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If only change were that simple…

How global challenges may be considered 'wicked problems' resisting resolution.
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Even with the capacity to consider theories of change, we quickly realise how the challenges we face on a global scale become ‘wicked’.

The term ‘wicked problems’ was coined by Rittel and Webber (1973) to describe complex, interdependent issues that cannot be easily defined or solved. It does not mean ‘evil’, but rather multifaceted problems that are deeply embedded in the social, cultural, and economic fabric of communities.

These problems are characterised by their resistance to resolution, the interconnectedness of their causes and consequences, and the absence of a clear ‘end point’ to their solution. They are rarely linear; each ‘link’ affects many others.

Unlike straightforward issues that have clear solutions, wicked problems are ambiguous, their various elements are interdependent, and their solutions have the potential to spawn further complications.

Two current examples of wicked problems worth considering are:

  • Urban gentrification: As cities globally experience revitalisation, local communities grapple with gentrification (a process where rising property values displace long-term residents). This issue is influenced by global investment patterns and migration trends as much as local policy and community decisions (Lees et al 2016).

    While it can bring economic growth, it also poses challenges of cultural preservation, social equity, affordable housing, and homelessness. Furthermore, the former residents don’t disappear! They remain part of a system, their identity re-shaped amidst the evolving context in which they live.

  • Digital divide: In the 1990s, literature about the digital divide focused largely on access: most people were not online, and this could be a disadvantage in creating prosperity in a burgeoning knowledge economy (Hargittai 2003). Here, users and non-users formed the common identity binary. This is no longer accurate globally, in terms of both the ratios of people of the earth online, and advantageous experience in being so.

    Critics have seen room for alternate concepts that focused on technology for social inclusion (Warschauer 2002). Warschauer went on to lay out what this meant, and how complex – or wicked – it made the problem. Consequently, he framed the problem not as a simple divide, but a call for moving toward technology for social inclusion that incorporates the:

    extent that individuals, families, and communities are able to fully participate in society and control their own destinies, taking into account a variety of factors related to economic resources, employment, health, education, housing, recreation, culture, and civic engagement.

Wicked problems are not static. They evolve from interventions and shifting contexts, where intended solutions to one aspect of a problem might end up exacerbating other facets or generating altogether new challenges. This means that different stakeholders – from the local community to supernational organisations – perceive these problems in varied ways, as their effects cross political, geographical, and social boundaries. These transboundary impacts can be readily seen crises of migration, pandemics, or environmental degradation. In many ways, wicked problems become global challenges.

On the one hand, it seems these problems demand collaborative, adaptive, and often iterative approaches to find sustainable solutions. Serving to help community organising or national governments considering adaptive solutions – where individuals and groups learn, iterate, and adjust based on ongoing results and changing circumstances – might make things better.

On the other hand, this type of organising is hard. It is much simpler to offer laptops to the poor and hope for the best. Or invite new gig-workers to earn a wage at the moment, but in a system designed to centralise wealth. Thus, we arrive at the alternative inference when considering the complexity and indelibility of the wicked reality of global challenges.


Consider other wicked problems – for instance, climate change, COVID-19 or disinformation. Have you encountered them in ways that make them feel impossible?

How about evidence of adaptive, iterative solutions? Can you identify communities, programs, or actions that enact these strategies while adjusting to shifts in circumstance and results?

Share some thoughts in the comments below.


Bradshaw, S. & Howard, P. N. (2019). The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation. Oxford Internet Institute.

Hulme, M. (2016). 1.5 °C and climate research after the Paris Agreement. Nature Climate Change, 6(3), 222–224.

Hargittai, E. (2003). The digital divide and what to do about it. New economy handbook, 2003, 821–839.

Lees, L., Shin, H. B., & López-Morales, E. (2016). Planetary Gentrification. John Wiley & Sons.

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.

Warschauer, M. (2002). Reconceptualizing the digital divide. First Monday, 7(7).

© Deakin University
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