A few weeks ago, I was attending a discussion group at my work that meets over lunch and covers various topics orbiting Design Thinking. That weeks topic was “The Dilemma of Wicked Problems,” or problems that meet a set of specific criteria describing their inherent difficulty and sobering insolubility. I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of frustration and futility in pondering the implications of these ubiquitous problems in our society, and felt the need to share my thoughts on the matter.
Wicked problems have no clear “correct” solution, no way to test possible solutions before implementing them or usually even know if they had the effect desired after implementing them, and any attempt to solve them can have potentially harmful effects, even if a working solution is found. That’s because the problem exists in a system that is interconnected with other systems in a vast network of causality meandering off into the infinite. Fixing one problem can cause others to pop up, many times even worse than the original problem, and many times outside the scope of the original problem.
Every time a wicked problem is solved, it causes more problems and ensures that the ensuing problems will be even harder to solve. It’s like trying to put a puzzle together, but with every piece you fit in, the picture changes and someone dumps more pieces on the board.
While our discussion was originally focused around these types of problems within the public planning space, like how to reduce crime, build effective infrastructure, fix income inequality or prevent an authoritarian populist regime from usurping your government, but there are wicked problems in all area’s of life. As a designer whose job is to build tools so others can do their jobs, I have definitely experienced these problems before, but it wasn’t until now that I was able to put a name to them and wrap my head around what their nature really is.
We build things to fix problems within a system, whether it’s within a company, a specific market, or the world, but by introducing these tools, we’re changing the variables and therefore necessarily changing the outcome of that system. What we build to solve one problem could introduce new problems in areas that weren’t even part of our focus before. This forces us to expand our view and try to come at the problem again with more variables in mind and more possibilities, and it becomes exponentially harder to solve with each iteration.
When the realization first hit me that everything I will ever build to improve others work or lives will cause other unforeseen problems elsewhere, it was pretty damn depressing. What’s the point if we’re just going to be making more problems? Isn’t our responsibility to fix things, not to break them?
Thankfully, I realized that this line of reasoning was flawed. Solving one problem at the expense of changing the system and potentially introducing new problems doesn’t negate the benefit from removing the original problem. It’s the reason to get up every day and try to make the world suck a little less. It’s the reason to keep fighting to make things better than they were before, even when we know it’s still not perfect. Especially when we know it’s still not perfect.
We like to see problems solved neatly, but that’s not how things work in the real world and the sooner that we accept that there will always be side effects and there will always be more problems to solve next, the sooner we can get to work finding them and fixing them.