do wicked problems justify inclusive processes?

The original article that coined the idea of “wicked problems” has been cited nearly 19,000 times. In their 1973 piece,* Rittel and Webber explained why we lacked fully satisfactory social policies and criticized two popular approaches: expert-designed solutions and maximum individual choice.

Rittel and Webber did not offer an alternative to those two flawed approaches, but many people since then (including me) have argued that wicked problem necessitate inclusive processes. Because social problems have the features Rittel and Webber name, everyone must play a role in defining and addressing problems–continuously and together. Our focus shifts to designing good processes.

In this post, I want to raise a dilemma: inclusive processes must include many people who hold strong and plausible reasons to reject the social theory that leads to the idea of wicked problems in the first place. It is hard to envision a process that is hospitable to people who reject the social theory that justifies it.

But first, what social theory are we talking about? Rittel and Webber offer 10 criteria to define wicked problems. I have summarized their list (with some reorganization) here. For the moment, let’s focus on these specific issues:

“Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (p. 162). Yet people disagree about what is good. Furthermore, “Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). Thus we can endlessly disagree about the center or “locus” of the problem. This is one reason that “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (p. 161). There is no way to develop an exhaustive list of all the possible solutions (p. 164). And “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)

The underlying model in Rittel and Webber is a network of causes and effects. Each problem affects others. There is no root cause. For instance, the issues of racism, poverty, guns, militarization, violent crime, lack of public safety, disinvestment, segregation, substance-abuse, mental illness, educational deficits, etc. are all tangled up. We can intervene at many different points, and each intervention has limitations and challenges. Also, facts cannot be separated from normative judgments, and judgments are permanently contested. For instance, to say that “crime is up this year” is to imply a whole set of judgments about how people should be able to act, who gets to decide, and what should matter to the community.

The challenges that Rittel and Webber identify do not (by themselves) entail democratic processes. These challenges might instead imply pessimism: maybe there simply are no solutions. Or these challenges might suggest some kind of modus vivendi: people who disagree about problems should leave each other alone. Or perhaps we need more sophisticated technical methods in order to identify satisfactory solutions.

I happen to endorse Rittel’s and Webber’s social theory. I would add a commitment to collaborative self-governance as a quasi-intrinsic good. Communities should create the social world through their deliberate action. If that is right, then Rittel and Webber provide helpful arguments against expert-led, top-down approaches and make space for democratic processes. However, democratic processes require additional justification. They certainly do not always succeed–no matter how you define success. And if you don’t agree that collective self-government has intrinsic value, you may understandably look for alternatives.

Further, many people have reasons to doubt the underlying social theory. If the root problem is capitalism–which is really bad and not just disliked by some–and if the solution is workers’ control of the means of production, then all this talk of “wicked problems” is just a ham-handed justification of the status quo. The same is true if individual negative liberty is the highest good, the problem is state coercion, and the solution is a free market. Or if the problem is white supremacy and the solution is liberation from that.

These three views are incompatible with mine and (to an extent) with each other. Obviously, I could be wrong, and one or more of these alternatives could be correct. Since I am unsure, and since I respect my fellow human beings, I favor a democratic process to debate our differences and decide together. Yet the kinds of processes I would build or endorse reflect my social theory. They are ameliorative rather than revolutionary. They envision people constantly focusing on a few tangible, immediate problems at a time, taking concrete steps to ameliorate those problems, and reflecting on the effects as they ripple out. The processes I envision are truly inclusive, which means that at some stage, the police, the capitalists, and the state bureaucrats should be part of the discussion, not defined as the problem.

The question is why people who disagree with those premises should want to participate. That dilemma is not merely theoretical; large numbers of people actually do disagree. Perhaps it is wiser not to use the theory of wicked problems to justify inclusive processes.

Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4.2, 1973, 155-169. See also: wicked problems, and excuses; Complexities of Civic Life; and what must we believe?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.