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What Are Wicked Problems and How Might We Solve Them?
Have you ever come across a problem so complex that you struggled to know where to start? Then you might have stumbled upon a wicked problem. While wicked problems may not have a definite solution, there are certainly things you can do to mitigate any negative effects. When you learn how to tackle wicked problems, you learn how to improve the world and the lives of the people who live in it. Here, you’ll learn the ten characteristics of a wicked problem and five steps to tackle wicked problems.
What Is a Wicked Problem?
A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that’s difficult or impossible to solve because of its complex and interconnected nature. Wicked problems lack clarity in both their aims and solutions, and are subject to real-world constraints which hinder risk-free attempts to find a solution.
Classic examples of wicked problems are these:
What is the Difference between Puzzles, Problems and Wicked Problems?
Let’s create an overview by first looking into the difference between a puzzle and a problem, and then afterwards we’ll examine wicked problems.
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Which Wicked Problems Do We Need to Deal with?
Many of the design problems we face are wicked problems, where clarifying the problem is often as big a task as solving it… or perhaps even bigger. Wicked problems are problems with many interdependent factors making them seem impossible to solve as there is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.
A wicked problem is often a social or cultural problem. For example, how would you try to solve global issues such as poverty… or education? What about climate change, and access to clean drinking water? It’s hard to know where to begin, right? That’s because they’re all wicked problems.
What makes them even worse is the way they’re intertwined with one another. If you try to address an element of one problem, you’ll likely cause unexpected consequences in another. No wonder they’re wicked! It’s clear to see that standard problem-solving techniques just aren’t going to cut it when you’ve got a wicked problem on your hands.
You’ll need to gain a much deeper insight into the people involved and learn how to reframe the problem entirely if you want to have any sort of chance at coming up with a valuable solution.
10 Characteristics of a Wicked Problem
As you can see, we need to dig deeper to understand the essence of wicked problems. Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, professors of design and urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley, first coined the term wicked problem in “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” (1973). In the paper, they detail ten important characteristics that describe a wicked problem:
There is no definitive formula for a wicked problem.
Wicked problems have no stopping rule—there’s no way to know whether your solution is final.
Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false (right or wrong); they can only be good or bad.
You cannot immediately test a solution to a wicked problem.
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.
Wicked problems do not have a set number of potential solutions.
Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.
There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem because the explanations vary greatly depending on the individual’s perspective.
The planner/designer has no right to be wrong and must be fully responsible for their actions.
We still face the classic wicked problems in today’s world; however, there are further examples we now have to consider. Business strategy, for example, is now often classed as a wicked problem because strategy-related issues normally meet at least five of the characteristics listed above.
From Wicked Problems to Complex Socio-Technical Systems
The rapid technological advancement of the 21st century has, in many ways, mutated wicked problems. In today’s hyperconnected world, it is difficult to look at problems in isolation.
Let’s look at sustainability, for example. Recycling is often considered as one of the solutions to achieve sustainability. Don Norman , in his two-part essay for FastCompany , examined recycling and remarked: “I am an expert on complex design systems . Even I can’t figure out recycling.”
He describes in detail how difficult it is for people to send their household waste to get recycled. There are different rules for different materials—paper, plastics, glass, metals. And within a category, say, plastic, there are different rules for different types of plastic in different places. Not all plastics can be recycled. Those that can be recycled, demand specialized equipment and processes that are not universally available.
“Recycling is a poor solution to the wrong problem.” — Don Norman
The complexity of recycling is a problem. But why do we need to recycle at all?
It's because most of the products we use in our lives are made from non-reusable materials. Consider smartphones—most, if not all, have batteries that cannot be separated from the device. If your battery no longer functions as intended, you must replace it with a new phone.
What if the iPhone had a removable battery, which could be fixed or replaced so that you didn’t have to throw out the entire phone, if (when) the battery died? What if phones weren’t built to crack or become obsolete within a short time?
What if companies considered alternate materials to manufacture phones, or government legislation made it mandatory for companies to take back all their material, and put them back into the manufacturing process? The piles of garbage on the planet are a part of what Don Norman calls complex socio-technical systems . Let’s hear more on this from Don Norman:
Wicked problems, or as Don Norman prefers to call them, complex socio-technical systems , are not isolated. They are intertwined in existing systems—manufacturing systems and economic systems, political, social and cultural systems, technological and legal systems. And each of those systems is connected with the other.
So, how can you start to tackle wicked problems, both old and new? Let’s look at how design thinking —more specifically, systems thinking and agile methodology —can help us start to untangle the web of a complex socio-technical system.
Wicked Problems and Design Thinking
The design theorist and academic Richard Buchanan connected design thinking to the innovation necessary to begin tackling wicked problems. Originally used in the context of social planning, the term “wicked problems” had been popularized in the paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” (1992) by Buchanan. Various thought leaders following Buchanan continued on to suggest we utilize systems thinking when faced with complex design problems, but what does that look like in practice for a designer tackling a wicked problem and how can we integrate it with a collaborative agile methodology ?
A Combination of Systems Thinking and Agile Methodology Can Help You Tackle Wicked Problems
Design thinkers proceeded to highlight how we utilize systems thinking when faced with complex design problems.
Systems thinking is the process of understanding how components of a system influence each other as well as other systems—and therefore it’s pretty much perfect for wicked problems!
And it’s even better when combined with an agile methodology , an iterative approach to design and product development. Agile methodology helps to improve solutions through collaboration . This agile, collaborative environment breeds the ability to be efficient and effectively meet the stakeholders’ changing requirements.
Together, systems thinking and agile methodology lead us to a better solution at each iteration as they both evolve with the wicked problem.
In an agile methodology, every iteration incorporates feedback from the previous release. This process can help you tackle wicked problems when it’s combined with systems thinking.
© Daniel Skrok and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
5 Ways to Apply Systems Thinking and Agile Methodology in Your Work
If you’ve been faced with a wicked problem in the past, you’ll have undoubtedly experienced frustration from not knowing where or how to begin. There’s no shame in that—issues which are difficult or nearly impossible to solve will do that to a person! The next time you and your team must tackle a wicked problem, you can use these five handy methods which are based on systems thinking and agile methodology:
1. Break down information into nodes and links.
You can utilize systems thinking if you break the information down into nodes (chunks of information such as objects, people or concepts) and links (the connections and relationships between the nodes). This will make your private mental models (your representations of external reality) visible to the outside world and help you face wicked problems more effectively. Jay Wright Forrester, a pioneer in computer engineering and systems science, put it nicely when he said:
"The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.” —Jay Wright Forrester
In this illustration , the nodes are circled in red and the links are the red lines drawn between the nodes. All four illustrations are systems models that participants created from Tom Wujec’s workshops on collaborative visualization and systems thinking.
© Tom Wujec, CC BY 3.0
2. Visualize the information.
When you sketch out and place information into a physical space, it will help both you and your team take in and understand the systems at hand—as well as the relationships within and between them.
3. Collaborate and include stakeholders in the process.
Share your mental models to help other people build on your ideas, and vice versa. Your team can synthesize several points of view when you create physical drawings and group notes to produce different systems models.
4. Release solutions quickly to gather continuous feedback.
Feedback of success helps to solve problems which we don’t have one single obviously correct answer for. The more feedback you gather from your users and stakeholders, the more guidance you’ll have to get to the next step.
5. Carry out multiple iterations.
You and your team have the chance to utilize feedback at each iteration. The more iterations you do, the more likely you’ll determine what changes are needed to further improve the solution to your wicked problem.
You’ll build a bridge between the existing solution and the next iteration when you combine user and stakeholder feedback with your team’s thoughts and ideas.
© Un-School MX, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Take Away
As designers, we have the responsibility to generate the best solution possible even when the wicked problem itself is indeterminate and the best solution does not yet exist. A combination of systems thinking and agile methodology can help us tackle these wicked problems. It encourages us to utilize these practices and share them with others so that we can, together, get to the next iteration of the design process .
When you start to tackle wicked problems, you can start to improve the world and the lives of the people who live in it. As a reminder, the five steps to do this are:
Break down information into nodes and links.
Visualize the information.
Collaborate and include stakeholders in the process.
Release solutions quickly and gather continuous feedback.
Carry out multiple iterations.
References & Where To Learn More
Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences , 4(2), 155-169.
Buchanan, Richard. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues , Vol. 8, No. 2, (Spring, 1992), 5-21.
Ana de Almeida Kumlien & Paul Coughlan, Wicked problems and how to solve them , 2018.
John C. Camillus, Strategy as a Wicked Problem , 2006.
Amy C. Edmundson, Wicked-Problem Solvers , 2016.
John Kolko, Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving , 2012.
Stony Brook University, What’s a Wicked Problem?
Tom Wujec, TEDGlobal, Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast , 2013:
Hero Image: © Diana Parkhouse, Unsplash License.
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- What's a Wicked Problem?
In 1973, design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the term "wicked problem" in order to draw attention to the complexities and challenges of addressing planning and social policy problems. Unlike the “tame” problems of mathematics and chess, the wicked problems of planning lack clarity in both their aims and solutions. In addition to these challenges of articulation and internal logic, they are subject to real-world constraints that prevent multiple and risk-free attempts at solving. As described by Rittel and Webber, wicked problems have 10 important characteristics:
1) They do not have a definitive formulation.
2) They do not have a “stopping rule.” In other words, these problems lack an inherent logic that signals when they are solved.
3) Their solutions are not true or false, only good or bad.
4) There is no way to test the solution to a wicked problem.
5) They cannot be studied through trial and error. Their solutions are irreversible so, as Rittel and Webber put it, “every trial counts.”
6) There is no end to the number of solutions or approaches to a wicked problem.
7) All wicked problems are essentially unique.
8) Wicked problems can always be described as the symptom of other problems.
9) The way a wicked problem is described determines its possible solutions.
10) Planners, that is those who present solutions to these problems, have no right to be wrong. Unlike mathematicians, “planners are liable for the consequences of the solutions they generate; the effects can matter a great deal to the people who are touched by those actions.”
Climate change, like problems in education policy and public health, is a wicked problem. It avoids straightforward articulation and is impossible to solve in a way that is simple or final. Our changing conversations around climate science and conservation, the unique regional factors that determine the local consequences of climate change, and our ability to present endless possible solutions (as well as the irreversibility of these solutions) require we approach climate change with holistic and collaborative reasoning in search of long-term, future focused solutions.
As scholars who work in the environmental humanities our goal is to understanding the problems of climate change while also critiquing the language and methods we use to articulate those problems.
Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning." Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169. https://www.cc.gatech.edu/fac/ellendo/rittel/rittel-dilemma.pdf .
- Environmental Humanities Working Group
- Episode 1: E. Ann Kaplan Interview
- Episode 2: Cycling to ASLE
- Wicked Problem Home
Wicked solutions for wicked problems
Climate data and information, open-source solutions, human-inspired design and connected systems-wide approach will be key to tackling the wicked problem of climate change.
By Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, Executive Coordinator a.i., Global Environment Finance Unit, UNDP
Climate change is a wicked problem . There’s no easy answer and no one-size-fits-all solution. Nearly everything we see, do, eat or buy somehow connects to it.
Solving wicked problems isn’t easy. Billions of dollars are being leveraged through the United Nations, private sector and national governments to build lasting solutions and address the interconnected drivers such as poverty, hunger and inequality that exacerbate the risks.
Collecting, analyzing and sharing climate data and information should be one of the first steps we take in addressing this wicked problem. Information is power. It will give companies (both large and small), cities, governments and societies as a whole the knowledge they need to respond to climate risks, make better decisions (in the boardroom, on the farm and in the halls of government), and promote an integrated and holistic approach that extends across sectors and borders.
Here’s where the wickedness of this problem comes into play. The data we have just isn’t as good as it should be – especially in the developing world. And siloed approaches, turf wars, reliance on outdated technologies and practices, and a status-quo approach are hindering efforts to modernize climate services.
Taken further, many smaller enterprises along the “long tail” that connects people with industry, lack the tools, know-how, and sometimes willingness to look at the data, and transform and evolve their business strategies to align with the unique challenges that climate change brings.
Looking at various sectors, it’s easy to see how improving the volume, variety, velocity and veracity (the Four Vs of big data) of climate information will advance business efficiency, future-proof investments, and protect the collective social gains that build strong economies, encourage consumer spending and will work toward a better world – the kind of place we all dreamed of as kids that provides equality, prosperity and peace for every man, woman and child on earth.
The value proposition is really quite simple. Energy companies can green production, save money and make better long-term investments on infrastructure and research and development if they can have better prognostics of current and future weather conditions. Farmers can improve efficiency, which will not only work toward global goals of ending hunger and poverty, but will also reduce the carbon output produced by inefficient farms. Extractive industries can protect equipment and workers from fast-acting storms that can take lives and destroy productive assets.
From a bigger perspective, this information can be used to make faster decisions, adjust approaches, orchestrate responses from multiple entities, model and scale successful initiatives, and pull a million disconnected threads into a unified approach to solving the wicked problem that climate change presents.
A new vision for climate services
So how can we improve the collection, analysis and distribution of climate data? The first step is to convene business, small- and medium-enterprises, government, civil society, UN agencies and other relevant actors to create an open-source approach.
This would mean that government agencies responsible for the collection of this information (generally National HydroMeteorological Services – NHMS) would share information more openly.
Private sector weather service providers – these are propping up the world over to fill the gaps in localized weather monitoring – will also play a role in the collection of information and analysis via cloud-computing platforms such as the easy-to-deploy, service and manage networks of automatic weather station s that are vastly improving HydroMet Services in Africa.
Finally, media companies and the telecoms sector will be essential in sharing this information. Tailoring climate information for specific businesses creates an entirely new industry that’s fast filling up with Big Data firms like aWhere , which provides analysis of weather data to inform data-based farming solutions.
UNDP is championing a new vision for climate services that brings together these various actors, leverages new technologies, builds end-to-end solutions, and connects the private sector to improve climate services across the globe. Through this approach Sierra Leone is leveraging new leap-frogged technologies and cloud-solutions to build community-based early warning systems and new public-private partnerships to protect energy production for hydroelectric dams. In Liberia , cell towers are being used to site automatic weather stations, ensuring these stations have the power, security and connectivity they need for continuous operation. In Cambodia, partnerships between the government, UNDP and Servir -Mekong (a geospatial data-for-development program that responds to the needs of Lower Mekong countries) are improving the collection of information related to droughts that will impact everything from energy production to the tech industry.
The arrival of blockchain
It’s dangerous to assume that technology will save us from climate change. After all, it was technology – cars, factories, planes, electricity – that got us here. This said, several technological innovations have the potential to change the way we address the problem of climate change.
One of the most promising solutions comes from blockchain . This tremendous new technology is most widely recognized in connection with bitcoin, but it has amazing potential to support business and governments in achieving goals for low-carbon, climate-resilient development.
Properly connected with improved institutional connections and other human-driven innovations it could also reduce inefficiencies, provide controls on corruption, and create the backbone on which to connect the million threads that come together in the wicked problem of climate change.
Blockchain also creates a sort of bonafide seal of approval as it’s tamper-proof, a positive step in increasing public confidence in climate change investments.
UNDP is highly engaged in the blockchain dialogue across the organization. For climate change adaptation, a few promising concepts are arising.
• Drinking Water Registry. A public blockchain ledger could be used to enforce peer-review of certifications, encourage accuracy through accountability, prevent modifications, and retain an immutable history around these reports to improve public health. These registries could be connected with ongoing climate resilience initiatives in Maldives and Sri Lanka.
• Forecasts and Alerts. A climate forecast, advisory, or alert can be triggered by monitoring data that exceeds certain thresholds (say for instance flooding rivers or contaminated water sources). To improve the volume and veracity of this information, a blockchain publishing system could be used to enforce a model where the information needs to be verified and signed-off on by one or more authorized users before publishing is triggered. This would also maintain a permanent record and history of these authorizations, encouraging accuracy and accountability. Reports could connect with ongoing efforts in Maldives and Sri Lanka , as well as climate services projects in Georgia , Malawi and Pakistan .
• Certified Value Chains. A blockchain powered certified value chain ledger could be used to support the concept of certified green, organic or fair-trade products. Participating entities and the flow of the products throughout the value chain would be securely tracked and visible, producing a verifiable public record of the product’s track from farm to market. This could encourage adherence to standards and improve consumer confidence. In Ecuador, a deforestation-free value chain certification programme is underway. The use of certified ledgers here could facilitate payments, transparency and fiduciary controls. Taken to scale, it could also be used in places like Zambia , to track initiatives to improve resilience for millions of farmers.
A vision to connect it all
No doubt blockchain technologies, new advances in automatic weather and water monitoring systems, and cloud-computing systems will be a part of the solution. But these technologies alone won’t get us there.
A whole series of steps needs to be put in place to orchestrate these threads to create a cohesive system to solve the problem.
This means the UN system needs to improve the way they operate and respond to the demands of developing countries and businesses, especially smaller enterprises that may not have the capacity to adapt to climate change on their own. It means developed countries need to step up in a big way to finance climate actions. It means we need to streamline efficiencies and build systems that allow for faster decision-making and response. It means we need to start thinking about solutions to the climate change problem not in terms of one-off responses, but as a connected effort that incorporates inputs and feedback from all corners of our economy and society. And it means, silos need to be broken down to share information and technology more openly.
With technologies like blockchain, information silos could very well one day become a thing of the past. The whole world – and every piece of data ever created – could be shared, verified, improved and acted upon in an orchestrated symphony of everything. It’s a brave new way of doing things, and a wicked simple solution to a wicked hard problem.
• Responsible Business Forum on Sustainable Development 2018
• Blockchain research to support Sustainable Development Goals
• Let’s talk about artificial intelligence
• Transformative technology
• Programme on Climate Information for Resilient Development in Africa
• Applying Climate Information to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
• Climate and Weather Services Market Assessment - Revenue Generating Opportunities Through Tailored Weather Information Products
• Econet in Zimbabwe
• The Importance of Weather and Climate Data: A Perspective from an Agricultural Insurance Provider
• Across the Last Mile
• Application of weather technology
• Design Thinking approaches for climate services
• Public-Private Partnerships for climate services
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3 Strategies for Wicked Problems
What Makes a Problem “Wicked?”
Covid-19 and its knock-on effects creates many complex problems for business leaders, compounded by mixed signals from the market, unaligned internal stakeholders, and the risks of uneven solution implementation. In the late 1960s, Horst Rittel, a professor at UC Berkeley, characterized these complex problems as “wicked problems,” that include high levels of ambiguity, incomplete information, cross-sector inputs/outputs, and an ill-defined grasp of the initial problem. This term is now a foundation of design thinking.
In their 1973 paper, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber of UC Berkeley described, “a wicked problem as not only difficult to define, because the proposed solutions are worse than the symptoms and inherently unsolvable without a societal shift.”
Most likely, your business is not directly curing the Covid-19 virus, thus, you are dealing with the knock-on effects of the virus on your suppliers, supply chains, employees, and customers. Each stakeholder has unique needs and thus offers conflicting data for your team to process. Where to begin?
We suggest diverging, seeking new information from our users through one-on-one interviews debriefed via an empathy map. Separating what users say, versus what they do and what users think, versus what they feel is the first step. The benefit is twofold: first, by targeting these four buckets of information, your team does not validate their hypothesis, but listens with openness and second, contradictions will undoubtedly emerge and trigger opportunities for action.
“When a customer says they want a cheaper solution, this never means sacrificing quality. Thus, the opportunity may lie beyond your contribution to the total solution.”
Only after embracing the ambiguity of divergent thinking can we have confidence that our voice of the customer is deep enough to begin prototyping solutions. If your first attempt at solving a “wicked problem” involves a timeline greater than two weeks or a budget greater than $100, our experience says either you’re testing too broad of a hypothesis. Go back and prioritize your user’s needs. What is their “must have?” This should be the focus of your first prototype.
Wicked problems require patience, optimism, and, most importantly, empathy before understanding is even possible.
For businesses to continue to thrive, they must embrace a radical diversity of signals from the market to inform the problem space, actively employ empathy for users to synthesize this data and align internal stakeholders, and iteratively prototype these solutions in a minimum viable product (MVP) format to test solutions with your existing and potential customers. This is the essence of the design thinking process that guides teams through a mutual understanding of the wicked problem so the solution addresses the real need.
How to Approach Wicked Problems?
Start with curiosity.
I love training my two dogs. Although I have a result in mind, reaching that end is not a straight line. For example, one dog is food-motivated while the other is retrieve-motivated. Without first understanding each dog’s motivations, a one-size-fits-all approach will fail. The same is true for wicked problems. First, we “observe to understand," which uncovers the user's needs even if it takes us “off course” from the shortest path to a solution.
As design thinkers, we begin by asking, “why,” understanding the question and only then, we attempt to solve the “problem.”
Segment to Address Challenges
Creating a breakthrough solution to “disrupt” an industry is an outcome. Executives want the best outcome; yet, the solution starts with describing the problem. Showing empathy for our users helps in this segmentation process. Companies often segment via an inside-out approach, e.g., prioritizing product features, whereas design thinking embraces an outside-in approach that requires understanding our stakeholders’ needs, then designing backwards to our capabilities.
Listen with Empathy
The nuance in this phase is a willingness to accept user feedback even if it contradicts our earlier assumptions. Listening with empathy risks disrupting a company’s status quo; however, listening with the end in mind only reinforces the orthodoxies that got us into this situation. Practicing empathy creates unexpected connections that lead us to deeper insights.
3 Strategies for Tackling Wicked Problems
1. seek “new” and “unusual”.
Discovery is the first phase of the design thinking process where we seek “new and unusual” information to better understand the opportunity space and our users. Tools of the trade include empathy maps, user journeys, and persona templates. Each requires us to diverge, build empathy, and understand the opportunity space from our customers’ perspective.
2. Operate Outside of Your “Circle of Competence”
As organizations grow, their needs become more specific, just look at your job postings on your website. These specific roles are necessary to optimizing existing business operations. However, each person’s “circle of competence,” reinforces convergent thinking and blocks out “new and unusual” information that challenges the status quo.
Innovative organizations empower employees at all levels to share observations and solutions from outside their “circle of competence” to facilitate bottom-up strategies to emerging opportunities.
3. Separate Facts from Assumptions
Wicked problems are made worse by applying orthodoxies. Yet we intuitively know these problems will not be solved by the same tools and processes that are complicit in creating them. First principle thinking separates facts from assumptions to uncover the core elements of the challenge. It enables us to reverse engineer complicated problems and analyze the complex interconnections of the multiple causes, consequences, and cross-functional stakeholders of the problem.
Design thinkers commonly apply the "five whys" method (which is a modern framing of the Socratic questioning method) to uncover the real reason behind a user’s action or behavior. Ultimately, the goal is to uncover the baseline assumption or orthodoxy, such as, “it’s the way we’ve always done things.”
Like a doctor first understanding the patient’s symptoms or a construction company preparing land for building, design thinking has applications across a wide range of industries to understand your users and their needs and identify opportunities to create change and accelerate growth. And, yours is likely included. Tell us a long-held industry orthodoxy that you wish to challenge. We’ll help you reframe the opportunity space, ideate disruptive innovations, and prototype minimum viable products to explore new verticals and industries for your company’s future growth.
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Three Signs That You Are Facing a Wicked Problem
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How to Turn Wicked Problems Into Ambitious Opportunities
The term wicked problems occur more and more often in our conversations and work areas – especially in public innovation. Wicked problems are, by definition, complex, dependent, and systemic. But do they call for wicked solutions? To start, we must ask questions and collaborate in completely new ways. The questions we ask determine the answers we find and the systems we build
By Anders Erlendsson & Sara Gry Striegler , DDC – Danish Design Center
It’s no news that the world is changing rapidly, and we are in increasingly volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous situations. The complex societal challenges are rising before our eyes and are no longer ripples on the sea’s surface. They are meter-high waves that are difficult to capture and influence, and they wash away what we thought was safe and predictable.
As we turn to the news, we’re constantly reminded of the widening gap between the supply of caregivers and the demand for labor , as well as the escalating prices for energy and food . A growing number of reports indicate that many young people are not thriving, and it’s all too common to feel a sense of hopelessness and despair about the future. In fact, one in five Danes has stopped reading the news altogether due to the overwhelming negativity that leaves us with a feeling of fatalism and paralysis.
The questions we ask matter
Our challenges are complex and interdependent, and we cannot address them isolated. Experts and leaders have referred to them as poly-crises , and recently at the Davos Summit in January 2023 , world leaders recognized that we need to address them in a new, more holistic way. But how can we understand, address and influence these problems? How can we create hope, possibilities, and dreams?
The Wicked Series
This article is the first in a series of four. The articles explore and explain how we work with wicked problems from a design- and mission-driven perspective.
"At DDC, we believe the future is bright and full of opportunities, but to make it a reality, we must be willing to ask new questions and work differently than we do today"
Photo: Anne Ravnholt Juelsen
In various places, both inside and outside the Danish borders, the concept of wicked problems has grown. We see it in many contexts, particularly in public sector innovation. The concept resonates. Wild or “wicked problems” are complex, coherent, and dynamic, spanning institutions, administrations, and systemic frameworks.
The theory of wicked problems was first put forward by Rittel and Webbers in 1973 in the context of social policy development. Wicked problems are, per se, intractable because the challenges they describe are unlikely ever to be fully resolved. However, this does not mean we cannot achieve positive, sustainable, long-term change.
But if the crises are interconnected, complex, and wild, do they require wicked solutions?
Our questions determine the answers we find
Now, you may think that solving wicked problems requires equally wicked solutions, but that’s not necessarily the case. Whether simple or complex, solutions are merely a means to address specific needs or potentials. If we want to bring about radical and systemic change, it’s more interesting to question the purpose of the existing systems. After all, the purpose determines the legitimacy and value of solutions and courses of action.
"The changes we seek depend on how we understand and frame the problem and the opportunities. Ultimately, the questions we ask shape the answers we receive"
Photo: Oliver Herlitschek
These answers may be simple and familiar solutions but placed in a completely different context, logic, and structure. What’s certain is that wicked problems require coherent solutions that work together to address the problem and create new opportunities for action that didn’t exist before.
The mission model for wicked problems
At DDC, we are committed to addressing complex and systemic societal challenges through design and mission-driven innovation . Working closely with foundations, businesses, public institutions, and non-governmental organizations, we are taking concrete steps to address various wicked problems, such as the growing number of young people not thriving , the need for a circular transition of society, and demographic development . In addition, we work with public organizations to strengthen their capacities, mobilize ecosystems, and set directions in various areas of the Danish welfare society.
Through continuous development and learning, we have developed a comprehensive model that moves from identifying a systemic, complex problem to a portfolio of interventions that address the problem incrementally with innovative approaches.
The model can be divided into four dimensions:
- Uncover logics and structures in the existing system and reframe the problem
- Develop alternative future scenarios
- Determine a preferred future and development of the mission
- Establish the governance model with an associated portfolio of opportunities and initiatives.
Understand the current system – then rethink your problem
To address and solve complex societal problems effectively, it’s advisable to examine and understand how our current systems work. Re-discovering the origin and underlying behaviors allows us to be reminded of why systems typically are sympathetic.
Today, many people find it hard to contribute and support young people in vulnerable positions, ultimately hindering our efforts to act on the growing number of children and young people who are not thriving. We prefer to have the most qualified – the professionals – helping our children. That’s sympathetic! And understandable. However, the treatment usually occurs outside the context where the problems arise or are expressed. Ultimately the undesirable situation remains when young people reenter the same context or situation once treatment is completed. Meanwhile, our tendency to diagnose and treat young people in distress strictly professionally makes it difficult for those close to the child in everyday life to offer help and support. We are afraid of causing harm. We become passive. No matter how benevolent the intentions are, they can also have unintended and potentially negative consequences for those we intend to help.
Through our work on our mission, Thriving Youth , it has become clear that thriving or the opposite is collectively experienced by young people. The question is whether it expresses increased mental illness or rather a natural and perhaps even healthy response to dysfunctional structures and systems. If the latter, should we continue to insist on treating symptoms in our healthcare system? Or should we instead work on the underlying causes and create frameworks that promote well-being?
Once we have a better understanding of how systems work, in what ways they are successful, and why they are sympathetic, we are in a better position to make suggestions for what to invest in further and what to wound up and close down. It helps us to see unutilized resources and potential. And perhaps even more important, the people and stakeholders we must invite into our work and collaborate with to discover and develop new or complementary systems. Systems that eventually might challenge and even replace the current ones.
The problems are just as attractive as the solutions
The argument for system innovation usually arises from a challenge or problem. However, system innovation can also be triggered and driven by an opportunity. Although both are not necessarily required for larger systems innovation, the case for change is all the more compelling when challenge and opportunity work together. The more urgent the challenges we face, the more urgent our search for new systemic opportunities. And the greater the potential for systemic opportunities, the easier it will be to reduce our dependence on existing systems and free ourselves from them.
"Problems and opportunities thus mutually reveal their potential, and we are as interested in the opportunities as we are in the problems"
At DDC, we simultaneously apply hands-on design methods to address problems and opportunities. By mapping the material of systems – including purpose, power structures, resource flows, and patterns of relationships – we examine and challenge prevailing understandings of problems.
The material composition is what defines a system and sustains its function. Mapping helps us understand two things: 1) the characteristics of the system we want to change together, and 2) how changes in the material composition turn the problem into an opportunity and open up new and unexplored possibilities.
Wicked problems in the City of Aarhus
In our close partnership with Aarhus municipality , we have introduced and shared system innovation as a method and approach to investigate and challenge existing and prevailing understandings of problems. Aarhus Municipality has identified seven wicked problems and turned them into strategic focus areas. Through our partnership and collaboration, the employees from Aarhus municipality working on the seven wicked problems have found a common language for how to work with wicked problems and system innovation. At the same time, they have recognized that the problems transcend existing systemic structures, frameworks, and administrations.
This insight implies that one of the main obstacles, but also the great potential for radical innovation, new solutions, and systems change under the municipal aegis, is that problems span across systems, logic, and discourses that are a natural part of a municipality. And most importantly, the municipality has realized that addressing these problems is not just a municipal task but a societal task that also requires great efforts from the business community, civil society – and even the citizens themselves.
"Creating systemic change is not just about building something new. It is also about being open to the possible dismantling of existing logic, practices, and routines"
The Three Horizons Framework
We must believe we can create better systems
When we work strategically on long-term and wicked problems at DDC, we work simultaneously on three different tracks, strongly inspired by Bill Sharpe’s work on the Three Horizons Framework .
- A track that helps us define and maintain a shared focus on what a sustainable and preferred future might look like so that we avoid reproducing the logics and structures we want to abolish.
- A track that helps us dismantle the structures working against the emergence of new or complementary systems.
- Finally, a track that helps us create the conditions and infrastructure necessary to facilitate the turbulent transition from the current system to a better one.
Systems innovation theory is now an established field with a growing body of historical knowledge about how systems have changed over time. However, there is still a lack of practical knowledge on intentionally changing systems and creating new ones. To address this gap, we are currently working with Aarhus municipality, The Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities ( KS ), and the Local Government Denmark ( KL ) to connect theory with opportunities, practice, and people.
Systems innovation is more than just optimizing or fine-tuning existing systems in times of crisis. It is about boldly asserting that together we can create better conditions and systems than those we have today. Some may argue that systemic opportunities exist only theoretically until someone seizes and implements them. But one thing is for sure: we can not do it alone, not at the community level, not in the private sector, and not at the state level. Instead, we must collaborate in new ways, challenge the status quo, and share our important learnings. This requires that we seize the opportunities and insist that we can influence, even shape, the future we want.
Stay tuned as we publish the next article in the series this spring. The second piece will explore how scenarios and futures design can stretch our empathy and let us explore blind spots and new paths for wicked problems.
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Sara Gry Striegler
Director of Social Transition
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6 Wicked problems
The concept of ‘wicked problems’ was first proposed by planning engineers Horst Rittell and Melville Webber in 1973 to contrast the difference between ‘tame’ problems – which could be resolved using standard scientific techniques – and complex, policy-based problems – which were neither simply nor completely resolvable. They said because wicked problems exist within pluralistic societies there was no way of knowing what was an “undisputable public good” and there was no clear picture of what “equity” meant when making decisions (1973, p. 155).
Wicked problems may have emerged from urban policy planning, but they are now used to describe social, political, environmental and economic problems more broadly. These problems are typically surrounded by disagreement, inadequate or conflicting information, large numbers of stakeholders and webs of interconnected interests. The Australian Government defines a wicked problem as a problem which is “highly resistant to resolution” (2018).
While not everyone agrees with the somewhat simplistic distinction between ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’, the concept does give us a way of categorizing and thinking about complex problems. Moreover, it proposes that we use a problematization approach which calls for consideration from many viewpoints while constantly reflecting during the process of problem-solving. Much of the thinking that has continued about wicked problems has elements in common with public interest problems, with problematization at the centre, and, correspondingly, the need for effective and multi-faceted public interest communication.
Here is a useful explanation:
Here are the ten reasons Horst and Webber gave to describe wicked problems.
- There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
- Wicked problems are often ongoing.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, good or bad.
- There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
- All attempts to find solutions have effects that may not be reversable.
- Wicked problems do not have a set of solutions.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
- Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
- There are many explanations for wicked problems.
- There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. (see Johnston & Glenny, 2021 for this summary; adapted from Rittell & Webber, 1973)
As such, wicked problems do not have complete, technical solutions because they involve competing underlying values and interests which often present paradoxes that require tough choices between opposing ideas. Listen to the following podcast for an overview of how different groups and individuals make these tough choices regarding homelessness.
Podcast: Madeleine Wright investigates the wicked problem of homelessness
In this podcast Madeleine takes a ‘glocal’ look at homelessness, reporting on how ‘Rosies – Friends of the Street’ helps the homeless in Brisbane, Australia. She explains the difficult and complex issue of homelessness: “You can’t just give people a home. It’s a far deeper issue”. Madeleine explores how working with homeless people at the local level emerges from the first of the UN Sustainability Goals, listed below — No Poverty. Listen to Madeleine’s interview with Rosie’s board member Bob Elliott who says the problem of homelessness may not be solvable but “we can address and solve some of the symptoms”.
Not solving wicked problems
However, just because wicked problems cannot be categorically or fully resolved, they still need to be managed. We don’t throw our arms up in the air and say: ‘forget climate change because it’s too hard’ or ‘terrorism will always be around so why bother trying to mitigate it?’. And it is the management of these complex problems, that includes effective communication at many levels, and with many publics, that is important.
How we communicate about wicked problems can make a difference. Different voices need to be heard, but adversarial tactics which rely on ‘good-versus-bad’ or ‘us-versus-them’ approaches can create misunderstandings and undue polarization (Turnbull & Hoppe, 2019). This can also avoid the reality of tough choices that are needed to address wicked problems. Climate change is an excellent example – like paying more for fuel if that’s what it takes to help the environment, or giving up using disposable commodities including fast fashion and plastic water bottles, and generally changing priorities or re-evaluating our values. Citizens can therefore help deal with the wicked problems around them, just as governments can. Let’s take a look at the wicked problem of smoking: still a wicked problem but one that has been addressed over decades of strategic management and communication.
Australia’s National Tobacco Strategy
In 1997 Australia’s National Tobacco Strategy was established to attack the wicked problem of smoking.
It required adaptive change because smoking was entrenched in the social fabric of Australian society. It included regulation to control promotion, developing taxation, establishing health warnings and pharmacotherapies, setting up cessation services such as helplines, and information campaigns. Part of the strategy was to become the first country to legislate plain packaging of cigarettes in 2012 (Australian Government, 2018).
Today smoking remains a problem but the scope of its ‘wickedness’ has been reduced. This has included the deliberative and purposeful engagement with stakeholders, including helping those who want to give up make the change.
Watch the short video from the BBC where Dr Paul Harrison from Deakin University explains why plain packaging on cigarettes is expected to reduce smoking over time.
Communication and wicked problems
In recent thinking from communication scholars, two dominant models of managing wicked problems have been identified: these are 1. external expertise and 2. advocacy. However, while experts and advocates are critical resources for problem-solving, they are not sufficient for wicked problems. Carcasson therefore adds a third option: deliberative democracy (2016). Such a perspective envisions democracy as an ongoing collaborative process of constant communication and negotiation focused on solving common problems, rather than an adversarial zero-sum exercise between stable, competing interests, or a technocratic world of experts searching for the best solutions.
These perspectives, which include expert-led, advocate-led, and community-led approaches, share common ground with the work of early leading democracy scholars Walter Lippmann and John Dewey (see Chapter 1 ) who saw public interest achieved via different routes. Lippmann chose the expert-led route; while Dewey saw deliberation, driven by the public, as the best way to achieve desired public interest outcomes (Johnston & Pieczka, 2018).
However, as Carcasson and Sprain suggest: “Rather than attempting to solve wicked problems, communities need better processes for discovering, understanding, and managing the tensions and paradoxes inherent within systemic, value-laden problems” (2016, p. 41).
Communication and working with the existing tensions, rather than against them, thus provides strategies for dealing with wicked problems.
These may include:
- Collective action – involving a range of actors and groups, which share common values or goals, to bring about change.
- Adaptive change – requiring new ways of thinking and learning, and preparedness to consider different solutions.
- Deliberative engagement – bringing together citizens or those affected in a community with the decision makers or officials.
- Taking a ‘glocal’ approach – understanding that many wicked problems are global but need to be managed at a local level.
- Breaking down the problem – creating categories, sub-categories and an incremental approach to a problem is not so overwhelming.
- Developing ongoing aims and objectives – in breaking down the problem consider SMART objectives to provide something to aim toward, keeping in mind that wicked problems will probably defy some of these.
The United Nation Sustainable Development Goals
In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or Global Goals) which centre on protecting the planet, ending poverty, hunger and discrimination, and tackling injustice and inequality, by the year 2030.
These are the goals:
With the exception of Goal 17, these are also wicked problems: none can be solved in a simple, linear, quick, or uniform way. What’s more, the problems embedded within the goals are interlinked, which makes them all the more complicated and difficult to resolve. Nearly 200 countries which have signed up to these goals will undertake advancing them in different, culturally sensitive ways that can be applied at local levels.
The declaration of the goals, including the vision, principles, and how the partnership is envisaged (see Goal 17) is explained here: https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda
UN case studies on advancing the Sustainable Development Goals
The United Nations website provides an extensive list of case studies demonstrating how local communities have developed best practices to advance the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Visit the site to explore a few of these examples, including:
- Addressing Violence against women in Bangladesh
- Energy efficiency and renewable energy sources in Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Creative industries alleviate poverty in Peru
After reviewing these case studies visit https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda . Consider the following task and questions:
- Read the plan of action at the above link and explain how the goals link to people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.
- Use a ‘glocal’ approach to think of ways to manage these global problems at a local level.
An approach which considers or treats an issue as a problem requiring a solution.
To view something as a problem requiring a solution to allow new viewpoints, approaches and action to emerge
Changes made to address more nebulous challenges or issues by experimenting with new approaches and practices.
A form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making and where people are placed closer to the affairs of government and decision-makers
An acronym meaning 'Specific', 'Measurable', 'Action-based', 'Realistic', 'Time-bound'.
Public Interest Communication Copyright © 2022 by Jane Johnston and Robyn Gulliver is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
- Open Access
- Published: 13 April 2018
Wicked problems and a ‘wicked’ solution
- Helen L. Walls 1
Globalization and Health volume 14 , Article number: 34 ( 2018 ) Cite this article
‘Wicked’ is the term used to describe some of the most challenging and complex issues of our time, many of which threaten human health. Climate change, biodiversity loss, persisting poverty, the advancing obesity epidemic, and food insecurity are all examples of such wicked problems. However there is a strong body of evidence describing the solutions for addressing many of these problems. Given that much is known about how many of these problems could be addressed – and given the risks of not acting – what will it take to create the ‘tipping point’ needed for effective action?
A recent (2015) court ruling in The Hague held that the Dutch government’s stance on climate change was illegal, ordering them to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% within 5 years (by 2020), relative to 1990 levels. The case was filed on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens, suing the government for violating human rights and climate changes treaties by failing to take adequate action to prevent the harmful impacts of climate change. This judicial ruling has the potential to provide a way forward, inspiring other civil movements and creating a template from which to address other wicked problems.
This judicial strategy to address the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands is not a magic bullet, and requires a particular legal and institutional setting. However it has the potential to be a game-changer – providing an example of a strategy for achieving domestic regulatory change that is likely to be replicable in some countries elsewhere, and providing an example of a particularly ‘wicked’ (in the positive, street-slang sense of the word) strategy to address seemingly intractable and wicked problems.
Policymakers have had great difficulty, almost by definition, responding effectively to complex or what have been termed ‘wicked’ problems, many of which threaten human health. These challenges are a result of the defining features of wicked problems – their complex, numerous and sometimes undefined causes which are often globalized, their contested understandings and framings among stakeholders with different and strongly held beliefs and values, and their need for collective action sometimes on a global level but lack of simple planning responses [ 1 , 2 ]. Climate change, biodiversity loss, persisting poverty, the growing obesity epidemic, and food insecurity are all examples of such wicked problems.
With obesity, for example, no country to date has reversed its obesity epidemic [ 3 ], despite a considerable amount of attention devoted to the importance of this issue [ 4 ], and a growing evidence base of the effectiveness of various solutions [ 5 ]. To a significant extent, this is due to the ideological debates surrounding the issue, often driven by industry actors and their well-funded lobbies defending vested economic interests and deliberately exploiting the complex or wicked nature of the problem, and thereby creating further uncertainty about causes and consequences. These debates include those of personal versus collective responsibility for action, supply- versus demand-type explanations for consumption of unhealthy food, the relative roles of physical inactivity and diet in weight gain, government regulation versus industry self-regulation, and treatment versus prevention priorities [ 3 ]. Similar debates and controversies surround discussions of the nature of, and how best to respond to, other wicked problems, and there is a documented industry strategy to influence country positions, create debate and confusion, and delay government regulatory responses [ 6 , 7 ]. Given that many of these problems have a strong body of evidence in support of various intervention solutions for addressing them – and given the risks of not acting – what will it take to create the ‘tipping point’ needed for effective action?
We may not have to wait for the respective apocalypses. A recent (2015) court ruling in The Hague, using the principles of tort law to address civil wrong-doings, held that the Dutch government’s stance on climate change was illegal, and ordered them to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020, relative to 1990 levels. Given the threat posed by climate change, the ruling included that cutting emission by a lesser among of 14% to 17% by 2020, as were the government plans at the time, was unlawful. Urgenda, an environmental non-profit organisation, filed the case on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens, suing the government for violating human rights by failing to take adequate action to prevent the harmful impacts of climate change [ 8 , 9 ]. Thus, after two decades of international negotiations on climate change, heated national policy debates in many countries, and little policy change to address greenhouse gas emissions – and certainly not on the scale required – this judicial ruling may provide a way forward for addressing this and other wicked problems.
The ruling uses a combination of Dutch civil law (the principle of a government’s duty of care) and existing human rights and climate changes treaties – a legal basis with potential to be used in courts elsewhere. Similar cases are in recent years being prepared in Belgium, Norway and the Philippines. The Guardian speculated as to whether the Dutch judgement could inspire a global civil movement to address climate change [ 8 ]. However the case may also inspire civil movements and create a template from which to address other wicked problems.
Public health experts have often suggested that addressing wicked problems affecting health will ultimately require government regulation and that, given governmental reluctance to act, and short of catastrophe, the impetus for such regulation will come from civil society [ 10 ]. The Dutch court ruling may be the ‘tipping point’ needed to force governmental regulatory change – something often hampered by conflicting stakeholder views and strong industry lobbies – by raising the political priority of the issue, and cutting through gridlock caused by institutional power imbalances by handing government a strong and legally binding mandate on which to act. Legal rulings ordering governments to address issues such as biodiversity loss, persisting policy, food insecurity or obesity may sound far-fetched, but are perhaps no less radical than how other important advances may have once been perceived, for example the introduction of sanitary law in nineteenth-century Britain [ 10 ]. But there are limitations. This legal strategy requires a well-functioning, democratic government, an effective judicial system, and a mobilised civil society. Not all countries have the legal system and requisite institutions within which this type of case could be brought against a government. It is also unclear exactly how the court will enforce its ruling. However the ruling does provide an example of a strategy for achieving domestic regulatory change that is likely to be replicable in some countries elsewhere.
This judicial strategy to address the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions in one country is not a magic bullet, but it has the potential to be a game-changer – providing an example of a strategy for achieving domestic regulatory change that is likely to be replicable in some countries elsewhere, and providing an example of a particularly ‘wicked’ (in the positive, street-slang sense of the word) strategy to address seemingly intractable and wicked problems.
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Walls, H.L. Wicked problems and a ‘wicked’ solution. Global Health 14 , 34 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-018-0353-x
Received : 20 July 2015
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Published : 13 April 2018
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/s12992-018-0353-x
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