Wicked Problems

Benjamin P. Taylor
4 min readAug 16, 2023

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This post is based on https://stream.syscoi.com/2023/08/16/how-many-polycrises/ which is based on my response to a question raised by Phoebe Tickell on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/phoebetickell/posts/pfbid02VRBbiVQPWS7bvbik6Qvjx8xhTa5Vn6ApbZQFuVF7zfAmyfcdbth9UZxypJ6K97Uyl

Poly-crisis|metacrisis|wicked problems|messes|the global Problematique|VUCA|TUNA

Why is it useful to distinguish words used for the mess humanity finds itself in?

Each of them is subject to over-familiarity, co-option by the existing paradigm, by chancers, and by the innocent, and general misuse and abuse.

But lumping them all together clouds our thinking. Useful distinctions help us to respond better.

- Wicked Problems (Rittel and Webber) define *problems*, involving criteria like people and politics. They appear irresoluble and call for a specific type of approach. A special class of problem in planning

- Messes (Ackoff) are a special class of complex problem in business

- VUCA is about *conditions* - a context in a contested space (battlefield or business)

- TUNA - Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel, and Ambiguous - is a context in our attempts to meet with future scenarios

- 'the World Problematique' from the Club of Rome is a set of interlocking Wicked problems which interrelate in a way inescapable to living our lives (all-encompassing context)

- the 'poly crisis' is a set of global crises, usually non-specific problems, many of them Wicke,d which inter-relate in complex ways and seep into all contexts

- the 'meta-crisis' is when we're unable to cope with the polycrisis and unable to orientate ourselves to it in any meaningful way. So our very orientation to the problem becomes a problem

It's important that when we're talking about complex situations and problems that we always include:

1- A *context* in which they can be meaningfully defined (planning, business, contested space etc)

2- A *purpose* or intent which we have which is interlocked with the context (successful planning, winning, etc)

It's hand-waving to talk in general about the experience of confronting ‘complexity’ etc without explaining that complexity comes from interaction and contextualisation of agent and context: it depends on intent, framing, perspective, interpretation, ability, learning, history, understanding etc etc.

If we leave this out (usually because we're thinking of one context but not sharing):

- we give the impression that the ‘problem’ is inherent in the world, cutting off most of the sense-making potential

- we hide these useful distinctions which allow tailored approaches in different contexts of engagement

- we simply play back to people their understanding of their problem as 'real'

It's understandable to say 'in the era of the climate crisis, *everything* *is* a Wicked Problem. Yes - in the same way everything is connected.

But once you say 'what does that mean? Is brushing your teeth a wicked problem?' you get into the more useful conversation.

Killing off that conversation before it even starts is, to me… a problem.

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