Wicked Problems Versus Tame Problems
It is worth noting that the rise of the use of design to tackle problems outside the traditional realm of design was, in part, a response to a new kind of problem. Specifically, the scientific, artificial intelligence, and public policy communities were seeking new approaches for addressing so-called “wicked problems.”i Wicked problems are complex in nature and difficult or impossible to define precisely; often the detailed nature of the problem itself might not be clearly perceivable until after a potential solution has been formulated and applied. Wicked problems, at that time, encompassed everything from nuclear weapons escalation to environmental degradation and, later, the AIDS crisis. The challenge of how to keep serious, independent journalism alive in a digital ecosystem might best be thought of as a wicked problem, too.
Wicked problems are to be contrasted with “tame problems.”14 A simple example of a tame or well-defined problem might be an algebraic equation with unknown values. Discovering the values of x and y may not be easy; it may take long hours, or require a lifetime of mathematical training, or a computer for assistance. But there is a single solution—and that solution exists whether the problem-solver finds it or not.15 In other words, solving a tame problem means moving from point A to point B. With wicked problems, however, there is no point B until you come up with it—and even then, it might just be one of many, multiple solutions, and not something that will ever definitively be right in the way the solution to an algebra problem is. The process may also be ongoing and require many goings from point A to point B as the problem morphs over time.