Rittel & Webber on ‘wicked and tame’ problems

Consequences for equity: Differentiation of publics has heightened pluralism, making it difficult to satisfy all, or even most of them in policy formulation. The problem lies at the nexus of goal-formulation, problem-definition, and equity issues (p 156).

Revolts: 1960s RANDian systems theory approaches led to revolts by blacks, students, anti-war demonstrators, conservationists – movements all opposing ‘underlying systemic processes’ [is this Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man being challenged?] (p 157).

‘Makeability’: the idea that the future can be shaped by enough planning intellect (p 158).

Feeling approach: identified as anti-system and characterised by dramatic action.

Cybernetically Feasible Values: an approach favoured by some, but displaces liberty and equity [is this the direction taken by MS Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google?]

Professionalism: Some believe that professionals can develop ‘instruments of perfectibility’.

Efficiency: Watchword of industrial ‘sciences’ and economics, but efficiency as cause is now questioned on the basis whether it is ‘the right thing to do’ (p 159).

Professions: Have mimicked ‘cognitive style of science and the occupational style of engineering’ (p 160).

Wicked problem: no definitive formulation of a wicked problem is possible (p 161) and no stopped state (p 162) or definite outcome defines success. Instead arbitrary rules are applied, like ‘good enough’, or ‘no more money’.

No binary state: No true or false state, no certainty. R&W say good and bad, but I think it’s more like least to most preferred [this echoes or anticipates Habermas on pluralism and multiple valid options even when they appear to conflict].

Consequences: Every wicked problem addressed creates irreversible ripples of consequences – bridge/highway built in wrong place (p 163).

Organisational inertia: Administrators promote organisational status quo and own influence [Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man again] (p 165).

Attitudinal criteria: People choose subjective solutions and success criteria, including venal ones.

Pluralism: As publics grow more diverse they compete for outcomes in zero sum contests.

Subjectivity: ‘Experts’ and ‘decision-makers’ also seek to impose their own (subjective) opinions.


Interpellation: We know who we are, the question is who are you? Very edgy, but collegiate.

Absences: It is hinted at but not directly stated that decisions on policy will become increasingly more political. They did not anticipate big money circumventing politics as much as they might have, nor the defection of scientists from technocracies to big business.

Utility: Excellent statement of principles against technocratic, reductionist determinism. Probably not that much use in INN533, though. Should underline skepticism about apparently objective, scientific justifications for policy/design design decisions, and emphasise the actual motivations for proposals or decisions.

Questions: What follow-up work has been done on this foundation?


Rittel, H.W.J., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences 4(2), 155-169.
(publicly available from http://www.uctc.net/mwebber/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas+General_Theory_of_Planning.pdf at the time of writing removed from the previous source but available at the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Engineering as at 9 December 2016).

Excerpt from an email discussion, my comments to Dieter Mueller:

Undoubtedly everything you said about Rittel & Webber’s critique of pseudoscientific, faux engineering systems is true, and yet I gained an entirely different impression of their work, probably based on three contextual circumstances: I am concurrently reading Roger Kimball’s excoriating critique of 1960s and ‘70s counterculture, The Long March; I made a connection to statements by Microsoft’s Head of Public Sector Innovation, Chris Yapp, about sexuality profiling via pattern matching; and I saw a connection between Rittel & Webber’s invective and the attempt at critical theory in the continuum that includes people like Marcuse and Habermas, but oddly also Edmund Burke and JS Mill.


Roger Kimball is a serious conservative academic in the USA who has made a nice little sideline with his critiques of all things Left. He is not, however, an idiot like so many Republican and fringe spokespeople, and makes many good points about the failings of revolutionary fervour tied to vacuous ideas about what to do after the old systems and institutions have been overthrown.
Without literally referencing those ideas, Rittel’s & Webber’s critique nevertheless struck me to be just as much a challenge to the programmatic determinism of Neo-Marxists, Maoists and Trotskyites as to the RANDians of the 1950s and ‘60s. That impression was heightened by the date of their essay, which precedes actual publication in 1973 by four years.


In an opinion piece for ITNow in March 2011, Yapp ventured:

Last summer, I was shown a clever piece of software that built social webs and looked for insight into particular communities or networks. Using only the public material it was able to draw out some interesting inferences.

For instance, it looked at friends and friends of friends who did not declare their sexuality. What the researchers suggested is that they could infer who was an undeclared gay or lesbian by looking at their social web activities.

Now I know people who have been damaged by being ‘outed’ before they were ready. It is a personal decision and I believe that people should have the privacy to come to terms with what can be a very emotive issue in some families.

Similarly, it had been used to create a potential shortlist of possible partners for a straying husband.

In neither case was the suggestion that it was 100 per cent accurate, but it was possible to infer with a reasonable degree of certainty from particular patterns. This is the mucky world of ‘intelligence’.

Connecting Yapp to Rittel & Webber, I was struck by the notion that the data mining people who draw such inferences and use them commercially or politically are acting with a presumptuous determinism that ought not to be confined to scientific experiments, where we know that mixing certain compounds creates explosive reactions, rather than guessing at, and then ‘selling’ as true, personal information that could disastrously affect thousands, if not millions of people. The troubling inference I’m drawing here is that the data pattern-matching people probably believe they are engaging in science rather than fallible profiling, and that their methods are benign, not to be tempered with careful contextual judgement, or that their ‘results’ are not in fact highly questionable in the ‘wicked’ context of an absence of certainty about any of their conclusions.

None of this appears to be controversial until you add law enforcement and security intelligence agencies into that mix. These are the last people I’d want putting me on some homophobe watchlist. Not that my reference to Left politics and repressive state agencies might not already have put me on far worse lists. But you see what I’m saying here, right?

Critical theory

The very thing that makes Rittel & Webber glib – an absence of alternative theory – is what aligns them to traditional conservative ideas and liberalism. Their message against a false faith in absent science or engineering certainties is similar to Burke’s message that revolutionary changes which remove every semblance of a previous order leave nothing behind to stem a tide of negative consequences if things go wrong, and abolish the good along with targeted negatives.

In Millsian terms, the idea of imposing any programmatic determinism, whether it is the Reagan/Thatcher microeconomic political economy of free markets, or the Pol Pot Day Zero nihilism, destroys liberty and pluralism. Curiously enough, contemporary capitalism seems little concerned with these two ideas which were once promoted as the positive effects of free marketeering (probably because no one has noticed that the really big corporations today behave just like Soviet Central Committees rather than the quaint stereotypes of mercantile entrepreneurs evoked by Adam Smith’s writings).

Rittel & Webber were policy design and planning academics, but I’m not sure I have yet discovered a precise application for their ideas to any contemporary real-world project. However, those ideas are now in my head. Initially, they seem to be striving at closing the gap between the purely theoretical, philosophical work of scholars like Marcuse and Habermas, and actual policy practitioners. Perhaps even information system designers and implementers. This is the part of my response as yet least developed. Moreover, I confess that these ideas only existed intuitively when I sent you the article, but I knew there was more to this rather old paper than the literal interpretation of the words (and I do like the terminology of ‘wicked’ and ‘tame’).

There is not yet even any direct application to my studies for the Rittel & Webber perspective, except that it has been used as the basis of other management bunkum, notably the Cynefin framework of managing in extremis that was featured in the Harvard Business Review a few years ago. Nevertheless, I was impressed with my discovery of a paper almost as old as I am predicting many of the things that annoy the hell out of me in IT organisations and professionals. That’s why I sent it to you.