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Wicked Problems

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Design Dictionary

Part of the book series: Board of International Research in Design ((BIRD))

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“Wicked problems” is a phrase first coined by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, theorists of design and social planning respectively, at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973.

A wicked problem defies any standard attempt to find a solution because it is a symptom or result of multiple, contingent, and conflicting issues. Environmental degradation, social and economic inequity, and terrorism are some of the classic wicked problems that we face in the twenty-first century. Designers often work on particular problems that comprise or contribute to a complex “wicked problem.” However, an isolated design solution (or that of any discipline) arrived at through an established process will almost by definition make the problem worse.

Due to their (→) complexity, wicked problems require the work of collaborative teams of people with a range of expertise over space and time. A process designed to address a wicked problem typically has no definitive solution, but, can, at best, achieve...

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  • Rittel, H., and M. M. Webber. 1973. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4:155–69. (Reprinted in N. Cross, ed. Developments in design methodology, pp. 135–44. Chichester: J. Wiley & Sons, 1984).

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Michael Erlhoff Tim Marshall

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© 2008 Birkhäuser Verlag AG

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Marshall, T. (2008). Wicked Problems. In: Erlhoff, M., Marshall, T. (eds) Design Dictionary. Board of International Research in Design. Birkhäuser Basel.

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