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Marxist theory views wicked problems as a result of a capitalist system that perpetuates inequality and exploitation. These problems often arise from the unjust distribution of resources, the lack of access to basic necessities, and a lack of representation in decision-making processes.

Wicked problems are a manifestation of the power dynamics in our society, where the wealthy and powerful regularly benefit at the expense of the poor and powerless. In order to address these issues, Marxists argue that we must fundamentally transform our economic and social systems to promote an equitable distribution of resources and power.

Wicked problems are social or cultural issues that are difficult to solve due to their complexity, interconnectedness, and lack of definitive resolution.

Making sense of wicked problems

  1. Multiple perspectives: A wicked problem will have multiple stakeholders with diverse perspectives, values, and beliefs that must be taken into account when attempting to solve the problem.
  2. Non-linearity: Solutions to wicked problems are often counterintuitive and require creative thinking to identify a resolution.
  3. Uncertainty: Wicked problems often involve a degree of uncertainty that can prolong the process of finding a solution.
  4. Emergence: Solutions to wicked problems often come from unexpected sources and appear to emerge from the interactions of the system’s components.
  5. Adaptability: Wicked problems often require adaptive approaches that can adjust to changing conditions and contexts.
  6. Unpredictability: Solutions to wicked problems can be unpredictable and can have unforeseen consequences.

Wicked problems are complex social or systemic issues that involve multiple stakeholders, require creative solutions, and are highly resistant to change. From a strategic design point of view, wicked problems require an iterative approach to problem solving, with the understanding that any solution proposed may be imperfect, incomplete, and open to further refinement.

Due to the complexity and interrelatedness of the problem, it’s important to understand the implications of any proposed solution and to have a clear vision of the desired outcome. Strategic design can provide a framework for examining wicked problems and developing tailored, comprehensive solutions that take into account all aspects of the situation.

Lenses into wicked problems

1. Wicked problems as “hyperobjects”: Following Timothy Morton’s concept of hyperobjects, wicked problems can be likened to massive, interconnected entities that transcend human comprehension. Similar to how a hyperobject like climate change spans vast scales of time and space, wicked problems encompass complex webs of interrelated issues that require holistic understanding and engagement.

2. Wicked problems as “hyperthreads”: Building upon the idea of hyperobjects, wicked problems can be envisioned as interconnected threads that weave through multiple dimensions of society. These threads intertwine and interact, creating a complex tapestry that represents the entanglement of social, economic, environmental, and cultural factors within wicked problems.

3. Wicked problems as “strange attractors”: Borrowing from chaos theory, wicked problems can be seen as dynamic systems governed by strange attractors. These attractors represent the underlying patterns and forces shaping wicked problems, pulling the system towards particular behaviors or outcomes. Just as strange attractors drive complex systems, wicked problems are influenced by underlying structures that contribute to their complexity and elusiveness.

4. Wicked problems as “morphing landscapes”: Imagining wicked problems as morphing landscapes evokes their fluidity and ever-changing nature. Like shifting terrain, wicked problems continually transform, presenting new challenges and opportunities. Navigating these landscapes requires adaptability and the ability to respond to emerging complexities and uncertainties.

5. Wicked problems as “recursive puzzles”: Viewing wicked problems as recursive puzzles emphasizes their intricate and self-referential nature. Solving a wicked problem may reveal new layers of complexity and interconnectedness, leading to further iterations of problem-solving. Just as recursive puzzles demand iterative and reflective thinking, wicked problems require ongoing engagement and learning to unravel their intricate dynamics.

How can designers approach wicked problems?

When it comes to wicked problems, those who have to engage with them are often part of the problem itself. This is because wicked problems are complex and interconnected, and often involve multiple stakeholders with competing interests and values. In some cases, the very people who are tasked with finding a solution to a wicked problem may have contributed to the problem in the first place.

For example, in the case of climate change, many of the individuals and organizations that are responsible for contributing to greenhouse gas emissions (such as fossil fuel companies) are also involved in discussions around finding solutions. This creates a conflict of interest, as their primary goal may be to protect their own economic interests rather than address the root causes of the problem.

It is therefore important for designers and other problem-solvers to be aware of their own biases and potential conflicts of interest when approaching wicked problems. This requires a willingness to engage in self-reflection and critique, as well as an openness to alternative perspectives and approaches.

  1. Embrace complexity: Recognize that wicked problems are complex and cannot be reduced to simple solutions. Designers should approach wicked problems with a mindset of exploration and learning rather than trying to solve them outright.
  2. Foster interdisciplinary collaboration: Designers should seek out collaborators from diverse disciplines and perspectives to help them understand the complexity of wicked problems. This can include experts from fields such as social science, engineering, environmental studies, and public policy.
  3. Conduct research: Designers should conduct thorough research to gain a deep understanding of the wicked problem they are trying to address. This can include analyzing data, conducting interviews and focus groups, and conducting ethnographic research.
  4. Use a systems thinking approach: Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving that considers the interrelationships and interdependencies between various elements of a system. This can help designers understand the root causes of wicked problems and identify potential leverage points for intervention.
  5. Engage with stakeholders: Designers should engage with stakeholders who are affected by the wicked problem to gain a better understanding of their needs, values, and perspectives. This can help designers develop more inclusive and sustainable solutions.
  6. Prototype and test: Designers should prototype and test potential solutions to wicked problems to gain insights and feedback from users and stakeholders. This can help designers refine their ideas and identify potential unintended consequences.
  7. Emphasize ethics: Designers should approach wicked problems with a strong ethical framework, considering the potential impact of their solutions on society and the environment. This can include developing solutions that are sustainable, equitable, and socially responsible.
  8. Embrace uncertainty: Designers should be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, recognizing that wicked problems are inherently unpredictable and cannot be fully solved. This can involve designing solutions that are adaptable and flexible, able to evolve and respond to changing circumstances over time.

Open ended inquiry

One interesting way of looking at wicked problems from a designer’s point of view is to approach them with a mindset of open-ended exploration and collaboration. Rather than seeking to “solve” the problem in a traditional sense, designers can engage with the complexity and uncertainty of wicked problems by embracing multiple perspectives, experimenting with different approaches, and continuously iterating and refining their solutions.

Designers can also draw on diverse disciplines and fields, such as anthropology, psychology, and sociology, to gain a deeper understanding of the social, cultural, and historical contexts of wicked problems. This can help them to identify and challenge underlying assumptions, biases, and power structures that may contribute to the problem.

Designers must adopt a human-centered approach, and carefully focusing their attention on the reality, needs and experiences of the people affected by the wicked problem. By putting the people affected by these problems at the core of  the design process and co-creating solutions with them, designers can create more inclusive and effective outcomes.