Design Methodology / Wicked Problems Theory
Trained as a mathematician and physicist, Horst Rittel spent most of his life as an educator teaching scientific and engineering principles to designers. At Ulm, Rittel taught classes on information and communication theory as well as the philosophy of science. From the technical details of Claude Shannon’s information theory to the newest research on cybernetics, Rittel connected the newest in scientific discovery with the design process.
After attending the Conference on Design Methods in 1962 , Horst Rittel was one of four key members to found the Design Methods Movement along with Christopher Alexander, Chris Jones, and Bruce Archer. The movement argued for the application of rational scientific approach to design and the idea of design research described by Bruce Archer as:
“Design research is systematic inquiry whose goal is knowledge of, or in, the embodiment of configuration, composition, structure, purpose, value, and meaning in man made things and systems” (Bayazit)
In 1963, William Wurster recruited both Christopher Alexander and Horst Rittel to teach at UC Berkeley. Rittel taught a course on design methods and helped found the Design Methods Group at Berkeley in 1967 as well as the DMG Journal. (Rith, et al)
During at the Design Research Society’s June 1968 Conference at MIT, an offshoot group called the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) was founded. Closely aligned to the field of Environment-Behavior Studies, EDRA focused on a multidisciplinary approach that aimed to evaluate studies of architectural and environmental planning by sociologists, psychologists, social psychologists, and designers.
While Alexander and Jones publically rejected design methodology in the 1970s, Rittel instead proposed a “second generation” of design methodology. Instead of focusing on the application “scientific” methods which could absorb all of the apparent complexities, the second generation placed a large value on user participation. Moving away from ideals of the sole designer, Rittel argued for a participatory process in which designers work together with other groups, specifically the users.
Horst Rittel first presented his “wicked problems” theory at one of a series of multidisciplinary seminars in the University of California at Berkeley’s newly reorganized College of Environmental Design in the mid-sixties (Protzen and Harris [PH], 8, 9). Among the typical disciplinary cross-section of these seminars, colloquially known as the “Churchman Seminars” due to C. West Churchman’s integral role in their organization and theoretical formation, were specialized academics representing the “Music, Engineering, Political Science, Public Health, Business Administration, Art, Education, Architecture, [and] City and Regional Planning” fields among others (PH, 9). After that presentation, Rittel and his colleague, Melvin Webber, outlined the working concept of wicked problems in their paper “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” published in the journal Policy Sciences in 1973.
A seminal work in the discourse of Design Theories and Methods [DTM], “Dilemmas…” addresses what Jean-Pierre Protzen, a mentee of Rittel’s, describes as Rittel’s primary focus; namely, “He was looking at the nature of the problem and questions of how to solve the problems better” (PH, 2). Broadly, wicked problems theory acknowledges a fundamental shift in the nature of problems we face and proposes a correlative shift in the methods we use to identify and define problems, form goals, and develop solutions outside of scientific methodologies. This is not because science does not adequately perform its roles, but rather the scientific method is not “readily adapted to address contemporary conceptions of interacting open systems and to contemporary concerns with equity” (Rittel and Webber [RW], 156). In short, science is concerned with “is” questions, not the “oughts” of design and planning practice, which implicate pluralistic social valuation of outcomes.
It is important that wickedness is not, to Rittel, an ethical judgement preceding a problem itself, but rather a property of seemingly implacable conditions — “‘wicked’ in a meaning akin to that of ‘malignant’ (in contrast to ‘benign’) or ‘vicious’ (like a circle) or ‘tricky’ (like a leprechaun) or ‘aggressive’ (like a lion, in contrast to the docility of a lamb)” (RW, 160). Rittel and Webber’s theory stresses the importance of embedding systems analysis inside evaluative frameworks during goal formation and problem formation to refocus intellectual energy on potential outputs over inputs (RW, 157–9). They advocate “learning to see social processes as the links tying open systems into large and interconnected networks of systems, such that outputs from one become inputs to others” (RW, 159). If we might better understand the nature of wicked problems, we might better be able to “solve” them.
In the time since the original explication, wicked problems theory has annexed significant academic territory — or rather, as our problems have become increasingly wicked, Rittel’s original conceptual framing has been reinvigorated, expanded upon, and stretched to accommodate contemporary issues. To put another way, since Rittel considered the location of a freeway to be a sufficiently wicked exemplar for his theory, what do we do with climate change?
Exerpted from Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning:
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false but good-or-bad.
4. There is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong.
Bayazit, Nigan. “Investigating Design: A Review of Forty Years of Design Research.” Design Issues, vol. 20, no. 1, 2004, pp. 16–29.
Protzen, J-P., Harris, D.J., (2010) The Universe of Design: Horst Rittel’s theories of design and planning, Oxon [England] ; New York, N.Y.
Rith, Chanpory, and Dubberly, Hugh. “Why Horst W. J. Rittel Matters.” Design Issues, vol. 23, no. 1, 2007, pp. 72–91
Rittel, H. W. J. and M. Webber, (1973) “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4:2) 155–69.
Spitz, René A. Hfg Ulm : the View behind the Foreground : the Political History of the Ulm School of Design, 1953–1968. Stuttgart, Edition Axel Menges, 2002.
Law, Hohn, “Working Well With Wickedness” (2014) Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray, edited by Klingan, Katrin et al. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Levin, Kelly, (2012) “Overcoming the Tragedy of Super Wicked Problems: Constraining Our Future Selves to Ameliorate Global Climate Change” Policy Sciences (45:2). 123–152.
Meadows, Donella H. (1972) The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome`s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York.