The Origins, Impact and Significance of 'Wicked Problems'

Kate Crowley

Kate Crowley is Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Tasmania.

Brian Head

Brian Head is Professor of Policy Analysis at the University of Queensland.

In our contribution to the 50th Anniversary edition of Policy Sciences, we recently revisited Rittel and Webber’s (1973) path breaking conceptualisation of wicked problems, in order to explore the origins of this paper, and to reflect upon why it has been of enduring significance in policy studies[1].


Wicked problems are - ‘that class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’.[2]


In 1973, Horst Rittel and Mel Webber published ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ in Policy Sciences. It remains that journal’s most highly cited paper, with a citation rate that continues to increase across a broad cross-disciplinary range of journals[3].

The wicked problems concept figures prominently in environmental journals (focused for example on environment, marine and oceans, sustainability, energy, and cleaner production), but also in policy and planning journals, as well as the more niche systems and design journals.

Rittel and Webber’s rejection of rational planning and scientific method as approaches to solving the social problems of their time was a key motivation for their depiction of wicked problems as those complex, ill-defined, malignant issues that can never really be ‘solved’.

This notion has had great resonance. Their depiction of wicked problems has been widely  accepted as drawing attention to enduring areas of policy frustration and conflict. However whilst wicked problem terminology has been widely applied to diverse policy issues, there has been less interest in why it was developed, namely in response to the radically disrupted American society of the 1960s and 1970s and the authors’ rejection of technological fixes being advanced to solve complex, chaotic problems.

In rejecting any grand theories of rational planning, Rittel and Webber argued for the need to capture the views of the ‘mini-publics’ that now comprised American society. Thus, in the search for solutions to complex problems, they embraced robust political argumentation as a way forward.

As Mel Webber later explained: ‘(T)he 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’.[4]

In 1981, Catron applauded Rittel and Webber for their ontological, epistemological and ethical achievements in: identifying wicked problems; challenging our ability to understand them; and questioning our ability to act rightly in relation to them (pp. 13-14)[5].

Meanwhile, in 1998, Alexander pursued the idea of wicked problems in the planning context, advocating a contingency framework, integrating four different views of planning: ‘deliberative rationality, communicative practice, coordinative planning and frame setting’ (p. 667)[6].

Many other authors have since developed similar ideas using other adjectival forms such as ‘messy’ or ‘intractable’ or ‘unstructured’ or ‘contested’ problems. Invariably the policy approaches recommended for such problems are consistent with Rittel and Webber’s own, namely what Fischer termed ‘increased doses of participation’[7].

Constructivist interpretations became well established in the literature, paving the way for a new wave of reflective analysis that remains active today. Environmental policy analysis has, for example, closely focused on the value-based complexities of wicked social-ecological problems.

However, argumentative solutions to ecological problems have at times challenged the centrality and validity of expert knowledge. The arts of political negotiation seemed crucially important under conditions of uncertainty, in complex networks, and at the boundary between science, stakeholders and politics.

In our review, we have found that the provocative conception of wickedness explains much of the enduring impact and significance of Rittel and Webber’s ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’. But the literature has also spawned an extensive wicked problems ‘solutions industry’.

Rittel and Webber were themselves fairly bleak about the capacity for wicked problem solving. They never managed to write the constructive companion piece on solution making that they reportedly had in mind to complement the 1973 paper on ‘Dilemmas’.

In 2000, for example, Nancy Roberts noted three common sets of strategies for coping with wicked problems: competitive (where power is dispersed but contested), collaborative (where power is dispersed but not contested), and authoritative (where power is not dispersed)[8].

The concept has recently been expanded to encompass ‘super-wickedness’ as a descriptor of the intractable global challenges such as climate change.  Furthermore, Varone et al propose an innovative integration of ‘boundary spanning’, ‘territorial institutionalism’ and ‘multi-leveled governance’ to create expanded institutional and governance spaces to deal with them[9].

Other policy writers interested in problem solving have urged that the insights of their 1973 paper should be updated, by forging closer linkages with the modern literatures on governance, policy design and innovation, implementation, and the politics of crisis management[10].

Political context is crucial, they argue, but problem definition is definitely relative. So any solutions must be arrived at by transparent, robust argumentation, and any policy interventions will definitely have consequences that cannot be easily controlled in open, highly pluralised systems.

It was foremost on the mind of policy makers of their day that, if America could put a man on the moon, then surely it could deal with social upheaval using the same systems logic. Rittel and Webber’s propositions for defining wicked problems were intended to explain why this isn’t so.

Theorists and practitioners agree with Rittel and Webber today that political argumentation is the currency needed to resolve wicked problems, but also that any resolutions are not likely be ‘one shot’ solutions. They will necessarily be provisional, and so will require adaptation over time.


           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 problem.

 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 problem.

 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.



[1] Kate Crowley & Brian W. Head, The enduring challenge of ‘wicked problems’: Revisiting Rittel and Webber, Policy Sciences, December 2017. DOI: 10.1007/s11077-017-9302-4.

[2] Churchman, C. W. (1967). Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4), B141-142 [Rittel first used the concept of wicked problems in this paper].

[3]Citation information is available at Policy Sciences -

[4] Webber, M.M. (1983). The myth of rationality: Development planning reconsidered. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 10(1): 89-99.

[5] Catron, B. L. (1981). On taming wicked problems. Dialogue, 3(3): 13-16.

[6] Alexander, E. R. (1998). Doing the ‘impossible’: Notes for a general theory of planning. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 25(5): 667-680.

[7] Fischer, F. (1993). Citizen participation and the democratization of policy expertise: From theoretical inquiry to practical cases. Policy Sciences, 26: 165-187.

[8] Roberts, N. (2000). Wicked problems and network approaches to resolution. International Public Management Review, 1(1): 1- 19.

[9] Varone, F., Nahrath, S., Aubin, D. and Gerber, J-D. (2013). Functional regulatory spaces. Policy Sciences, 46: 311-333.

[10] See for example the special issues on wicked problems in Landscape & Urban Planning, Vol 154 (2016) and Policy & Society, 36(3) (2017). 

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