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What are wicked problems?

The world is faced with an ever-growing number of highly complex (wicked) issues such as climate change, health management, poverty, and more.

The world is faced with an ever-growing number of highly complex (wicked) issues such as climate change, health management, poverty, and more.

According to Richard Buchanan, a wicked problem (a term originally used by Horst Rittel to describe highly complex issues) is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or near impossible to solve. This could be because of a variety of reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. In simple terms, a problem or issue is considered wicked if there are many factors that can affect the possible solution(s).

For example, tsunamis would be considered wicked, and developing an early warning system would be brilliant. However, how would we test it? We don’t know where, when, or how an underwater earthquake might occur. The speed of the resulting wave could not be predetermined. Therefore, the impact on reaching land would only be a guess, just as the location of landfall would need to be hypothetical.

As you can see, there are multiple unknowns affecting your decisions and, therefore, the ideas you may consider. Think how difficult it would be to prototype. And even the best prototype would not be able to really prove anything. A wicked problem is not about how difficult it is, but rather about the complex nature of the problem. Solving these problems requires a continuous definition of the problem, in-depth research, and numerous attempts at iteration.

The history of design thinking

An important part of understanding design thinking is to recognise the history of design thinking and the various individuals, organisations, and critical points that have played an important role in shaping this process. Let’s explore the history of design thinking timeline.

Link: Design thinking history timeline [3]

Share your thoughts

Now you’ve learnt what wicked problems are, what is one wicked problem that you are interested in and think it’s important that humanity explores? Remember, wicked problems are complex. Post your answer in a short comment below, and read the contributions of others to understand the diverse interests of those studying the course.


2. Buchanan R. Wicked problems in design thinking. Design Issues. 1992 Spring;8(2):5–21.
3. Hitchins S. Design thinking history timeline [webpage on the internet]. North Caroline: Preceden; 2021 [updated 2021; cited 6 December 2022]. Available from: [3] web

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