Horst Rittel and Mel Webber’s paper ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ (1973) introduced the core concept of ‘wicked problems’ to a wide audience of academics and practitioners. This chapter considers the development of their concept, in the context of the 1960s and 1970s literature on policy and planning. The later sections note the subsequent debates about the enduring legacy of the concepts championed by Rittel and Webber, the influence of their approach on policy analysis and policy governance, and some recent criticisms and perceived limitations of their framework. More nuanced approaches to understanding and managing intractable issues are emerging.
The concept of ‘wicked problems’ has now entered the mainstream lexicon of policy discussion. However it took many years to achieve such widespread attention. The term ‘wicked problems’ did not feature in 1973 in either the title or the key words listed in their paper. Indeed, the term itself was not closely analysed or widely cited for more than two decades. After a slow start, the term gradually became more widely known, perhaps driven by emerging concerns with complex, interconnected and contested problems such as social equity and environmental sustainability. The phrase also had to overcome a common mis-perception that ‘wicked’ problems must be about ethical choices and moral values, whereas in actuality they were about unruly and intractable problems:
As you will see, we are calling them ‘wicked’ not because these properties are themselves ethically deplorable. We use the term ‘wicked’ in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb). We do not mean to personify these properties of social systems by implying malicious intent. (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 160)
Thirty years later the article was gradually being cited at an accelerating pace, achieving over 100 annual citations (Scopus metrics) for the first time in 2008; and this growth pattern has continued with well over 500 annual citations in recent years. It became the most highly cited paper in Policy Sciences, and by 2021 had achieved over 7000 citations in academic journals (Scopus) and over 17,000 citations in the broader database of Google Scholar. The terminology has attracted a wide cross-disciplinary uptake spanning a broad range of social sciences, especially in environment and sustainability, systems and design, public policy, social policy and urban planning (citations in http://citations.springer.com/item?doi=10.1007/BF01405730&years=). Some critics thought it had become a fashionable or faddish concept, but devoid of precise meaning. Perhaps ‘wicked’ must inevitably lose its lustre, as often occurs in the ‘hype cycle’ of optimism and disillusion identified in the literature on innovation (Fenn & Raskino, 2008)?
The origins of this 1973 paper, and its links to the academic debates of the late 1960s, have been sketched in several reflections published by the colleagues and students of Rittel and Webber. It is clear that Horst Rittel (1930–1990) was the principal architect of the ‘wicked problem’ conceptualisation (Churchman, 1967; Crowley & Head, 2017a; Protzen & Harris, 2010). A professor of design studies at the Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California, Berkeley, Rittel had arrived in the USA in 1963 from a career in Germany, and he maintained close affiliations with Stuttgart and other German universities. While teaching design and architecture, he also had broader interests in planning, engineering and policymaking. As a ‘design planner’ and team leader, he intuitively linked the fields of design and politics, using methods that drew attention to the politics of design and the processes of political argumentation needed to manage wicked problems (Rith & Dubberly, 2007).
Rittel first proposed the notion of wicked problems in a public seminar in 1967, describing wicked problems as ‘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’ (Churchman, 1967, B-141). He presented these ideas to students and colleagues in various courses and seminar presentations, including a key paper to the Panel on Policy Sciences at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) in December 1969, and again in Norway in 1971. He published an important paper in German on planning crises, design methods and wicked problems in 1972 (Rittel, 1972), soon to be followed by the classic co-authored paper in Policy Sciences (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Melvin M. Webber (1920–2006) was a fellow professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Mel Webber had participated in the 1967 seminar, and contributed to the 1969 AAAS conference paper. According to Skaburskis, Webber spent years trying to nudge Rittel into publishing the wicked problems paper in a US journal, leading eventually to finalising the classic article in 1973 (Skaburskis, 2008, p. 277). For a list of Rittel’s writings, see Rith et al. (2007).
Webber had independently concluded that rationality was a comforting myth of scholars and practitioners in the planning profession. As he wrote in two later papers:
The attractiveness of the idea of scientific planning has been hard to resist, for it has held out the promise of right answers, of revealing what we should want, and of saying what we need to do. It seduces with the prospect of certainty, and thus with the prospect of relief from the discomforts of ambiguity and of having to decide things in the face of conflicting evidence and competing wants. (Webber, 1978, p. 152)
The 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…[Central planning should constrain itself]… to constituting the rules for deciding and to promoting open debate. (Webber, 1983, p. 89)
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Rittel had initially joined in developing and refining the orthodox rational approach to design and planning methods utilising a rigorous, scientific, systems-based approach. However, by the late 1960s, he had shifted towards a ‘second generation’ design approach based on social networks, communication and feedback processes (Protzen & Harris, 2010; Rith & Dubberly, 2007). The turbulent US socio-political context of the early 1970s caused many commentators to reflect on the fundamental contradiction between the achievements of technological systems (where rationality, order and control had allowed NASA to put a man on the moon) and the evident social complexities and policy chaos of the USA in the face of relentless social challenges (Nelson, 1974; Wildavsky, 1973). These dilemmas and paradoxes informed the knowledge framework for wicked problems analysis.
The seminar at which Rittel proposed the notion of wicked problems was organised by systems theorist West Churchman (1967), who at that time was exploring ways to transfer any ‘lessons’ from space technology program management into the contrasting ‘world of urban problems’ (Skaburskis, 2008, p. 277). Rittel had listed ten differences between scientific and social problems in his 1967 seminar. With minor adjustments these formed the framework for the complex definition of wicked problems in ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’. The Abstract of the 1973 article announces their core arguments:
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. (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p. 155)
Rittel and Webber became well known for developing these distinctions between significant social problems—especially ‘wicked’ problems characterised by differences in values and perspectives—and more technical problems (typified by contemporary challenges in engineering, operations research and computational science). Whereas wicked problems could only be advanced through stakeholder engagement, technical problems (‘tame’ or ‘benign’ problems) could in most cases be solved by relying on existing forms of knowledge such as the operating logics of engineering and computation. Although Rittel and Webber made contributions to a richer form of systems theory, by emphasising social complexity and social interconnections, their primary intellectual legacy rested upon their characterisation of wicked problems as confounding the rational approach to problem-solving and social improvement.