Untaming Problems

Horst Rittel’s distinction between wicked and tame problems was developed in response to attempts at transferring insights and techniques from the domains of science and technology to social contexts such as urban planning. As the limitations of scientific and technical methods beyond their respective contexts is something that requires continual re-emphasis, the notion of the wicked problem remains as relevant today as ever. However, while separating social design questions from scientific and technological ones made sense in the context of the 1970s, it is not feasible or desirable to treat these domains separately today. Contemporary technologies are ever more deeply and non-linearly entangled with politics, ethics, bodies, and ecologies. While this entanglement brings yet more instances of wicked problems to contend with, it also prompts a renewed focus on the tame—on those problems that are understood to be solvable, agreed upon, and approachable in familiar terms. Contemporary crises are not just defined by their unresolved (wicked) conflicts, but also by assent to the uncontested (tame) agreements and assumptions that underlie these conflicts. Drawing on ideas from the philosophy of science and second-order cybernetics that are adjacent to wicked problems, I problematise the notion of “taming” wickedness and invert this in order to outline an activity of “untaming” to be applied to well-defined questions and the assumptions and frameworks that establish and perpetuate them.


Dr. Ben Sweeting
Principal Lecturer
School of Architecture, Technology and Engineering
The University of Brighton

Ben Sweeting teaches architecture and design at the University of Brighton, Brighton, UK. Ben’s work is situated in the fields of cybernetics, systemic design, and architectural theory, with focuses on ethics, place, methodology, and transdisciplinarity. Ben studied architecture at the University of Cambridge and University College London, completing a PhD at the latter supervised by Neil Spiller and Ranulph Glanville.