What follows comes from a discussion post I made in a university class recently.

Rittel and Webber define wicked problems as the opposite of problems that are "definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable" (1973). That definition is a little backward, so lets put it in our terms. Simple problems are defined using a single disciplinary perspective, complex problems are defined using multiple disciplinary perspectives, and wicked problems are not definable using any disciplinary perspectives. At least, that is how many researchers classify problems. My perspective differs from this established narrative in a, shall we say, positive way.

First, we must recognize that the problem/solution paradigm is ill-defined and colloquial at best. One may more accurately call problems and solutions realities and strategies for altering reality. Reworded, the above definition's absurdity is highlighted; wicked problems are realities that cannot be defined using any disciplinary perspectives. Further, we presume that reality is comprehensible. After all, "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility…The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle." (Einstein, 1936). Choosing to believe Einstein's conclusion, we may rephrase our definition as: wicked problems are realities that have not yet been defined by any disciplinary perspective.

When we consider various problems or realities, it becomes evident that not all disciplinary perspectives have equal utility. As pointed out in our original definitions, simple problems are best suited for a single disciplinary perspective. Complex problems are best suited for multidisciplinary problems. Finally, wicked problems are not suited for any disciplinary perspective; they require something more. I believe that something more is an interdisciplinary perspective. Just as in multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity draws on multiple disciplines' perspectives, then interdisciplinarity synthesizes' and integrates the disciplines' insights to form new information or an entirely new perspective (Repko, 2021). Interdisciplinary research can, therefore, address problems that have not yet been defined by any disciplinary perspective. Therein lies the potential of interdisciplinary research, and the mere existence of wicked problems should be enough to fuel interdisciplinary inquiry.

Einstein, A. (1936). Physics and reality. Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Press.

Repko, A. F., & Szostak, R. (2021). Interdisciplinary research: Process and theory (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730