In June 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber published the article titled Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, popularizing the authors’ distinction between wicked and tame problems. Today, the article is as current as ever, standing as a seminal and one of the most frequently cited publications in design theory and offering a foundational characterization of the challenges at the heart of design.
Marking the publication’s 50th anniversary, this international symposium invites practitioners, scholars, researchers, students, and thinkers from various backgrounds to contribute case studies, reflections on, and projections of, the distinction between wicked and tame problems, with a particular interest in the future roles of design in a world harrowed by systemic crises.
Rittel and Webber’s article, in essence, contrasts tame problems (whose solutions are guided by unambiguous procedures and criteria) against wicked problems (which require solutions in the absence of clear guiding procedures and criteria). It lists distinctive attributes of wicked problems – including the following:
- Wicked problems have no stopping rules: Work on them only ends when essential resources (such as time, money, or interest) are exhausted.
- Solutions to wicked problems are not objectively right or wrong but subjectively better or worse.
- Every wicked problem is novel and unique, resisting attempts at broad generalization.
- Consequently, every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation.”
Wicked problems thus stand in sharp contrast to how problems are commonly portrayed in science, engineering, management, and elsewhere – highlighting the crucial importance of creativity, ethics, and personal responsibility while questioning the role of prescriptive methodologies in design, and challenging academic as well as administrative orthodoxy.
This symposium invites case studies, reflections on, and projections of, the distinction between wicked and tame problems in and beyond the following areas:
- Design practice (all disciplines)
- Design theory
- Design research
- Design philosophy
- Design management
- Design business
- Design education/pedagogy (all levels)
- Design ethics
- Design epistemology
- Methods in design
- Digital design
- Policy making and administration
- Cross-disciplinary perspectives
Of particular interest at this symposium are ways in which appreciations of wicked problems may help us move forward: On the one hand, the growing recognition of wicked problems is tied directly to the growing scale of social and environmental crises that demand us to act. On the other hand, the wicked/tame distinction is a mere theoretical construct – facilitating thought rather than action. If anything, the notion of wicked problems cautions us about methods and prescriptive action. Does Rittel and Webber’s theory only help us see why action is likely ineffective? Or can it also help bring about urgently needed effective action?
Newcomers to Rittel and Webber’s distinction between wicked and tame problems can find background information and some annotated literature references on the theme of this event here on the symposium website.