Wicked Problems: How can we Identify and Solve these Problems through Design Thinking

The term “wicked problems” was first mentioned in 1973 by Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber who worked as the Professors of Design and Urban Planning at the University of California. They described “wicked problems” as different than traditional problems considering traditional processes cannot solve these problems. Conventional processes not only fail at solving these problems but also generate unwanted circumstances that may result in further hurdles in finding solutions. Thus, these problems are harder to solve and complicated to explain. The question arises here that if these problems are hard to explain then how do we identify these problems?


Several properties can be used to identify a wicked problem. These properties are listed as below:





1. These problems do not have any solid definition. There is also no definitive way of defining a wicked problem. Because of being complex, a wicked problem is also harder to address

2. The factors associated with wicked problems are often incomplete which contributes to the difficulty of defining these problems

3. The outcome of a wicked problem is either good or bad. There is no in-between where one can adjust the factors to lean towards a good solution. Thus, the solutions can improve or worsen the situation at hand

4. In a wicked problem, several factors are interlinked with each other. Improving one factor may worsen the other and vice versa

5. Each wicked problem is essentially unique which makes it harder to apply a general problem-solving approach to these problems

6. For a wicked problem, there is no opportunity to learn through testing leaving no room for trial and error. This makes it difficult to predict the outcome of the solution that is implied

7. Wicked problems lack alternative solutions which make these problems a one-shot operation. This is particularly a disadvantage considering not every solution implied leads to desired results

8. For wicked problems, there is always more than one explanation because all the factors are associated with each other, and the problem can be addressed from many different directions

9. In a wicked problem, the designer or planner has to be accountable for the outcome of the solution. Thus, there is a greater responsibility and accountability associated with being the designer or planner for a wicked problem

10. There is no stopping rule when it comes to a wicked problem. Thus, it is very hard to determine when the solution will be finalized or developed


Now that we know some of the qualities of wicked problems, the next thing you might be wondering about is the practical example of a wicked problem. The following illustration mentions the wicked problems. All of these examples reflect if not all then many of the properties mentioned above. We will expand on one of these problems to provide a deeper understanding of the qualities used to identify a wicked problem.





Climate Change: Climate change is a modern-day wicked problem being faced by the whole world. This problem reflects many qualities of a wicked problem such as several factors being interlinked to each other, several explanations of the increase in climate change, the outcome being potentially bad, less room for testing the solutions without damaging other factors in the climate.


These problems are difficult to solve, manage or even address but Design Thinking has proved to be a very beneficial tool in this regard. Here a question may arise that considering these problems are impossible to solve, how does Design Thinking helps solve these wicked problems?


Design thinking can help solve these problems because these problems require an agile approach. These problems also need to be re-defined as smaller problems which can be done by following the Design Thinking approach. Design thinking can also help by enforcing team-building activities which in turn would increase the communication skills within the group. In the case of wicked problems, we need to keep in mind that a deeper understanding of the circumstances is required to fully define a wicked problem which can be gained through Design thinking considering this is a human-centered approach that advocates for empathy and mutual understanding. Because these problems are difficult to define and address, a visual explanation of the problem can also help to gain a wider view of the problem. To achieve a visual understanding, Design thinking’s several methods and tools can be used for example stakeholders map, customer-journey map, and rapid personas, etc.


To conclude, it may be difficult to define and address a wicked problem but it is not impossible however most wicked problems look impossible when you try to address them. Design thinking can be very useful in this regard due to its agile, iterative approach, teamwork policies, visual illustrations, problem-solving tools, and human-centered approach. If you would like to learn more about Design Thinking in general or how to carry out a Design Thinking workshop to address problems then visit our other blogs: https://www.thefirstloop.com/post/steps-to-carry-out-a-successful-design-thinking-workshop

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