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Rittel and Webber: Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning


Contemporary socio-political state involves continuous problem identification and solution debate, in which there is no one universal right or correct approach. Rittel and Webber (1973) in their paper, explore the roots of such debates and examine strategies people use to tackle social, political and economic dilemmas. Problems that once were believed to be definable were affected by human nature transformations and globalization, which interconnected different cultures and communities together. As notions of right and wrong varied within the newly constructed society, finding solutions to problems directly concerning the population has become a lot more challenging. Now, an attempt to improve a particular situation can result in public protests – good intentions might lead to bad outcomes. This essay reflects on strategies mentioned in a paper by Rittel and Webber, proposes new ones and looks at ethical principles in tackling “wicked problems”.

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Strategies to “Solve” “Wicked Problems”

Any problems affecting directly the public should be thoroughly examined and attempted to be solved. The reading provides several strategies that have been implemented previously and are currently being used to tackle existing dilemmas. Rittel and Webber (1973) imply, however, that all strategies are based on “mimicking the cognitive style of science and the occupational style of engineering” (p. 160). The issue is that challenges in science and engineering can be described in a definite way leading to a universal outcome, while expanded social dilemmas cannot be treated the same. Rittel and Webber (1973) identified that the nature of wicked problems lies in a poor “goal-formulation, problem-definition” and understanding of equity (p. 156). While it is clear to diagnose what the problem is or set a path for solutions in natural sciences, wicked problems cover a wide arrange of issues that are tightly connected. Such ties can lead to a domino chain reaction, so an expert has to consider all possible outcomes to prevent it. Still, all of the decisions taken are scattered on a spectrum between what is efficient, what is ideal and what is right.

The first strategy is a classic historical approach, where the decision-making responsibility is given to one authority believed to be knowledgeable in the field. This strategy has been present and proven effective during the pre-industrial times and periodically during the industrial era as well. A more recent model of this traditional approach is expanding the responsibility from one person to a group of people often affiliated with a political group. Supporters of this strategy look at the social dilemmas taking a scientific resolution viewpoint by doing what they believe is most efficient. It was most popular during the early industrial period because “problem-solutions … operated cheaply” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.158). In order to tackle the wicked problems of street crime, for example, policymakers would seek opportunities to achieve the desired outcome quick and cheap. If a solution is needed in a reported number of crimes, governments might decide to rewrite laws so that the results are derived within a short time and at a minimum cost (Rittel & Webber, 1973). However, such an approach only changes the facade of a problem but does not resolve it.

Another strategy is a case-by-case approach, in which a decision-maker tries to satisfy the needs of many individuals. This approach has been widely used in contemporary politics and diplomacy. In some way, it reflects numerous populist movements around the world that address issues trying to capture as many people as possible but rarely delivering satisfactory results. Proponents of these solutions believe that “perfectability can be perfected” (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.158). They tend to set goals, which are idealized and rarely attainable. Reviewing the issue of poverty, authorities guided by perfected ideals would set massive promises and try to tackle poverty as a whole. Although they might be making minor improvements in the system, such policies often touch only the tip of an iceberg and leave the causes of a problem abandoned. Some of the modern populist leaders propose policies such as financial incentives for all, whether that is paying out a certain amount to each individual or cutting taxes. This way of fighting poverty might show excellent results in the short run but would prove themselves insignificant with time.

The third approach mentioned in the reading is the growth in popularity of compassionate action-taking. Unlike the two previously mentioned strategies, this one abstracts itself from monetary and materialistic aspects and focuses more on what is “right” in a given scenario. This strategy has found its ground recently as people began to face the effects of industrial waste. Wicked problems of environmental change and global warming require this compassionate engagement of all the governments around the world. In order to tackle these challenges, many assets have to be sacrificed. As the reading highlights, decisions made under the “feeling approach” are answering questions of what is right and not necessarily efficient or ideal (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.158). This method of fighting socio-political issues might not be the most advantageous, but it creates a feeling of inclusiveness and care for the newly constructed system of interconnected cultures.

Other possible ways that can be used to tackle wicked problems are trial-and-error and majority-oriented decision making. Despite Rittel and Webber (1973) arguing against the experimental approach by describing solutions to social dilemmas as “one-shot operation[s]”, the strategy of analyzing the outcomes and learning from mistakes works the best in practice (p. 163). In the current world, politics requires officials and authorities to act in response to arising problems. Thus, giving the public what is expected from them, politicians can ensure their competence and support while taking little steps to find the roots of social dilemmas. In addition to that, enabling the population to make decisions and take responsibility, can help both to resolve problems that concern people and to guarantee public satisfaction. These two ways of tackling wicked problems resolve issues of dual – positive and negative – outcomes and respond to the needs of a globalized and multicultural society.

“Wicked Problems” and Ethical Principles

Since “wicked problems” are conflicting ethical principles at their core, it is very interesting to analyze what decision-makers implement to soften the effects of their solutions. As Rittel and Webber (1973) highlight “once a clear-cut win-win strategy … has now become a source of contentious differences among subpublics” (p. 168). As a result of numerous societal transformations, people learned to ask questions explore fundamental ethical principles such as human rights, justice, responsibility and nonmaleficence. One of the central conflicts of wicked problems is an opposing understanding of human rights and responsibility. While some believe that in order to effectively approach wicked problems, loss of liberty, a basic human right, is unavoidable, others lean towards tackling such issues responsibly by sacrificing them (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Other ethical principles that need to be considered are being fair and non-harmful.

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The criminal justice system stores numerous social dilemmas, and the issue of the death penalty is one of them. Here, the conflict arises in choosing between what is efficient or right and less malicious or fair. Some believe that any individual, disregarding their criminal background, deserves to live, thus, opposing the death penalty. Others argue that in order to effectively and efficiently fight this problem, the death penalty has to be legitimized as it saves public funds and prevents serious crime. On top of that, authorities have to take into account issues of justice and nonmaleficence. They need to answer questions whether the death penalty is fair for crimes committed, how a crime qualifies for it and whether it is less harmful to society. As mentioned in some of the strategies earlier, solutions can derive from allowing the population to decide by majority vote or choosing a more recent compassionate strategy.


In the current world, it is impossible to find solutions that satisfy everyone. What was effective in the pre-industrial era is less likely to be socially approved today, which poses a significant challenge for governments and policymakers around the globe. However, several strategies can be implemented to fight wicked problems and help to restore the fading reputation of social experts. These approaches differ in their values, and decision-makers must choose between being efficient, morally right or ideal. Some strategies can work best with particular social dilemmas. For instance, a compassionate approach proves its effectiveness in fighting climate change, while an idealistic approach works during political campaigns. Since every wicked problem is unique, people must consider all possible outcomes, select an appropriate strategy and take into account ethical principles in order to “solve” them.


Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

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