The Wickedness of Wicked Problems

BY ANN PENDLETON-JULLIAN & JOHN SEELY BROWN

The following is an excerpt from Design Unbound. Designing for Emergence in a White Water World.

In an era of “precarious terrain,” we are increasingly confronted with complex, dynamic, problem environments. These are environments rather than isolated problems, and they are socio-technological in nature. These prob­lem environments are often characterized as “wicked problems.”

In 1973, the concept of wicked problems was introduced. “A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. (In) wicked problems … the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented.”

Wicked problems are not solvable in a traditional sense. They do not yield to single solutions, even multifaceted single solutions. “They are problems with no explicit basis for the termination of problem-solving activity—no stop­ping rule. Any time a solution is proposed, it can, at least to some significant extent, be developed further. … Solutions that are proposed are not necessarily correct or incorrect. Plausible alternative solutions can always be provided.”

The wickedness of a wicked problem derives from the complex, interrelated, and systemic nature of the problem. Therefore, creating change—approaching a solution—also requires a complex, systemic approach. It requires action systems whose outcomes become clear over time as one works deeply embedded inside the problem. We see these as environments rather than problems.

The art of dealing effectively with wicked problems is in not applying solutions too early in the process of engagement. Having the courage and instinct to try lots of things; to create and invent partial and provisional responses that affect the complex system of relationships and exchanges; to probe and study the responses while simultaneously changing the problem space until the gap between the “wickedness” of the problem, and an effective response, is narrowed. Wicked problems are indistinguishable from their context and its setup. Working on wicked problems is design, not merely problem solving.

Wicked problem environments are multidisciplinary, but they differentiate themselves from traditional multidisciplinary team research projects by the nature of the problem space itself. Wicked problem spaces are polyarchic, or ruled by many agents and forces involved in the exchanges within the problem environment. Some of these exchanges are collaborative, others are competitive, and still others are fully symbiotic. Wicked problem spaces are also polycentric, and the many different centers of focus shift from one expertise to another. Wicked problem spaces are polymorphic, where the environment of exchange is constantly changing its form; sometimes simple and manageable, sometimes complex and seem­ingly irresolvable. And finally, wicked problem spaces are often polylemmic (an argument analogous to a dilemma with more than three alternatives), where one must choose between multiple unsatisfactory options just to keep the problem moving.

The polyarchic, polycentric, polymorphic, and polylemmic nature of wicked problems requires an extreme form of multidisciplinarianism that is agile enough to change course as needed, and pervasively engaged by all partici­pants. Agility requires that practitioners extend themselves beyond their own expertise—in a sense they must be expert-generalists—and able to think forward as well as backward.

Ann Pendleton-Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator of international standing whose work explores the interchange between architecture, landscape, culture, science, and technology within complex contexts. She is currently Full Professor and former Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, advisor to the President of Georgetown University, and advisor and distinguished Visiting Professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy. She has co-taught world building studios at USC’s School of Cinema. From 1993-2007, she was a tenured professor of architecture at MIT.

ApJ’s projects range in scale and scope from things to systems of action: from houses to hotels, a Congress Hall in Chile, universities and cultural buildings. Much of her recent work focuses on empowerment and economic development through various projects including the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and an eight-village ecosystem conceived around rural craft tourism in Guizhou province in China.

John Seely Brown (JSB) was Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation as well as the director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) until 2002. A master integrator and instigator of productive friction, JSB explores the whitespace between disciplines and builds bridges between disparate organizations and ideas. In his more than two decades at PARC, Brown transformed the organization into a truly multidisciplinary research center at the creative edge of applied technology and design, integrating social sciences and arts into the traditional physics and computer science research and expanding the role of corporate research to include topics such as the management of radical innovation, organizational learning, and complex adaptive systems.

JSB is currently a visiting scholar and advisor to the Provost at the University of Southern California (USC) and the Independent Co-Chairman for Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and has served on numerous private and public boards of directors, including Amazon.