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Complexity, categories, wickedness

In this blog post I am going to connect two items. One dates from 1973, the famous Wicked Problems paper and one from 2014, a useful book by Elisabeth Bjorndal Skjelten. The references are at the end. The 1973 item is about intractactable, messy problems and the 2014 item suggests a way for people to address these kinds of things. I am not saying that we can magic away deeply rooted and serious problems with some mapping. I am saying that the kinds of fuzzy, vague and ill-defined things designers deal with can be helped a bit further towards resolution. I don´t like hype.

First, let´s look at the wicked problems. They are not the tame problems of engineers. The definition of the problem is part of the problem. They are wide open to interpretation and chances are that attempts to solve the problem just change the situation and do so irreversibly. If we look at the political and economic situation of the UK we mights see a wicked problem write large – no-one even agrees what the problem is, let alone how to deal with it. On a smaller and more design-like scale you could imagine a struggling customer who things something is wrong but the various actors in the situation don´t agree, can´t visualise thing or share a common understanding. Rittel and Webber who wrote the paper presented these symptoms of a wicked problem. They contrasted with the “tame” problem of the engineer or the defined brief. An example would be to build a bridge or style a new toothbrush. Even with the aesthetic dimension involved in a toothbrush redesign, the job is straightforward, like the bridge: distance, time, money, materials, expected weights etc. A set of numbers dropped into a programme will come up with a basic solution easily enough (I am dramatically simplifying here – I know bridges are a bit more complex than this). Compare to something like how to respond to digitalisation if you are an analogue company; how to deal with shifts in social media behaviour; do we even need this product? Why is the company struggling to sell widgets? Is it even struggling?

Now we turn to item two which deals with approaches to spaghetti-knot problems. Skjelten´s book (just 1200 copies exist) explains how to tame complexity by using mapping workshops. This isn´t another splodge of design thinking. What it really is the use of ontology to organize relationships in a way stakeholders can see. The tricky thing with the world is that it is a multidimensional maze of categories. A category might be dairy products. Another might be “stuff in tetrapaks” and “things I don’t use much”. Now use that programme to organize your fridge. It might work for you but not for everyone, or anyone who has different categories. Complexity and Other Beasts presents a set of easy-to-follow steps to get stakeholders to understand and graphically represent wicked-ish problems. Perhaps if our political leaders tried it then our societal wicked problems might be approached differently. But at least where there is a common interest such as inside a company or group, this methods outlined can be used to turn wicked problems into more manageable components or at least even see what the matter might be.

Mapping workshops can be open or structured, depending on how wicked the problem is. They are best done on tables not walls and the idea is that no ideas are too off-the-wall to be written down. A key point is the removal of filters: this is akin to what de Bono calls black hat thinking. One thing I would add to the mapping is the labelling of the arrows. Any item on the map with an interconnecting line must have a verb. Otherwise it´s not so useful. You could have “hat” and “lady” on the diagram, connected by a one way arrow but what does the arrow mean: “lady wears hat”, “hat injures lady” or “lady hates hat”. If you don´t know what the arrow means then that is a possible line of inquiry. Something might be amiss or unexplained or overlooked.

The map itself may be a tangible output but the most important output is the process of simultaneous consideration of a problem. The business of putting onto paper makes evident the ontology (the categories) and layers of the matter. From this we can also see that what Rittel and Webber are trying to discuss is problems composed of many layers of values and categories. A tame problem is probably a single-category: things we can measure and are present or absent. They are also more objective. A wicked problem is one where we need to expose and express the categories so we can begin to agree on what matters and what can be done within a consensus.


Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Skjelten, E. B. (2014). Complexity and other beasts. Oslo School of Architecture and Design


This is the abstract for Rittel and Webber´s 1973 paper. It´s very readable.

"The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers."

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