Wicked Problem and Design Thinking

Every day, we are confronted with problems–small and large scale. Design thinking provides a systematic approach to solving these problems. Formally, design thinking refers to the diverse and interrelated approaches, techniques, and tricks to scientifically addressing the problems we face individually and collectively. 

This blog is dedicated to understanding the connection between design thinking and wicked problems. Wicked problems are problems without a singular cause or an immediate solution. They are complex and ongoing problems–such as the social determinants of health–that require a continual and curated effort to address. In this blog, we (1) outline the traditional design thinking model and (2) explore a reframed design thinking model that uses a wicked problems approach. Research for this blog is sourced from Richard Buchanan’s article, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.”

1. The Linear Approach to Design Thinking

Design thinking is traditionally a direct, step-by-step approach to addressing a problem. This linear way of thinking about the design thinking process simplifies the design process into two phases: (1) problem definition and (2) problem solution.

Linear Design Model

Problem Definition

The process where the designer determines the extent and specified components of the problem they are dealing with and identifies what a solution to this problem might require. 

Problem Solution

The process where the solution requirements are brought together and combined creatively to curate a final plan to be implemented. 

This two-phase linear approach to design thinking is an initially attractive model because it is direct and precise without relying on any one individual designer or design perspective. Many find this model to be logical and easy to understand. Critics of this model have identified two primary concerns with this approach to design thinking. 

  • First, design thinking in application is not linear. The sequence of steps to solving a problem rarely follows a distinct or uniform pattern. 
  • Second, most problems addressed by design thinkers are wicked problems. They have no cause or solution; they are multifaceted, changing, and challenging. A simple model like the linear design model underestimates the complexity of real-world problems.

2. A Wicked Problems Approach to Design Thinking

The application of design thinking to wicked problems was created by mathematician and designer Horst Rittel, who challenged the linear design process normalized prior. As discussed, the linear model suggests that problems have a clear set of identifiable conditions, but this is rarely (if ever) the case. 

Rittel argues that most design problems are indeterminate in the way that wicked problems are indeterminate. Indeterminate problems are not undetermined but boundless. They don’t have set limits or determined conditions. The designer can take creative liberty to see the problem and the necessary solution to this problem in whatever way they see fit. Design thinking in this context can be fluid and adaptable. The designer can change their approach, alter their approach, or even implement several simultaneous approaches to work with a changing problem rather than linearly fight against it. 

The beauty of the wicked problems approaches to design thinking is that it recognizes the indeterminate nature of the problem and provides a flexible solution to this indeterminacy. We might face daunting and ongoing wicked problems, but design thinking can provide the tools and framing to match these problems where they are and begin work towards solving them.

3. A Wicked Problems Approach in Practice 

To see a wicked problems approach to design thinking, consider RE-AMP, a network committed to short and long-term campaigns for environmental advocacy. RE-AMP has an ambitious goal: reduce regional global warming emissions by 80% by 2050. RE-AMP is unique from many other networks because they intentionally solve issues using a holistic problem-solving approach (or what this blog calls a wicked problems approach).

In practice, RE-AMP mapped out all of the significant issues and related players to get a visual understanding of their daunting but essential task. The resulting map (pictured below) demonstrates the complexity of this wicked problem.

The network was able to break the larger problem into smaller goals and approach those goals simultaneously by using this map as a working guide. RE-AMP identified four primary sub-goals to achieve their larger goal of environmental efficiency: (1) stop the building of all-new pulverized coal-fired power plants, (2) retire most of the region’s existing coal plants, (3) replace coal-generated electricity with renewable power, and (4) reduce overall electric consumption through increased efficiency. With these goals in mind, RE-AMP generated teams of organizations to address each goal, and each team developed its own five-year plan. 

These goals have changed and adapted over time, developing with the state of the issue. Critically, however, each RE-AMP team made a concerted effort to maintain a network among and between other teams: organizing work across groups, coordinating activities, and communicating regularly. This way, even though this wicked problem is changing and adapting, all teams can coordinate and adapt.

The wicked problems approach to design thinking is a primary contributing factor to the significant success RE-AMP has seen since its inception. See this comprehensive case study to read about RE-AMP and its practices.

To conclude, the problems addressed by networks are, more often than not, wicked and non-linear. As such, we must tackle them from this changing lens to see optimal success in overcoming (or minimizing) such problems.