Wicked problems and community engagement

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In an age of wicked problems, community engagement is crucial. Many of the environmental and social challenges we face are wicked (or complex) problems which make them extremely difficult to address, for example:

  1. Climate change
  2. Peak oil
  3. The global financial crisis
  4. Child abuse
  5. Terrorism
  6. Food security
  7. Poverty
  8. Obesity
  9. Over consumption
  10. Sustainability

Glouberman and Zimmerman (2002) highlight the difference between simple problems, complicated problems and complex problems by comparing following a recipe (a simple problem), sending a rocket to the moon a (complicated problem) and raising a child (a complex problem).

Following a Recipe
Sending a Rocket to the Moon
Raising a Child
The recipe is essential Formulae are critical and necessary Formulae have a limited application
Recipes are tested to assure easy replication Sending one rocket increases assurance that the next will be OK Raising one child provides experience but no assurance of success with the next
No particular expertise is required. But cooking expertise increases success rate High levels of expertise in a variety of fields are necessary for success Expertise can contribute but is neither necessary nor sufficient to assure success
Recipes produce standardized products Rockets are similar in critical ways Every child is unique and must be understood as an individual
The best recipes give good results every time There is a high degree of certainty of outcome Uncertainty of outcome remains
Optimistic approach to problem possible Optimistic approach to problem possible Optimistic approach to problem possible

Wicked problems have a number of characteristics including:

  1. The “solution” to wicked problems depends on how the problem is understood (i.e., the problem definition depends on the solution)
  2. The problem is not really understood until after it has been resolved
  3. The problem cannot be completely solved
  4. People involved can have very different world views and have radically different views about the causes of the problem and the best way to respond
  5. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad, or better or worse
  6. We cannot know beforehand what impact our interventions will have
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique
  8. Cause and effect is unknown and unknowable
  9. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation,” every attempt has unintended consequences
  10. Every wicked problem can be consider to be a symptom of another problem (CogNexus Institute, n.d.; Moore, 2011; Rittel & Webber, 1973)

Rittel and Webber point out that we “cannot build a freeway to see how it works, and then easily correct it after unsatisfactory performance” (p. 163). The Catch-22 of wicked problems is that in order to understand the problem, you need to attempt to solve it, but every solution is “expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems” (Conklin, 2005, p. 8).

Many of these problems require broad community engagement. Conklin suggests that “Because of social complexity, solving a wicked problem is fundamentally a social process. Having a few brilliant people or the latest project management technology is no longer sufficient” (p. 15). We need broad agreement about how to approach wicked problems. As Moore (2011) suggests “Efforts to build coordinated approaches to addressing wicked problems are hampered by the fact that people do not agree on what should be done or even what the problems are” (p. 9).

Nobody knows what is going to work and we need to come to agreement about what is likely to work. Our current political system is making this extremely difficult. The Opposition (of what every persuasion) wins power by undermining the actions of the Government. Rather than working together to address the complex situations we face, they continually undermine each other. Because we have a minority Government at the moment, the Opposition is particularly obstructive and appear to oppose most things the Government attempts to implement.

There is no point identifying a response to a social problem if communities will not support the approach. We know how to address some of the problems above (e.g., reduce carbon emission, change diets) but unless there is broad community support, strategies based on these approaches will not work.

We need to become expert at engaging stakeholders and the broad community in understanding the problems and determining what approach to take.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

  1. What is community engagement?
  2. Ethics and community engagement
  3. Vertical and horizontal community engagement
  4. What is asset-based community-driven development (ABCD)?
  5. What is social capital?
  6. The Transition Streets Challenge – an overview


CogNexus Institute (n.d.). Wicked Problems Retrieved 5 January 2012, from http://www.cognexus.org/id42.htm

Conklin, J. (2005). Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. Chichester, England: Wiley. Available from http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf.

Glouberman, S., & Zimmerman, B. (2002). Complicated and complex systems: What would successful reform of medicare look like? Ottawa: Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. Available from http://www.change-ability.ca/Health_Care_Commission_DP8.pdf.

Moore, T. (2011). Wicked problems, rotten outcomes and clumsy solutions: Children and families in a changing world. Paper presented at the NIFTey/CCCH Conference, Sydney. Available from http://www.rch.org.au/emplibrary/ccch/NIFTeY_CCCH_Conference_11_-_paper.pdf.

Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169. Available from http://www.thestudiony.com/ed/bfa/Rittel+Webber+Dilemmas.pdf.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Environmental sustainability, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Wicked problems and community engagement

  1. Pingback: How can you make your Christmas more sustainable? | Global Network on Sustainability and Education

  2. Adria says:

    Always learning with new information, Graeme!


  3. Graeme says:

    Thanks Leslie. One of my colleagues directed me to Tamarack a while ago and I just read Paul Born’s book “Community Conversations”. It does seem to have some good resources.


  4. Leslie Ayre-Jaschke says:

    Hi Graeme–You may be interested in the work of the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement here in Canada. Brenda Zimmerman, one of the authors of the work you cite above, is a frequent contributor to Tamarack, as it tackles “wicked questions” such as poverty reduction. Tamarack has a wealth of resources on community engagement–books, podcasts, tele-learning, etc. http://tamarackcommunity.ca/


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