Working Well with Wickedness – John Law on Wicked Problems


“Abstract In 1973 Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber wrote a seminal paper, ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ in whichthey distinguished between benign and wicked problems. Of the former they wrote that ‘the mission is clear [and] … It is clear, in turn, whether or not the problems have been solved.’
By contrast, wicked problems are vicious, tricky and aggressive, filled with political and material ambivalences, uncertainties and unpredictable feedback loops. In short, for wicked problems neither mission nor what counts as a successful
solution is clear. We now live, they said, in an era of wicked problems. A
general theory of planning (and we might add policy) is impossible.
This working paper revisits this argument. It argues: first that all problems are
wicked; and second, that the only way of handling wicked problems is to
render them temporarily benign. It then explores the tactics for
achieving this both in policy and academic contexts, and argues that
this implies the need to hold together series of opposites.
In particular it is necessary to: homogenise problems whilst recognising that these are essentially heterogeneous; simultaneously centre and decentre problem solving;
close off alternative ways of simplifying contexts whilst also being open to alternatives; and assume that particular problem framings are generally applicable
whilst recognising that they are not.The paper concludes, following Rittel and Webber, that though small narratives and metrics are necessary, grand narratives and general forms of metrication are unhelpful in a world of wicked problems.
Instead it suggests that politics and knowing are better understood as situated forms of interference. Finally it submits that the best strategies are likely to
be tactical and responsive rather than fixed or large scale in character
, and suggests that policy-making and politics might be treated as forms of care or tinkering”

Click to access wp135.pdf

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