Category Archives: Rationale

Wicked problems and category mistakes


Wicked problems and category mistakes

This is a brief introduction to the notion of a wicked problem. It is based on the highly-cited paper by Rittel and Webber (1973). The following characterise wicked problems:

  1. There is no definitive formulation. In a sense, formulating a wicked problem is the problem
  2. There are no stopping rules. The process of intervening is also the same as understanding the nature of the problem – the intervention is “good enough” or the best that can be achieved within other limitations (e.g. of time, budget…)
  3. Interventions are not right or wrong, they can only be viewed as making things better or worse for certain interests i.e. the intervention has made things both better and worse depending on who you ask
  4. There is no immediate or ultimate test of an intervention. Interventions will generate “waves of consequences” over a period of time
  5. Interventions are “one-shot operations”, experiments are difficult to conduct, every intervention counts significantly, they are essentially unique in nature
  6. No enumerable, exhaustively describable, set of possible interventions
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. “Essentially” implies that aspects may be common, but to think in terms of categories or “classes” of wicked problems with common “solutions” is misleading
  8. Wicked problems can be considered as symptoms of other problems i.e. there is inherent systemicity in the world
  9. Can be contested at the level of explanation, there is likely to be conflicting evidence or data

The corollary of this definition is that certain statements about problems are likely to be rendered false or meaningless if it can be shown that the problem is actually wicked, in effect the statement is demonstrating that a category mistake is being made. The following is not an exhaustive list:

  1. ‘Solving’ a wicked problem is a contradiction, likewise producing a ‘solution’. Neither are possible
  2. Words that suggest an objective point of view used in the context of the problem at the very least need to be debated e.g. words like optimal, best, right, smart, correct, … all suggest the question – for who?
  3. Any statement of measurable quantity that supports an argument for the problem getting better or worse without acknowledging the dynamic complexity that systemicity implies i.e. “…worse then better…” is a more believable statement given dynamic complexity
  4. Statements that appear to deny the systemic nature of the problem
  5. Containing irrefutable assertions of fact e.g. “…this proves conclusively that…”
  6. Use of binary choices, silver bullets…
  7. Misrepresenting or ignoring plurality e.g. “The public…”
  8. Emphasis on producing plans rather planning as a process

If any of these corollaries are contested e.g. if someone claims to have a solution to a wicked problem, then they are likely to be making a claim about only an aspect of the problem, or only from a certain viewpoint; or their formulation is not that of a wicked problem i.e. they are talking about something ‘tame’. Statements that contain phrases like “…optimal solution…” or “…this proves conclusively that if we do this we will have the best outcome…” in the context of a wicked problem definitely signal a likely category mistake.

Category mistakes are a warning sign – be sceptical of claims being made. They suggest either misunderstanding or partiality.

It’s worth reading the Rittel and Webber paper. Despite its age, it still does an exceptionally good job of reminding us of the characteristics of wicked problems that’s just as relevant today.

The first steps towards a coherent approach to problem formulation can be found in Rosenhead’s (1996) introduction to Problem Structuring Methods.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730
Rosenhead, J. (1996). What’s the problem? An introduction to problem structuring methods. Interfaces, 26(6), 117-131. doi:10.1287/inte.26.6.117


Systems modelling in engineering


Systems modelling in engineering

The wider and more pervasive use of appropriate systems modelling techniques would have a beneficial impact on the way in which engineers deal with messy socio-technical problems. This class of problems is commonly defined by the following characteristics; i) difficulty on agreeing the problem, project objectives, or what constitutes success, ii) situations involving many interested parties with different worldviews, iii) many uncertainties and lack of reliable (or any) data, and iv) working across the boundary between human activity systems and engineered artefacts. All systems models attempt to conceptualise, via appropriate abstraction and specialised semantics, the behaviour of complex systems through the notion of interdependent system elements combining and interacting to account for the emergent behavioural phenomena we observe in the world.

Engineers have developed a multitude of approaches to systems modelling such as Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) and System Dynamics (SD), Discrete Event Modelling (DEM), Agent Based Modelling and simulation (ABM), and Interpretive Structural Modelling (ISM) and these are all included in my programme of research.   However, despite their extensive use, there still exists a number of research challenges that must be addressed for these systems modelling approaches to be more widely adopted in engineering practice as essential tools for dealing with messy problems. These systems modelling approaches as used in current engineering practice provide little or no account of how the process of modelling relates to the process of intervention (if any). This is in part due to the wider challenge to address the poor awareness and uptake of Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs) in engineering, the current inadequate way of integrating these more engineering-focussed systems modelling approaches into PSMs, and lack of understanding in how to deploy them appropriately in addressing messy problems in specific contexts. There is also the need to interpret the current state of the social-theoretic underpinning to systems modelling into a form that is appropriate for use in engineering. This need arises from the endemic atheoretical pragmatism that exists in engineering practice. The lack of methodology supported by suitable theory to counter this i) hinders the development of understanding why methods work or not, and also what it means for them to work, ii) acts as a barrier to communication between practitioners and disciplines, and iii) has ethical consequences, as pragmatic use of methods raises the problem of instrumentalism.

Addressing this methodological challenge is currently a central core of my work. I believe this research is transformational in that it integrates academically disparate areas of expertise in engineering, management, and social science, into a coherent articulation of systems modelling for engineers.