Is Clean Energy a Wicked Problem?

Deciding whether clean energy is a wicked problem involves two tasks. One is to define wicked problem and the other is a formulation of the clean energy objective.

Advocates of Design Thinking and Systems Thinking, among others, are fond of the term, wicked problem. Popular examples include climate change/clean energy, drug trafficking, homeland security, nuclear energy, natural hazards and healthcare. In the next few posts, I’ll argue that the characterization of clean energy as a wicked problem is, at best, not very useful and, at worst, detrimental to the stated goals of those who use it. I think the clean energy challenge is partly wicked – but only partly – and not for most of the reasons one might guess. In upcoming posts I’ll also argue that to some degree the clean energy problem is made wicked by characterizing it as wicked.  There is a Keyser Söze effect (seemingly omnipotent criminal whose omnipotence derives from his scaremongering) at work here. It demoralizes us and misdirects thinking that could be put to better use solving problems. My previous post, on philosopher Richard Rorty, ends wth Rorty’s appeal that if a solution to the problem of climate and energy exists, it is a matter for the engineers. Indeed. Let’s get to work.

The term wicked problem was first used around 1967 in lectures by Horst Rittel of UC Berkeley according to systems guru West Churchman, who first used it in print, in reference to Rittel’s lecture. The context of Rittel’s use of the term was social policy and urban planning. Six years later, Rittel and Melvin Webber defined wicked problems in detail in “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” published in the journal of the Society for Policy Sciences.

Rittel and Webber list ten distinguishing properties of the planning-type problems they classify as wicked. They note that wicked does not mean that anything in the problem space is ethically deplorable or that malicious intent exists, but that such problems are tricky, malignant, vicious and aggressive.

Both Rittel & Webber and Churchman do, however, go to some length to describe an ethical issue related to wicked problems. This important point is lost in most modern use of the term. The authors indicate that it is usually morally objectionable for a planner to treat a wicked problem as though it were a tame one, or to tame only part of a wicked problem. Churchman says that taming part of a wicked problem, but not the whole, is morally wrong, because doing so can create the illusion of safety where danger exists. He then calls for a new level of maturity and morality in operations research and management science. Churchman urges that his profession not only avoid telling management what it wants to hear, but that operations researchers should not tame parts of wicked problems even if they warn management that only part of a problem was solved. It takes more than a verbal caveat, said Churchman, to convince the management that a solution is incomplete. For the energy/climate problem, it seems to me this aspect of Rittel, Webber, and Churchman’s work may be considerably more important than examining the wickedness of the energy/climate problem. More on that in a later post.

Rittel’s ten distinguishing properties of wicked problems are listed below. These descriptions are excerpted directly from Rittel’s wording with very minor additions and clarifications. I’ve split Rittel’s item number 4 into two parts because I think he inadvertently connects two related but distinct characteristics – solution testability and likelihood of unexpected consequences. I differentiate these because non-function and malfunction (and the likelihood of each) are fundamentally different engineering concerns.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. In order to describe a wicked-problem in sufficient detail, one has to develop an exhaustive inventory of all conceivable solutions ahead of time. The process of solving the problem is identical with the process of understanding its nature.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You never know whether you’re finished.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better-or-worse. Parties may be equally interested or entitled to judge the solutions, but none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness.

4a. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

4b. Wicked problems are prone to unintended consequences.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. Every implemented solution is consequential, leaving “traces” that cannot be undone.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Despite long lists of similarities between a current problem and a previous one, there always might be an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance. The conditions in a city constructing a subway may look similar to the conditions in San Francisco, say; but planners would be ill-advised to transfer the San Francisco solutions directly. Differences in commuter habits or residential patterns may far outweigh similarities in subway layout, downtown layout and the rest.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. The process of resolving the problem starts with the search for causal explanation of the discrepancy. Removal of that cause poses another problem of which the original problem is a “symptom.”

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution. Crime in the streets can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, too many police, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, too many guns, etc.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. As Karl Popper argues in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, it is a principle of science that solutions to problems are only hypotheses offered for refutation. In the world of planning and wicked problems no such immunity is tolerated.

The definition of wicked problem has remained consistent through its usage. It appears in Design Thinking and climate-change circles often, with substantially the same meaning, usually referencing Rittel and Webber. Given that consistency of usage, we can next take a crack at what we mean when we say we want clean energy. With a useful definition of wicked and a fair formulation of a clean energy objective, we can then look at whether clean energy is a wicked problem and how that characterization might impact planning and design of solutions.

More on that tomorrow.

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  1. #1 by Cameron D. Norman on September 18, 2012 - 4:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Censemaking and commented:
    Bill Storage does a commendable job in commenting on wicked problems and initiates a discussion about whether clean energy is one of these problems. For those interested in wicked problems and going beyond the pop rhetoric of this concept, this is a perfect concise introduction.

  2. #2 by Anonymous on September 18, 2012 - 4:25 pm

    Terrific post on wicked problems. You do a great job of articulating the key elements of the concept concisely. I also think you’re spot on with the choice to separate four into two parts as they really are large, separate concepts that deserve independent consideration.

    I don’t know if its widely used or you are the first, but I will be considering the possibility of the Keyser Soze effect in my work for some time to come. Nicely put.

  3. #3 by Tom Ritchey on September 18, 2012 - 4:49 pm

    Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:


    Tom Ritchey

    • #4 by Bill Storage on November 16, 2012 - 10:10 pm

      Thanks Tom. Excellent work. Another topic of great interest.

  4. #5 by Moncler Jackets For Men on November 16, 2012 - 8:59 pm

    You should always depend on yourself rather than someone else.No littering on the campus.Show your ticketsplease.Do you think you’ll be able to go to sleep fight away? How about going to a movie? The harder I study, the better my English will be.The harder I study, the better my English will be.I am so sorry about this.It’s a friendly competition.Why don’t you find a job and end this dependence upon your parents?

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