again’ (p. 160). Whilst systems theory had utility as an analytic approach in the
1950s and 1960s, it was clear to Rittel and Webber that it needed to be broadened con-
ceptually to account for more diverse ‘systemic networks’ that are ‘interacting, open’ and
‘interconnected’ (p. 156; p. 159; Churchman 1979). Furthermore, social upheaval was
reﬂective of the politicisation of numerous ‘subpublics’ ‘pursuing a diversity of goals’
inspired by varying ‘valuative bases’, and a shift, therefore, away from a unitary ‘American
way of life’ towards ‘numerous ways of life that are also American’ (p. 156; 167–8). ‘The
process of argumentation’ advocated by Rittel and Webber ‘is (therefore) the key and
perhaps the only method of taming wicked problems’ (Rith and Dubberly 2007, p. 73).
Wicked problems deﬁned—Rittel and Webber 1973
Proposition 1 There is no deﬁnitive formulation of a wicked problem.
Proposition 2 Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
Proposition 3 Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
Proposition 4 There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked
Policy Sci (2017) 50:539–547 541
Proposition 5 Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; because
there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts signiﬁcantly.
Proposition 6 Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or exhaustively desirable)
set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that
may be incorporated into the plan.
Proposition 7 Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
Proposition 8 Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another
Proposition 9 The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be
explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the
Proposition 10 The planner has no right to be wrong.
In summary, as Mel Webber wrote several years later: ‘The classical model of rational
planning is fundamentally ﬂawed. It assumes widespread consensus on goals, causal theory
sufﬁciently developed as to permit prediction, and effective instrumental knowledge. None
of these conditions pertains’ (Webber 1983). Although Rittel and Webber made chal-
lenging contributions to systems theory and to recognition of the complexity of social
networks, interconnections and nodes, the subsequent heavy citation of their paper focused
on their characterisation of wicked problems, a model which has resonated for decades.
A critique rapidly emerged from philosopher Archie Bahm (1975) who argued that the
authors found fault in the nature of social problems rather than in professional competence,
thus ‘causing these problems to become more difﬁcult to solve’ (p. 103). Bahm argues that
there is no inherent incapacity to deﬁne social problems, providing there is an under-
standing that problems are: (a) limited to some portion of a larger problem; and (b) deﬁned
in ways that recognise their context (p. 104). Furthermore, Bahm argued that lack of
research funding might be the main barrier to the discovery of ‘stopping rules’ for social
problems. According to Bahm, the ‘not true-or-false, but good-or-bad’ distinction makes
no sense. He claims that every problem is unique, not just every wicked problem; and that
the existence of many failed ‘wicked’ solutions does not mean that a problem cannot be
solved (p. 105). A more generous review was provided by Catron (1981) who applauded
Rittel and Webber for ‘calling attention to some very fundamental deﬁciencies in our
approach to social problems’ (p. 13). He saw the key achievements of their 1973 paper as
ontological for identifying the existence of wicked problems, epistemological for chal-
lenging our ability to understand them, and ethical for questioning our ability to act rightly
in relation to them (pp. 13–14). But he was less inclined to dismiss the utility of scientiﬁc
The debate about the viability of a general theory of planning continued, with Alexander
(1998) advocating a contingency framework, integrating four different views of planning:
‘deliberative rationality, communicative practice, coordinative planning and frame setting’
(p. 667). However, he and others, including Webber (1983) himself, did not explicitly
utilise the terminology of wicked problems. Many authors developed similar ideas using
other adjectival forms such as ‘messy’ or ‘intractable’ or ‘unstructured’ or ‘contested’
problems. Nevertheless, the language of ‘wicked’ accelerated markedly, so that by 2010,
for example, there were as many citations of Rittel and Webber’s paper in 1 year as there
had been across the entire decade of the 1990s. Frank Fischer (1993) was the ﬁrst Policy
542 Policy Sci (2017) 50:539–547
Sciences author in the 1990s to substantively apply the wicked problem concept, arguing
that ‘wicked’ or ‘intractable’ problems ‘seem only to respond to increased doses of par-
ticipation’ (p. 172). Fischer aligned wicked problems with ‘recalcitrant’, ‘undisciplined’,
‘uncontrollable’ and ‘unmanageable’ problems (p. 175) and suggested that collaborative
citizen-expert inquiry could hold the key to solving a speciﬁc category of contemporary
By the 2000s, the ‘wicked context’ of contemporary social problems was widely
acknowledged. Roberts (2000) noted three common sets of coping strategies: competitive
(where power is dispersed but contested), collaborative (where power is dispersed but not
contested), and authoritative (where power is not dispersed). Constructivist interpretations
became well established in the literature (e.g. Hajer 2003), paving the way for a new wave
of reﬂective analysis that remains active today. For example, Nie (2003, p. 309) distin-
guished conceptually between ‘wicked by nature’ and ‘wicked by design’, with the latter
generated by political processes, in the sense that apparently ‘straightforward policy
problems can turn wicked when they are used by political actors as a surrogate to debate
larger and more controversial problems’ (Nie 2003, p. 314).
‘Wickedness’ and environmental policy analysis
Over the last two decades, recognition of Rittel and Webber’s notion of intransigent,
wicked problems that require complex, networked, and communicative solutions has
become mainstream. Environmental policy analysis, both conceptual and applied, has
dominated the research output that has utilised the wicked problems notion, including case
studies and theoretical re-interpretation, none more signiﬁcant than by Levin et al. (2012)
on ‘super wicked’ global issues. Environmental problems are seen as classical examples of
wicked because they defy easy resolution (McBeth and Shanahan 2004, p. 319), each one
being uniquely complex (Ludwig 2001, p. 759), and located ‘at the boundaries of natural
and social systems’ (Van Bueren et al 2003, p. 193; Dryzek 1997). Furthermore, envi-
ronmental conﬂict is typically ‘value-based’ (McBeth and Shanahan 2004, p. 322) so that
in many cases not even the ‘strongest possible evidence’ (Nilsson 2008, p. 336) can settle
differences between stakeholders (Van de Kerkhof 2006) or avoid triggering major
political conﬂicts (McBeth and Shanahan 2004; Nilsson 2006, p. 241). Scientiﬁc knowl-
edge matters less in these circumstances than the ability to negotiate politically, under
conditions of uncertainty, and to work effectively in networks and at the boundaries
between science, stakeholders, and politics (Hajer 2003). It is hard to extinguish such
conﬂict when it is manufactured, or wicked ‘by design’. In this case, wickedness is actively
designed into existence, as political or media strategy for example, by actors whose
interests are beneﬁted by this approach (Nie 2003, pp. 327; 334; McBeth and Shanahan
2004, p. 322; Shanahan et al. 2008, p. 134).
Environmental policy research thus highlights both the enduring challenge of wicked
problems and the enduring signiﬁcance of ‘wickedness’ as a frame for policy analysis (e.g.
Durant and Legge 2006). The majority of contemporary environmental policy research
simply acknowledges wickedness as the context for speciﬁc policy analysis (Nilsson 2006;
Nilsson et al. 2008). However, Van Bueren et al. (2003) go further by interrogating the
nuances in wickedness in terms of the varying circumstances of cognitive, strategic, and
institutional uncertainty. Because interdependent actors have a collective action problem,
they argue, the uncertainties underlying and shaping wicked problems can only be reduced
Policy Sci (2017) 50:539–547 543
through network-based ‘cooperation’, thereby ‘enhancing and intensifying interactions
between stakeholders’ (pp. 193–4; 211). There are echoes here of the ‘argumentative
process’ in action just as Rittel and Webber (1973, p. 160) had imagined it. Balint et al.
(2011) suggest that understanding different problem types is fundamental to constructing
effective strategies for improving environmental policies and natural resource management
programmes. However, much of the environmental policy analysis is pessimistic, like
McBeth et al.’s (2010) identiﬁcation of wicked policy arenas which repeatedly cycle
through various policy venues offering varying solutions but rarely solving problems. The
super wickedness of climate change is all the more irrational and ‘tragic’ because ‘time is
running out; those who cause the problem also seek to provide a solution; the central
authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent; and, partly as a result, policy
responses discount the future’ (Levin et al. 2012, p. 123).
The notion of globally signiﬁcant super wicked problems was not anticipated by Rittel
and Webber, but this wider level of challenge has led Varone et al. (2013) to propose
integrating ‘boundary spanning’, ‘territorial institutionalism’, and ‘multi-leveled gover-
nance’ to create expanded spaces to deal with them. After all, climate change, and eco-
nomic, security, health and immigration issues all function ‘in different institutional
contexts as well as levels of governance’ (p. 311). By contrast, Rittel and Webber’s focus is
domestic pluralism and how government can respond to multiple actors operating within
increasingly open systems and with conﬂicting views about complex problems and their
solutions. The governance arrangements for handling this challenge were not elaborated by
Rittel and Webber, but four decades later Varone et al. identify the emerging importance of
‘functional regulatory spaces’ that reﬂect the need for multi-dimensionality and poly-
centricity in State action (2013, p. 330). Rittel and Webber would likely see this as an
extension of their support for open, communicative, systemic networks. They were cer-
tainly more focused on capturing the new politics of diversity (1973, p. 167), and with it
the rejection of traditional expertise (p. 169), than on devising new institutional arrange-
ments—an exploratory task which they saw as a key challenge for actors in diverse
situations. However, their concern to encourage collective puzzling towards viable (rather
than ‘correct’) policy solutions remains of great relevance today.
The wicked solutions ‘industry’
Rittel and Webber’s dual emphasis on the key features of wicked problems, together with
their provocative view about the impossibility of ‘solving’ such problems, helps to explain
the enduring and growing interest in their paper over several decades. They provoked the
emergence of an intellectually robust wicked problems solutions ‘industry’, including both
supporters and critics of the original framework.
Rittel and Webber were somewhat bleak about the capacity for wicked problem solving.
As they saw it, citizens and policymakers are faced with unique public policy problems,
with no optimal design solutions (1973, pp. 155; 158), indeed no ‘solutions’ at all, beyond
what can be delivered through political judgment (p. 160) and that in turn would be
variable owing to interests, values and ideologies (p. 163). Systemic analysis based upon
the rationalist policy stages or cycle approach (‘understand the problems or the mission’,
‘gather information’, ‘analyse information’, ‘synthesise information’, ‘work out solution’)
would not work. Neither would the drift of incrementalism, ‘the policy of small steps’,
544 Policy Sci (2017) 50:539–547
because working in incremental fashion may cause new problems at the micro-level whilst
failing to improve causal relations at the macro-level (p. 165). The only viable solutions
would be to: (i) acknowledge the ‘open systems’ context, (ii) keep an open mind on
solutions, and (iii) adopt ‘an argumentative process in the course of which an image of the
problem and of the solution emerges gradually among the participants, as a product of
incessant judgment, subjected to critical argument’ (p. 161).
Rittel and Webber did stress that ‘(t)he analyst’s ‘‘world view’’ is the strongest deter-
mining factor in explaining a discrepancy and, therefore, in resolving a wicked problem’
(p. 166), so the contemporary scholarly focus on crafting better processes for collectively
developing improved outcomes would not surprise them (see for instance Koppenjan and
Klijn 2004; APSC 2007; Head 2017; Xiang 2013; Head and Alford 2015). They might take
issue, however, with solutions based upon either social engineering-style analysis or
alternatively a non-strategic ‘incrementalism’ (p. 165), the former for assuming too much
rationality under circumstances of contestation and ambiguity, and the latter for under-
estimating the scope for positive collaborative leadership. They would applaud collabo-
rative capacity building (Weber and Khademian 2008) and constructive conﬂict
management (Cuppen 2012) as likely solution pathways for wicked problems, but not
deliberative dialogue nor shared understandings (Rasio and Vartiainen 2015) given their
advocacy of argumentative collaboration. They would also baulk at the notion that the
essential elements of wicked problems could be deﬁnitively revealed through quantitative
data analysis, because wicked problems are ‘unknowable’ with ‘no criteria for sufﬁcient
understanding and because there are no ends to the causal chains that link interacting open
systems’ (p. 162). Most signiﬁcantly for evidence-based theorists (Parkhurst 2016), the
wicked problems thesis rests upon the notion that the emergence of fragmented ‘sub-
publics’ (p. 167) has injected competing and contested values into policy debates, thereby
undermining the evident certainties and reputational standing of professional knowledge.
Indeed Rittel and Webber relegate experts to the status of ‘players’ rather than arbiters in
political games (p. 169).
Some of Rittel and Webber’s pessimism was generated by their critique of the intel-
lectual fallacies of addressing wickedness and complexity through the lens of rationalist
systems theory. They announced the need for second-generation systems thinking which
was based on argumentative methods. The modern policy sciences literature has moved
well beyond old-style systems theory and today pursues a broad range of argumentative,
deliberative, collaborative, and network-based approaches to resolving problems and
improving outcomes (Head and Crowley 2015). A conference at Berkeley to commemorate
the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 article provided an opportunity for three generations of
scholars to consider the legacy. This conference generated a special issue on wicked
problems, in which the contributors broadly supported various versions of adaptive man-
agement and collaborative rationality, as a contemporary strategy for working with wicked
problems (Head and Xiang 2016; Innes and Booher 2016). Another recent conference gave
rise to a number of papers arguing that the insights of the 1973 paper should be connected
up with the modern literature on governance, policy design and innovation, implementa-
tion, and the politics of crisis management. There was also strong support for a greater
focus on policy learning and greater synergies between academic and practitioner forms of
knowledge. The ﬁeld of ‘design’ thinking, in its many forms, has also been heavily
inﬂuenced by the notion that researchers and practitioners are always ‘in design school’—
learning from experience, and across disciplinary boundaries, the skills needed to facilitate
bottom up, locally oriented, place-centric, collaborative solutions to wicked problems.
Policy Sci (2017) 50:539–547 545
Conclusion—Rittel and Webber revisited
In terms of their own standing as theorists of both problems and solutions, Rittel and
Webber never did write the ‘constructive companion piece’ (Catron 1981, p. 14) on
solution-making that they reportedly had in mind to complement the problem orientation of
‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’. Rittel’s ‘second-generation’ design method,
based on the notion that all design and planning should be seen as a process of transparent
political argumentation, was not widely taught, although his design rationale became very
inﬂuential with colleagues in niche ﬁelds (Rith and Dubberly 2007, pp. 73–74). Mel
Webber, as a planning professor, remained an original, visionary, and controversial thinker
(Bendixson 2007), who resisted central planning models in favour of ‘fostering of multi-
plicities of potential outcomes compatible with the wants of plural publics’ (Webber 1983,
What is often forgotten is that in ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’, Rittel and
Webber emphasised ‘the growing pluralism of the contemporary publics’ (p. 167) as the
context and setting for problem solving activities. Their paper concludes with the inherent
challenges, still relevant to the policy sciences today, of theorising the nature of ‘societal
goodness’, the means of dispelling wickedness, and the resolution of ‘the problems of
equity’ in a pluralistic society (p. 169). There is a bright future for wicked problems
research, not simply in redeﬁning wicked problem analysis in contemporary terms, and
expanding solutions-oriented empirical research, but in revisiting Rittel and Webber’s
fundamental engagement with rationalism, closed and open systems, politics in society,
pluralism and challenges to the efﬁcacy of professional expertise. If researchers do not
appreciate this, then they do not understand wicked problems at all.
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