Skip to main content

Untangling wicked problems

  • Raymond McCALL (a1) and Janet Burge (a2)

More than 40 years after Rittel and Webber published the first articles on the theory of wicked problems this theory has been applied to a wide range of fields involved in real-world problem solving. Interest in the theory seems greater than ever. This has led to an interest in rethinking the theory. A number of authors do this by imposing interpretations on the theory that are incompatible with each other and with the statements of the theory's authors. We agree that it is time to critically reexamine the theory and rethink what implications it has for design. However, rather than imposing an incompatible interpretation, our approach is see what new conclusions can be drawn from a systematic and critical examination of what Rittel and Webber actually said. This reexamination of their specific claims and arguments is what we call untangling wicked problems. From this untangling, we derive new conclusions about how designers should tackle wicked problems and how design rationale can aid them in doing so.

Corresponding author
Reprint requests to: Janet Burge, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Wesleyan University, Science Tower 655, 265 Church Street, Middletown, CT 06459-012, USA. E-mail:
Hide All
Allen, C., Fornier, S., & Miller, F. (2008). Brands and their meaning makers. In Handbook of Consumer Psychology (Haugtvedt, C.P., Herr, P., & Kardes, F.R., Eds.), pp. 781822. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Arnett, D.K. (2012). Wicked problems and worthy pursuits: resolving to meet American Heart Association 2020 Impact Goals. Circulation 125(21), 25542556.
Balint, P.J, Stewart, R.E., Desai, A., & Walters, L. (2011). Wicked Environmental Problems: Managing Uncertainty and Conflict. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Bracewell, R., Ahmed, S., & Wallace, K. (2004). DREd and Design Folders, a way of capturing, storing, and passing on knowledge generated during design projects. Proc. ASME 2004 Design Automation Conf., pp. 235246, Salt Lake City, UT, September 28–October 2.
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues 8(2), 521.
Buckingham Shum, S.J., Selvin, A.M., Sierhuis, M., Conklin, J., Haley, C.B., & Nuseibeh, B. (2006). Hypermedia support for argumentation-based rationale: 15 years on from gIBIS and QOC. In Rationale Management in Software Engineering (Dutoit, A.H., McCall, R., Mistrik, I., & Paech, B., Eds.), pp. 111132. Heidelberg: Springer.
Burge, J.E., & Brown, D.C. (2006). Rationale-based support for software maintenance. In Rationale Management in Software Engineering (Dutoit, A.H., McCall, R., Mistrik, I., & Paech, B., Eds.), pp. 273296. Heidelberg: Springer.
Burge, J., Carroll, J.M., McCall, R., & Mistrik, I. (Eds). (2008). Rationale-Based Software Engineering. Heidelberg: Springer.
Burge, J., & McCall, R. (2014). Diagnosing wicked problems. 6th Int. Conf. Design Computing and Cognition. New York: Springer.
Cherry, E. (1999). Programming for Design: From Theory to Practice. New York: Wiley.
Churchman, C.W. (1967). Wicked problems. Management Science 14(4), B-141B-142.
Clemente, D., & Evans, R. (2015). Wartime Logistics in Afghanistan and Beyond: Analysing Complex Adaptive Systems as Networks and as Wicked Problems. London: Royal Institute for International Affairs/Chatham House.
Conklin, E.J. (2006). Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems. Chichester: Wiley.
Conklin, E.J., Basadur, M., & VanPatter, G.K. (2007). Rethinking wicked problems: unpacking paradigms, bridging universes. NextD Journal 10, 130.
Conklin, E.J., & Begeman, M.L. (1988). gIBIS: a hypertext tool for exploratory policy discussion. ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems 6(4), 303331.
Coyne, R. (2005). Wicked problems revisited. Design Studies 26(1), 517.
DeGrade, P., & Stahl, L. (1990). Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions: A Catalog of Modern Engineering Paradigms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Dunne, D., & Martin, R. (2006). Design thinking and how it will change management education: an interview and discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education 5(4), 512523.
Dutoit, A.H., McCall, R., Mistrik, I., & Paech, B. (Eds). (2006) Rationale Management in Software Engineering. Heidelberg: Springer.
Ermolaeva, E., & Ross, J. (2010). Unintended Consequences of Human Actions. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Farrell, R., & Hooker, C. (2013). Design, science and wicked problems. Design Studies 34(6), 681705.
Fischer, G., Lemke, A., McCall, R., & Morch, A. (1996). Making argumentation serve design. In Design Rationale: Concepts, Techniques, and Use, pp. 267293. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Fischer, G., McCall, R., & Morch, A. (1989). Design environments for constructive and argumentative design. Proc. 1989 ACM Conf. Human Computer Interaction (CHI 89), pp. 269275. New York: ACM.
Kirschner, P.A., Buckingham Shum, S.J., & Carr, C.S. (Eds). (2003). Visualizing Argumentation: Software Tools for Collaborative and Educational Sense-Making. London: Springer.
Kovacic, S.F., & Sousa-Poza, A. (2013). Managing and Engineering in Complex Situations. New York: Springer.
Kunz, W., & Rittel, H.W.J. (1970). Issues as Elements of Information Systems. Working Paper 131, University of California, Berkeley, Institute for Urban & Regional Development.
Mansfield, J. (2010). The Nature of Change or the Law of Unintended Consequences: An Introductory Text to Designing Complex Systems and Managing Change. London: Imperial College Press.
McCall, R., Bennett, P., d'Oronzio, P., Ostwald, J., Shipman, F., & Wallace, N. (1990). PHIDIAS: integrating CAD graphics into dynamic hypertext. Proc. 1990 European Conf. Hypertext: ECHT ‘90. Hypertext: Concepts, Systems and Applications (Rizk, A., Streitz, N., & Andre, J., Eds.), pp. 152165. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McCall, R., Bennet, P., & Johnson, E. (1994). An overview of the PHIDIAS II HyperCAD system. Proc. 1994 Conf. Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture. Reconnecting: ACADIA ’94 (Harfman, A., Ed.), pp. 6374. St. Louis, MO: Washington University Press.
McCall, R., Schaab, B., & Schuler, W. (1983). An information station for the problem solver: system concepts. Proc. 1st Int. Conf. Application of Mini- and Microcomputers in Information, Retrieval and Libraries, pp. 138147. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Merton, R.K. (1936). The unanticipated consequences of purposive social action. American Sociological Review 1(6), 894904.
Moran, T.P., & Carroll, J.M. (Eds). (1996). Design Rationale: Concepts, Techniques, and Use. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Poon, J., & Maher, M.L. (1997). Co-evolution and evolution in design. AI In Engineering 11(3), 319327.
Protzen, J.-P. & Harris, D.J. (2010). The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel's Theories of Design and Planning. New York: Routledge.
Rith, C., & Dubberly, H. (2007). Why Horst W.J. Rittel matters. Design Issues 22(4), 120.
Rittel, H.W.J. (1972). On the planning crisis: systems analysis of the “first and second generations.” Bedriftskonomen 8, 390396.
Rittel, H.W.J., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning Rittel. Policy Sciences 4(2), 155169.
Rogers, B., Qiao, Y., Gung, J., Mathur, T., & Burge, J. (2014). Using text mining techniques to extract rationale from existing documentation. Proc. 6th Int. Conf. Design Computing and Cognition, pp. 457474. Amsterdam: Springer International.
Schön, D.A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.
Simon, H.A. (1956). Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review 63(2), 129138.
Stolterman, E. (2008). The nature of design practice and implications for interaction design research. International Journal of Design 2(1), 5565.
Tenner, E. (1997). Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York: Vintage.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0890-0604
  • EISSN: 1469-1760
  • URL: /core/journals/ai-edam
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 69
Total number of PDF views: 283 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 813 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.