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Roger Clarke's 'Wicked Problems'

What's a Wicked Problem?

Notes of 13 March 2013

Roger Clarke **

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The concept of a wicked problem is capable of many interpretations. It involves elements of complexity, lack of understanding, lack of capacity to influence, and intractability. Even the difficulties confronted by the Australian cricket team in India sound like a wicked problem. Which of these patterns are wicked, and which are merely naughty?

1. An undefinable problem (indigenous health and social policy?)

2. A system too large to be controlled by humankind (e.g. a supernova, ice-age cycles)

2. An easily perturbable system, in which tiny changes in some phenomena result in very large changes in others ('the straw that broke the camel's back', and 'butterflies start tornadoes'. In modelling terms, such relationships involve discontinuous distributions)

3. An unstable, rapidly evolving system (e.g. flu epidemics)

4. A system that contains elements ('players') who (or that) are sentient beings, i.e. whose actions arise from processes endogenous to the being rather than endogenous to the system, and that are not understood and are hence unpredictable

5. A complex system for which no adequate model has been developed (e.g. the conflict between particle and wave theories of matter; unresolved issues in the theory of electro-magnetism; the obesity epidemic)

6. A system that appears very different when considered at different levels of abstraction (how long is the coast of an island or continent?)

7. A system for which model conflict exists, e.g. the perspectives of different disciplines on the system are irreconcileable (often, economics and engineering; almost always, economics and law, and engineering and law; sometimes economics and economics, especially scarce-resource economics and plentiful-resource/information economics), e.g. the different models used at different levels of abstraction are irreconcileable

8. A system that contains unmeasurable variables (e.g. accurate meteorological prediction requires measurements of many aspects of many phenomena, from a vast number of locations, including amidst cyclones, in real time)

9. A highly inter-connected system, in which the concept of causality is an unjustified simplifying assumption. (A postulate of holism is that the only reliable model of a complex system is the system itself. For a playful investigation of the inter-connectedness of all things, see Douglas Adams' 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency')

10. A system in which no intervention can be contrived that makes any player better off without making one or more other players worse off (violation of the 'pareto optimality' criterion), including a system in which an improvement to the position of one player results in an equivalent worsening of the position of another (a 'zero-sum game')

11. A system in which the (ab)use of institutional or market power is engrained (e.g. corruption, particularly in many third-world countries)

12. A context in which players have irreconcileable interests (e.g. the same patch is lusted after by loggers and locals desperate for a source of income, on the one hand, and conservationists, on the other)

13. A context in which players have irreconcileable values (e.g. the faith-based desire of one group to impose its own life-style and/or death-style on people who are not of that faith)

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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Created: 13 March 2013 - Last Amended: 13 March 2013 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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