A wicked problem is a problem that is either social or cultural and in most instances its very difficult if not impossible to solve. This is due to reasons that are larger than the initial problem itself, for example “poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition”. These problems are commonly seen as being too huge to solve, yet they are the problems that ruin our world and that each and every one of us is aware of, a human problem created by humans.
So were does design come into all of this? Well the way I’ve interpreted this problem is that design is a human process for solving human made problems or problems that deal with problems. Were as science deals with problems that affect us but which we have no control over.
Horst Rittel, he coined the wicked problem and the first person to theorise the wicked problem, below he cites ten characteristics of the wicked problem. This will hopefully clear up more than what I’ve put forth.
1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation. The problem of poverty in Texas is grossly similar but discretely different from poverty in Nairobi, so no practical characteristics describe "poverty."
2. It's hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another, unlike the boundaries of traditional design problems that can be articulated or defined.
3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false. There is no idealized end state to arrive at, and so approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide. Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem, with the appropriateness of the explanation depending greatly on the individual perspective of the designer.
6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. The interconnected quality of socio-economic political systems illustrates how, for example, a change in education will cause new behaviour in nutrition.
7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
8. Offering a "solution" to a wicked problem frequently is a "one shot" design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
9. Every wicked problem is unique.
10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions.