Wicked Problems

“We cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking we used in creating them.”

Albert Einstein

A few readers may be familiar with the term ‘wicked problem’. Though tempting to assume it is, this is not a reference to the Rajapaksa family’s fetid legacy in governance. The man who coined the term, Horst Rittel, was an urban planner and designer, who found traditional planning methods inadequate for the complex problems he encountered.

A wicked problem is best understood as a very complex, multi-dimensional challenge – difficult to grasp, always in flux and onerous to solve. Rittel identified key characteristics of a wicked problem, which may sound annoyingly counter-intuitive to some readers who may be experts in their subject domains. Bear with me.

First, you can’t understand a wicked problem until you’ve developed a solution – different perspectives, from different people, lead to a problem that isn’t ever precisely defined, making it impossible to see what can work as a solution until one is actually tried. There is no one solution to a wicked problem, and there is no perfect solution. Wicked problems can most often be best addressed by solutions that are good enough, given the circumstances and context. There is no right or wrong solution – they can be better, on one side of a scale, or not good enough, on the other. How a particular solution is viewed depends on, amongst other things, gender, age, subjective bias, interests, location and identity – different people will see a solution’s relative merits differently. Every wicked problem is new. Reducing urban congestion by allowing access to odd and even number plates into the city on alternating days may work in Delhi, but around the same challenge, may not work in Colombo, where more efficient public transport could be a better solution. There could be similarities in wicked problems, but the solutions are rooted in specific cultures and contexts. Solutions to wicked problems may result in the multiplication of other wicked problems, largely through unintended consequences and likely over the long-term. This is often a Catch-22 situation – you can’t address a wicked problem without trying solutions, but each solution tried brings with it the risk of more wicked problems and indeed, the burden of having to underwrite solutions which may not be as effective as first imagined. For government, this essentially means experimenting with public coffers, not something to be taken lightly in light of future electoral prospects. Finally, and perhaps the hardest to entertain, is that wicked problems may in fact have, at present, bad or no solutions, and that better solutions only come about as a result of new advances in R&D, out-of-the-box thinking, iterative design, sandboxing, incubation or some other process through which non-traditional problem solving approaches are tried and tested. This last point underscores the need to come up with imaginative, creative solutions, going outside traditional wisdom, the usual echo chamber of experts and ossified theory.

How can an appreciation of wicked problems be used to strengthen government and governance post-Rajapaksa? Under the Rajapaksa regime, it can be argued that wicked problems were seen and addressed as tame problems – challenges to which pre-defined solutions were retro-fitted, with scant regard for consequences. Highways, ports and airports, at eye-watering costs to the public, built without any discernible logic or justification, are key examples in this regard. The Rajapaksa’s are now gone. The challenges – all of them wicked – endure.

How do we develop cities and urban centres to accommodate projected population inflows? How do we encourage the use of non-polluting, zero or low emission vehicles and at the same time reduce urban congestion? How can our infrastructure accommodate the growth of industry and commerce? How can a new constitution capture the aspirations of all our peoples? How can youth unemployment be tackled? How can the government tackle graft and reduce transactional corruption? How can tertiary education be revamped? How can militarisation in the North and East in particular be reduced? How can strict lane enforcement on roads work with traffic congestion, poor signage and bottleneck junctions? How can greater awareness around the significant health risks of cigarette smoking be raised, given the ten-fold increase in revenue from cigarettes and tobacco excise taxes between 1990 and 2012? How can State media be transformed into public service media? What are the implications of first year school entrance for those who have been evicted under the beautification projects in Colombo? How can the inheritance of wicked problems like the Colombo Port City, Lotus Tower and Mattala Airport be best addressed?

Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, in comparison to the previous regime, may be outwardly more consultative, there is no discernible evidence those in power today, their associates and the architecture of governance is better able to address these problems. Einstein’s quote captures this succinctly – the same systems, thinking and indeed, individuals that gave rise to the problems we face today, cannot realistically be entrusted with solving them.

What needs to be done? The Australian Government’s public policy guidance around wicked problems, published in 2007, offers some insights. Three key strategies are championed – authoritative strategies, that “give the problem to some group (or an individual), who take on the problem-solving process while others agree to abide by its decisions”. Secondly, competitive strategies, that pit stakeholders against each other, usually with a prize anchored to greater power or influence. Thirdly, and stated as the most effective, collaborative strategies, that get disparate groups working together towards a common interest.

How to nurture a mind-set in government, and our public life, better able to embrace wicked problems is, no surprise here, itself a wicked problem. Shouldn’t we start at primary school, teaching our children the value of questioning everything? Shouldn’t our media impart the value of critical reflection over mindless repetition? Should our tertiary education devalue rote learning and instead nurture creative thinking? These are the essential ingredients of collective intelligence – seeking solutions to entrenched problems by opening it up to the wider public. Think of it like a Wikipedia approach to governance – we all contribute to something in order to make it better, and government becomes a platform for informed debate, as opposed to a mindless driver of anachronistic, parochial or downright disastrous solutions.

Yahapalanaya promised a reboot in governance. It would be a pity if the change was merely cosmetic, instead of systemic.


Published in The Sunday Island newspaper on 20 December 2015.

2 thoughts on “Wicked Problems

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