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The enduring challenge of ‘wicked problems’: revisiting Rittel and Webber



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 appropriate 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 Webber’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 argumentative-based solution processes. We find great resonance in the paper with contemporary 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.
The enduring challenge of ‘wicked problems’: revisiting
Rittel and Webber
Kate Crowley
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
&Kate Crowley
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
DOI 10.1007/s11077-017-9302-4
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—
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 resolutionover
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
problem’s resolution.
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
policy problems.
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,
p. 89).
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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... This perception favours the boys at the expense of the girls' education. With regards to the assumption of a wicked problem, there is no solution to early marriage, and any attempt to implement a solution may count significantly Crowley & Head, 2017). Early marriage has been in practice for ages, and all effort to prevent it, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, has created more trauma for the girls. ...
... This reflects a major characteristic of a wicked problem, as stated by . The scholars hold the view that every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem (Crowley & Head, 2017). ...
Since the coinage of the term 'wicked problem' in the 1970s, various dimensions of the concept have emerged. Various social ills such as inequality, political instability, terrorism, diseases, famine, poverty, and corruption are considered as a wicked problem. Many of the wicked problems are so-called because of their complexities and difficulties in finding solutions to the problems. A major wicked problem that is pervasive in many African countries is gender inequality in education. Universal access to education for girls and boys is one of the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In addition, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also emphasized quality education and gender equality as two of the main agendas that should be achieved by developed and developing countries. This chapter explores the gender inequality in the educational sector in selected Sub-Saharan African countries. A comparative analysis of the inequality in school enrollment in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa was explored. The implication for policy and practice is discussed in this chapter.
... Such features imply the involvement of many interests coming from different government levels and other domains of action. Often, this leads to disagreements over the courses of action and proposed solutions of environmental problems (Alford & Head, 2017;Crowley & Head, 2017;Head, 2019;Selman, 1999). If it wasn't enough, the ministries or organizations in charge of formulate and put environmental policies into practice find themselves in a powerless position, with limited staff and budget, lagging behind other more powerful domains (Romero-Lankao, 2000). ...
... As such, both would belong to the same domain as, for example, the preservation of biodiversity or water conservation. They differentiate, however, in their technical and political complexities, that labels them often as wicked problems (Alford & Head, 2017;Crowley & Head, 2017;Head, 2019;Selman, 1999). As Alford and Head (2017) argue, the mere nature of the problem reveals its technical complexity by pointing out to whether the definition and the solutions of the problem are clear or not. ...
The thesis analyzes environmental policy coordination processes in cities. Based on acomparative case study of air quality and climate change policies in Mexico City and Paris, theresearch demonstrates that policy coordination in cities is a dynamic, sequential process whereactors from the four governance dimensions – urban, vertical, horizontal, and international –with different competences and perceptions on how their actions affect each other, interactstrategically under particular institutional configurations and cognitive references. The thesisdevelops a theoretical framework based on historical institutionalism, that addresses institutionsas changing, power distributional elements, and cognitive theories of public policy that explainthe organization of policy processes around ideational paradigms or frames of reference. Themain argument is divided into two parts. First, policy coordination results from the interplaybetween institutions that shape governance arrangements by distributing competences andestablishing frameworks for action, cognitive frameworks and ideational processes that definereferences, paradigms, and problems, and the strategic interactions taking place within. Thethree elements combine, leading to positive coordination, negative coordination, or conflict.Second, those arrays remain steady until changes in the institutional context, either abrupt orincremental, rearrange the interactions by altering the frameworks of action, leading to differentcoordination sequences. Hence, I argue that due to the changing nature of the institutionalcontext, coordination processes are sequential, rather than one-shot interactions.
... TIS informs policy issues and goals that are already more specific, less 'wicked' (Crowley & Head, 2017) or less unstructured (Hoppe, 2010). ...
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Current societal challenges pose different problems, such as the need to change energy systems. New and emerging technologies or technological fields often have critical roles in solutions. Stimulating and accelerating the development and diffusion of new technologies are common agendas for public policy debates, which are informed by various analytical frameworks. For emerging technological fields, scholars have applied the Technological System Innovation (TIS) framework. However, TIS conceptual and analytical limitations have led to constraints in informing policies. This thesis advances this debate by demonstrating how a new TIS conceptualisation for systemic problems and blocking mechanisms (TIS hindering factors) improves policy recommendations. I propose a conceptual framework that enables the identification and analysis of policy mixes for the diffusion of emerging technologies. Despite TIS literature's long tradition, I show that a more accurate definition of TIS hindering factors enhances the framework explanatory power for a higher diversity of cases. This conceptual improvement depends on addressing the unclear or incomplete definitions, the lack of explanation of interdependent TIS hindering factors and the vague explanation of contextual influences. To this end, I propose a mechanism-based conceptual framework that understands blocking mechanisms as causal pathways linking systemic problems (causes) to poor system functioning (outcomes). I argue that detailing the causal pathway in activities and actors better explains system malfunctioning. Hence, it is possible to discuss interdependencies patterns of TIS hindering factors. The policy implications of the proposed framework entail that TIS can inform policy through systemic goals to mitigate systemic problems, activity goals to mitigate activities in blocking mechanisms and contextual goals to support the contextual influences of activities in blocking mechanisms. This mechanism-based framework is applied to the biogas case in Brazil. Although biogas technologies in Brazil have a huge potential and a long history, few studies have examined biogas in Brazil as a technological field. Besides, this case presents all the features to explore the new framework: several contexts and interdependent hindering factors. An innovative methodology was developed combining event history analysis and 24 in-depth interviews to describe systemic problems with a theory-building process tracing to unpack the blocking mechanisms. The empirical finds demonstrate that the evolution of geographically embedded sectoral regulations and infrastructures and their interactions have been responsible for major changes in the biogas field in Brazil. The findings also indicate that the low level of knowledge of biogas among players, the divergent frames and financial conditions and the limited spectrum of interactions are the primary causes of system hindrance. These causes manifested themselves in five blocking mechanisms, which elucidate the interdependence of systemic problems. Still, the results reveal the need for a national agenda composed of five systemic goals, the necessity of coordinating these systemic goals, and how macro or external factors may counteract goals. Finally, this thesis contributes to TIS and emerging technologies literature by providing a mechanism-based explanation of TIS hindering factors, an analytical method to consider contextual influences in TIS and discussing patterns of contextual influences and interdependence of TIS hindering factors.
... Originally, wicked problem scholars argued that there was no template to follow when tackling these problems. But four decades later, secondgeneration wicked problem scholars started to acknowledge that arrangements can be identified, all based on a more solid understanding of the way ecosystems of collaborating actors can create novel governance arrangements (Crowley and Head, 2017). Wicked problems are systemic and require a deeper understanding of the institutional constraints and how the institutional setting can influence new approaches and possible solutions. ...
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The world is facing a large number of interrelated crises that have seriously increased the level of uncertainty and ambiguity in many areas. In 2018, the UN anticipated that the world was careering toward a global water crisis with a 40% shortfall in freshwater resources by 2030 coupled with a rising population. This nascent crisis represents a “connected challenge” for countries: it contains a multitude of causes and consequences, a multitude of actors and interests for which no “one-size-fits-all” solutions are available. The adequate approach to this type of complex—or “wicked”—problems is not to search for technological solutions only, but to consider new forms of governance that make use of complementary institutional logics. Effective governance depends on the extent of alignment with the complexity and the root causes of the issues. This paper applies wicked problem theory to identify the root institutional and governance causes of uncertainty in a developing country like Brazil, which provides insights to (also) identify approaches that could navigate change in less uncertain and ambiguous directions. We distinguish three types of relevant institutional constraints: logics, complementarities, and voids. Based on semi-structured interviews with representatives from Brazil's water and sanitation sector, we delineate institutional constraints precipitated by the plurality of the governance system. We argue why a tripartite partnership approach—as for instance pioneered by Dutch international water projects in the global South—presents a way out of the wicked water and sanitation problems in Brazil.
... In terms of addressing wicked problems, it can be argued that governance is the most logical approach in solving it considering the multidimensionality of it. Indeed, no single actor can solve it and consequently requires multiple actors who are expected to view it in different ways based on the views and predispositions of their interests in the problem (Crowley and Head, 2017). Such multiplicity of actors is reflected in governance which tends to favour 'participatory and dialogue-based approaches to goal setting, planning, and strategizing' (Head and Alford 2015, p.715). ...
... ArtScience collaborations can help facilitate dialogue and create relationships and networks among diverse stakeholders, thus enabling the collective determination of the 'right' action at any one moment (Wexler, 2009). ArtScience collaborations can also help develop place-centric collaborative approaches for engagement and help reexamine our relationship with the Ocean overall, both of which are necessary for inspiring and sustaining continued action (Waddock et al., 2015;Crowley and Head, 2017). ...
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The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development recognizes the current ocean sustainability crisis and calls for a transformation of ocean science. Many of the key challenges recognized by the UN Decade are examples of wicked problems: intractable and messy situations with high stakeholder divergence. Addressing wicked ocean sustainability problems requires adaptable, iterative, and participatory approaches that can embrace multiple ways of knowing. It also requires a re-imagining of our relationship with the Ocean from extraction and resulting environmental degradation, towards the building of a sense of connection and stewardship. We propose ArtScience as a means to this end by highlighting how transdisciplinary collaborations can help create sustainable ocean futures. We reflect on a recent ArtScience event emerging from Ocean Networks Canada’s Artist-in-Residence programme. By situating ArtScience in a broader context of inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations, we demonstrate how ArtScience collaborations can help transform ocean science by envisioning previously unimagined possibilities, and establishing and strengthening relationships with diverse stakeholders through long-term mission-driven or place-based inquiry. We conclude with a call to action to acknowledge the potential these collaborations hold for addressing the challenges of the UN Ocean Decade.
... Conflict surrounding gray wolves has ignited much scholarly interest. Alongside growing recognition of the human dimensions of HWC, research has increasingly looked to the social sciences to supplement exploration and engagement with the wicked problems of conservation (Baruch-Mordo et al., 2009;Charnley et al., 2017;Martin, 2021b; on wicked problems, see Rittel and Webber, 1973;Crowley and Head, 2017;. Research on the human dimensions of wolf conflict draws attention to the various ways social attitudes, perceptions, and values affect interactions among wolves, livestock, and human groups. ...
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) Understanding Human–Canid Conflict and Coexistence: Socioeconomic Correlates Underlying Local Attitude and Support Toward the Endangered Dhole (Cuon alpinus) in Bhutan.
... Develop and introduce theories of the wicked problems Types of the wicked problem (complexity; complex problem; messy problem; ill-structure problem) Characteristics of the wicked problem (uncertainty; completely) Conceptual framework of the wicked problem Lönngren and van Poeck (2020), Alford and Head (2017), Peters (2015), Crowley and Head (2017), Head and Alford (2015), Hoppe (2009), Rittel and Webber (1973), Simon (1962), Jones and Baumgartner (2005), Klijn and Snellen (2009) Empirical researches in multi-disciplinary of the wicked problem (2008) express a common theme-the problematic nature of social problems and the persistence of their solutions, as well as the lack of systematic analysis to deal with these problems. But some scholars argued that there is a lack of clarity by drawing equivalent definitions between wicked problems and those that are "ill-structured" (Daviter 2017) or "ill-defined, ambiguous, and contested" (Termeer et al. 2015), not to mention the many other analogical terms used besides "wicked", such as messy, fuzzy, complex or dilemmas (Bevir and Rhodes 2006;Roe 2013). ...
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With the increase of social complexity and uncertainty, wicked problems have become the hot and difficult issues in the frontier research of public policy. The concept of wicked problems was proposed in the 1960s. Since then, it has gradually spread to many disciplines, such as environment, urban planning, public policy, etc. A comprehensive understanding of the research progress of the transdisciplinary method is an important way to understand wicked problems. This paper uses Citespace5.5, based on bibliometrics and visual analysis techniques, to analyze 800 academic publications related to wicked problems and visually display the transdisciplinarity knowledge map and information panorama of wicked problems. Through a multi-level descriptive analysis of key literature, research origin, research hotspots and trend of the research on wicked problems, this paper finds out the law of knowledge growth and internal evolution logic of the research on wicked problems, and concludes that the transdisciplinarity research of wicked problems is forming, which shows the rule from knowledge diffusion (single discipline) to knowledge coherence (transdisciplinarity). The discipline of public policy has the potential to change the knowledge constraints of a single discipline and may offer transdisciplinarity approaches to wicked problems.
... They conclude that replicability, rigour in the assessment, and an informed decision by policymakers concerning the ranking are indispensable. Another reason for the challenges of working with SDGs can be explained by considering them as "wicked problems": As they lack clear formulation, available information is misleading, and stakeholders have conflicting values (see e.g., Eden and Wagstaff, 2020;McCall and Burge, 2016;Crowley and Head, 2017;Peters and Tarpey, 2019). Furthermore, the goals themselves cannot be classified as true or false, they are just good or bad. ...
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Several European countries plan to phase out coal-fired power plants in order to reach their greenhouse gas abatement targets. Additionally, the phase-out will bring about so-called ancillary effects or co-effects. In our study, we focus on the co-effects induced in the countries that export coal to Europe. Furthermore, we examine the ancillary effects imposed on China as a major supplier of technologies (like solar energy technologies) that will replace coal-fired power plants. Using a combination of an input-output model, econometric analysis and employing the concept of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, we assess impacts of coal phase-out policies on environmental, economic, and societal dimensions. Our results show that despite negative impacts on income and employment in coal-exporting countries, a phase-out of coal-fired power plants is linked with multiple positive effects. In particular, we observe improvements in water management and biodiversity conservation, reduced release of pollutants, and improvements on a societal level. However, even if we consider a reduction in the use of coal in the European steel production sector as an additional challenge, these positive impacts on coal exporting countries remain rather small. The same applies to the effects we observe for China.
Purpose This paper aims to explore ways through which social marketing could help to revolutionise marketing education and argues that this change is needed now. The world is confronting a variety of serious challenges, including a global pandemic, an urgent climate emergency and overdue social transformations. Social marketing, with its far-sightedness, holistic systems thinking and genuine concern for the well-being of society and the environment, is ideally positioned to step forward to help accelerate the transformation of marketing education for the next generation of marketers. Design/methodology/approach This paper is conceptual and is informed by the literature on social marketing over its 50 years history, supplemented by the wider marketing literature. A SWOT analysis is used to analyse the proposed transformation of marketing education. Findings Six strengths are proposed by which social marketing can help to revolutionise marketing education, identified under the acronym COHERE: collaboration with a diversity of disciplines and stakeholders; openness to sharing knowledge, experience and detailed case studies; a holistic approach with a longer time horizon; engaging authentically with the social good; research that breaks new ground in theory and practice; and ethics embedded at its core. Practical implications The opportunities to help revolutionise marketing education offered through these strengths are explored, the weaknesses and threats acknowledged and the implications for marketing and social marketing analysed. Originality/value This paper proposes how (through the six identified strengths) and when (now) social marketing can help revolutionise marketing education, by adopting a dual lens of social and commercial marketing.
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Wicked policy problems are often said to be characterized by their ‘intractability’, whereby appeals to evidence are unable to provide policy resolution. Advocates for ‘Evidence Based Policy’ (EBP) often lament these situations as representing the misuse of evidence for strategic ends, while critical policy studies authors counter that policy decisions are fundamentally about competing values, with the (blind) embrace of technical evidence depoliticizing political decisions. This paper aims to help resolve these conflicts and, in doing so, consider how to address this particular feature of problem wickedness. Specifically the paper delineates two forms of evidentiary bias that drive intractability, each of which is reflected by contrasting positions in the EBP debates: ‘technical bias’—referring to invalid uses of evidence; and ‘issue bias’—referring to how pieces of evidence direct policy agendas to particular concerns. Drawing on the fields of policy studies and cognitive psychology, the paper explores the ways in which competing interests and values manifest in these forms of bias, and shape evidence utilization through different mechanisms. The paper presents a conceptual framework reflecting on how the nature of policy problems in terms of their complexity, contestation, and polarization can help identify the potential origins and mechanisms of evidentiary bias leading to intractability in some wicked policy debates. The discussion reflects on how a better understanding about such mechanisms could inform future work to mitigate or overcome such intractability.
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The concept of “wicked problems” has attracted increasing focus in policy research, but the implications for public organizations have received less attention. This article examines the main organizational and cognitive dimensions emerging from the research literature on wicked problems. We identify several recent approaches to addressing problem complexity and stakeholder divergence based on the literatures on systems thinking, collaboration and coordination, and the adaptive leadership roles of public leaders and managers. We raise some challenges for public management in some key functional areas of government—strategy making, organizational design, people management, and performance measurement. We argue that provisional solutions can be developed, despite the difficulties of reforming governance processes to address wicked problems more effectively.
In this essay we argue that while classical modern planning cannot solve wicked problems, collaborative rationality can successfully move beyond them and develop useful and innovative strategies. We then outline the characteristics of a collaboratively rational planning process, which we have developed on the basis of decades of research and practice and Habermas' concept of communicative rationality. We show how it offers a model for the second generation systems-approach which Rittel and Webber called for. We talk about the practicalities of getting such processes organized and close with commentary of what planner's roles are in them.
The concept of wicked problems has been increasingly recognized in policy studies over the last decade. However, 40 years after the concept was introduced, the bulk of the available research still seems to follow the same approach: Issues are identified as being wicked problems, and rather similar models are theorized to address them. We argue that the research on wicked problems would benefit from a stronger empirical slant; the current research adopts just such an empirical approach in focusing on the role of citizens in tackling wicked policy issues. More specifically, the mechanisms of deliberative democracy are analyzed. This is important because wicked policy issues are commonly associated with fragmentation and incoherence. Deliberative mechanisms are then thought to lead toward public judgment, a form of shared understanding where citizens strive to understand the complexity of the issue and, working together in deliberation, seek the best ways to address it. Drawing on the outcomes of four deliberative forums on euthanasia conducted in Finland in November 2013, the current research analyzes whether the deliberation process helped the participants to progress on the public’s learning curve and whether it was ultimately likely to foster authentic public judgment on a particular wicked policy issue.
Wicked Environmental Problems offers new approaches for managing environmental conflicts and shows how managers could apply these approaches within common, real-world statutory decision-making frameworks.
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