Super Wicked Problems and Social Messes


A wicked problem is so complex that you don’t really understand the problem until there’s a solution.

The concept of a wicked problem was formalized in 1973 in the discipline of social planning and public policy. The use of the word ‘wicked’ doesn’t imply evil but rather the resistance of the problem to being solved. Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. In this sense, wicked problems are different than more traditional ‘tame’ problems typically found in mathematics or other branches of science.

AI researcher Jeff Conklin generalized the concept of wicked problems using the following characteristics:

  • The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not inherently right or wrong.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  • Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Given the overwhelming complexity of wicked problems, it’s natural for people to avoid dealing with them. Without being able to break them down into smaller pieces, they seem insurmountable. We spend time on the urgent but not the important.

But some wicked problems demand attention in the short term, even though they seem insurmountable. These are deemed super wicked problems. Super wicked problems have three additional characteristics:

  • Time is running out.
  • No central authority.
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it.

The COVID-19 pandemic and global warming both seem like clear examples of super wicked problems.

According to Information mapping specialist Robert Horn, they may actually be examples of a social mess. He writes “a Social Mess is a set of interrelated problems and other messes. Complexity — systems of systems — is among the factors that makes Social Messes so resistant to analysis and, more importantly, to resolution.” Among the characteristics of social messes are differing views of the problem, data are often uncertain or missing, and ideological, political, and cultural constraints.

All social messes contain at least one wicked problem but not all wicked problems are social messes.

Regardless of what you call these problems, they are extraordinarily complicated, critical, and unprecedented. Importantly, we collectively cause the problems and we collectively have to solve them. It is this paradox we struggle with and often causes both stress and strife.

We should all be in this together but often aren’t. That’s super wicked. And a social mess.

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One Response to Super Wicked Problems and Social Messes

  1. George Eberstadt April 11, 2021 at 11:14 am #

    Sub topic: there’s very nice description of optimal stopping in relation to searching for a new home in Algorithms to Live By, By Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. I wonder if the same rule applies to searching for job candidates…

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