Wicked problems: A brief overview

Resource Type:


  • To provide an easy-to-understand, brief overview of  ‘wicked problems’ which are complex problems that defy easy solutions. 


Wicked problems are highly complex problems. Examples include: environmental degradation, climate change, multicultural integration, cybersecurity, sprawling mega cities, political gridlock, poverty, inequality and food security.

A wicked problem is a dysfunctionality within a complex system. They are unstructured, open-ended, interconnected, interdependent, multi-dimensional, systemic, often unbounded in time and space. They cross disciplines, cross borders and cross departments, making them very difficult to contain or structure.

These problems have many deep and unknown interconnections and interdependencies. When you try to pull on one part, you end up getting the whole thing.

Complex problems are dynamic, they evolve over time. Problems and solutions are entwined as they co-evolve, with the definition of the problems also evolving. In response to their intimidating nature, many people feel overwhelmed and respond with denial, resignation and determinism, resulting in inertia or trying to ‘tame’ the problem by oversimplifying it. Complex problems signal a need for a paradigm shift in approach to recontextualise the issue, breaking out of established assumptions.

Truly tackling complex problems requires systems thinking. To integrate the many different perspectives and dimensions of the problem by seeing the system as a whole, we can get a real idea of the true nexus that makes up the core constraints at the heart of the wicked problem.

This description is taken, mostly verbatim, from the video.

Video (4 minutes): “Wicked problems” produced by Complexity Labs is a video presentation uploaded in 2018. Online: https://youtu.be/jETc1mO3DZo

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Posted: June 2018
Last modified: June 2018