Simple, complicated, complex, wicked

A key ambition of transdisciplinary research (TDR) is to help society cope with societal challenges. TDR is not, however, the magic bullet for all societal challenges, but specifically designed for complex and wicked problems.

‘Complex’ refers to the multiple aspects of a societal problem. In the case of starvation, for instance, we can consider it as an economic problem of low income, as a problem of unjustly distributed food resources over the world, of war and migration, of land ownership, of globalisation, or of plants not adequately adapted to environmental stresses like droughts. To conceive of starvation as a simple problem would mean to focus only on one of those aspects, e.g. low income. The adequate way to address the problem then would be to understand and monitor incomes in the world and increase the income of those who have the lowest.

In TDR we try to take the complexity of a problematic situation into account. We want to go beyond simple problem perception and simple solutions, which we call reductionist. As a consequence, experts from different fields – disciplines or fields of practice – have to be involved in the research process. ‘Complex’ also describes the unpredictable behaviour of systems. A system is, for instance, built by the multiple factors that influence whether or not starvation becomes a problem in a specific place and time. If the factors mutually influence each other, they make the development of the situation unpredictable. These properties of the system are called emergent, as they cannot be predicted by the properties of the individual factors, only by their interplay. Emergent properties make interventions in a system (e.g. measures to counter starvation) experiments that need to be observed because they might have unintended consequences.

The term ‘complex’ comes from scientists working with systems, whereas the term ‘wicked’ was introduced by planners designing solutions to problems involving multiple stakeholders1. ‘Wicked’ describes two things: (1) That every solution to a problem will be approved by some stakeholders and disapproved by others; and (2) that every definition or framing of a problem also defines the possible solutions. This is why the interests of stakeholders already matter when defining or framing a problem. The opposite of wicked problems are tamed ones. These are problems that are defined and solved in a well-defined context, such as for instance to win a game of chess. Such problems might not be easy to solve, but the rules of the game are clear, the same for all players, and do not change during the game.

This is different from the wicked problems we deal with in TDR. For starvation, for instance, there are no world-wide rules on how to address it. For some aspects, there are laws or practices, but they might differ between countries, not all might follow them and cheat, and the laws and practices can be changed by those in power. And even if there were laws, every problem framing of starvation – as a problem of income, land ownership, genetically improving plants – will favour some stakeholders’ interests and make other stakeholders oppose the proposed solution. This is as if chess pieces would have interests and would fight for them.

Exercise: Think of a societal challenge that you find interesting. Maybe you are working on one, or maybe there is a challenge that is on your mind. After you decide on one, answer the following questions:

  • Do you consider it a complex challenge or a problem? Think about three simple (reductionist) ways to look at and solve the problem. Are any of these reductionist solutions adequate for the problem? Why or why not?

  • Do you consider it a wicked challenge or a problem? What stakeholders should be involved when developing solutions? Try to describe the problem from the viewpoint of the three most relevant stakeholders. Can you imagine a solution all three stakeholders would agree on?

At this point we recommend that you take a break and reflect on these questions. Write your answers down and keep your notes. As you work your way through the course, your answers may change; observe how these changes happen. Perhaps you will also have the opportunity of discussing your notes and questions with other students or colleagues?

Author: Prof. Dr. Christian Pohl

  1. Rittel, H. W. J. (1984): Second-generation design methods. In: N. Cross (Ed.), Developments in design methodology (pp. 317-327). Wiley, UK: Chichester.