Wicked Problems

Published July, 2009 in IEEE Spectrum Magazine

Some problems have such complex social, economic, or organizational interactions that they can’t be solved fully. They’ve become popularly known as  “wicked problems.”
I’m not fond of these problems, though I’ve seen my share of them -- they seem to be ubiquitous in systems-engineering design. However, I’m fascinated with the name. It reminds me of  “fuzzy logic,” a brilliant and oxymoronic phrase that juxtaposes an adjective connoting warmth and softness with a noun that implies something cold and mechanical. In  “wicked problem,” an adjective meaning evil or sinful, usually assigned to humans, is attached to an abstract, inert noun. The name suggests that the problem itself is consciously malicious. It knows that someone is out there working on it, and it is going to stop that person from getting anywhere.

Wicked problems are unsolvable not because they are mathematically difficult but because we can’t define them well enough to quantify things. We don’t encounter such problems in our engineering education, where all the exercises have solution paths, usually to precise numerical answers. If only the real world were always so obliging! I am reminded of Douglas Adams’s famous fictional supercomputer built to answer the one question:  “What is the meaning of life?”  This surely is the mother of all wicked problems. As many readers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy know, after long consideration the computer returns the answer  “42.” We sometimes give similar oversimplified solutions to problems that are, well, wicked.

Invoking another evocative name from modern physics, wicked problems demonstrate entanglement: What we do here influences something else way over there in some mysterious way that we don’t fully understand. When the ramifications of our design extend beyond our organizational, knowledge, technical, or authority boundaries, we partition the problem and draw a virtual box around the part we control, pretending that no effects propagate beyond this box.

Perhaps all real engineering problems are in some sense wicked, but many critical problems in government may be especially so. Consider airport security. Every time I take off my shoes and walk through that strange freestanding doorway, I think there must be a better way. But we lack the data needed for an engineering solution. We can try to calculate the costs and benefits: We know the salary and equipment expenses, and we can measure the probabilities of missed detection and false alarms. But the true cost of the system should include the lost time, uncertainty, and aggravation of millions of airline passengers, as well as the lost revenue from would-be passengers who are thus discouraged from traveling, and so forth. These costs would have to be weighed against the incalculable cost of failing, even once, to prevent an airline disaster. To make matters worse, we understand only poorly the motivations and plans of would-be hijackers. And as in almost all such problems, there is an overriding question—if we didn’t spend the money here, where might it be better used? On the other hand, what would be the costs to society if the public at large lost confidence in air safety and stopped flying altogether?
Problems in allocating defense acquisition funds are similarly wicked. For example, what are the costs and benefits of improving the surveillance capabilities of drone aircraft versus investing in satellite technology? Each promises better intelligence, but what is a pound of intelligence worth? Isn’t the ultimate objective to win the war? But what war did you have in mind? And what did you mean by “win”? The unanswerable questions ascend into the skies, far above your pay grade, whatever it may be.
Because such problems are wickedly unsolvable, the practice is to set immutable specifications for the constituent subsystems, leaving little opportunity to trade off cost, performance, and scheduling parameters—and leaving equally little room for the analytical and methodical approach that is the essence of engineering.

Wicked problems will never be solved in the conventional sense, but we engineers should do our best to bring this kind of thought to any problem, be it wicked or not.