Untaming Problems

Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


Horst Rittel’s distinction between wicked and tame problems was developed in response to attempts at transferring insights and techniques from the domains of science and technology to social contexts such as urban planning. As the limitations of scientific and technical methods beyond their respective contexts is something that requires continual re-emphasis, the notion of the wicked problem remains as relevant today as ever. However, while separating social design questions from scientific and technological ones made sense in the context of the 1970s, it is not feasible or desirable to treat these domains separately today. Contemporary technologies are ever more deeply and non-linearly entangled with politics, ethics, bodies, and ecologies. While this entanglement brings yet more instances of wicked problems to contend with, it also prompts a renewed focus on the tame—on those problems that are understood to be solvable, agreed upon, and approachable in familiar terms. Contemporary crises are not just defined by their unresolved (wicked) conflicts, but also by assent to the uncontested (tame) agreements and assumptions that underlie these conflicts. Drawing on ideas from the philosophy of science and second-order cybernetics that are adjacent to wicked problems, I problematise the notion of “taming” wickedness and invert this in order to outline an activity of “untaming” to be applied to well-defined questions and the assumptions and frameworks that establish and perpetuate them.
Period8 Jun 2023
Event title50 Year's Wicked: International Online Symposium on Design Theory Marking the 50th Anniversary of Rittel and Webber's Publication of Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational