Wicked Problems & an Example: Greenwashing

Molly Buxton Headshot By GS Summer Intern Molly Buxton, West Virginia University

Molly’s post is the first in a two-part series covering the idea of wicked problems and the examination of greenwashing as a wicked problem.


When discussing my major—Design Studies—the topic always becomes, “What is Design Studies?”

My answer to that question is: design studies, although within the name, isn’t your typical design major; it isn’t a studio course where you design a room, or a building, or an article of clothing, but rather a thought-based program where you design ideas.

As a design studies student, we’re constantly asking the question “how can we make it better?”

We use this ideology to establish and solve wicked problems — a phrase coined by design theorist Horst Rittel.

The world we live in is full of innovation, design, technology, and ideation; but the world we live in is also full of complications, issues, and problems—some tame and some wicked.

Tame problems are just as they sound—easily contained, friendly, trained. They are stable problems that have a relatively clear solution. An example of a tame solution would be: you have a classroom with 40 students but you only have 37 chairs. Let’s think of some options first, well you could move classrooms, you could remove students from the class, or you could get more chairs. The easy and clear solution here is to just get 3 more chairs. This is a problem that is friendly in nature, easy to solve, and very static—as this decision won’t create a domino effect.

A wicked problem is, in theory, the complete opposite. When you hear the word “wicked,” you might immediately think of words like evil, corrupt, and vile, or quite possibly you may just start singing “Defying Gravity” from the Broadway Musical Wicked (if you weren’t before, you probably are now—sorry!).

But I digress, a wicked problem is a problem that is “difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems” (Kolko, 2012). These could be issues such as war, healthcare, energy, climate change, and poverty. With a wicked problem, each attempt to solve the issue actually changes the problems itself—creating this domino effect.

In 1973,Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, two Berkeley professors, published an article in Policy Sciences introducing the notion of “wicked” social problems.

The article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” named 10 properties that distinguished wicked problems from hard but ordinary problems.

            1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. It’s not possible to write a well-defined statement of the problem, as can be done with an ordinary problem.

            2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You can tell when you’ve reached a solution with an ordinary problem. With a wicked problem, the search for solutions never                  stops.

            3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad. Ordinary problems have solutions that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong. Choosing a solution to a wicked problem is largely a matter of judgment.

            4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. It’s possible to determine right away if a solution to an ordinary problem is working. But solutions to wicked problems generate unexpected consequences over time, making it difficult to measure   their effectiveness.

            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. Solutions to ordinary problems can be easily tried and abandoned. With wicked problems, every implemented solution has consequences that cannot be undone.

            6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. Ordinary problems come with a limited set of potential solutions, by contrast.

            7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. An ordinary problem belongs to a class of   similar problems that are all solved in the same way. A wicked problem is substantially without precedent; experience does not help you address it.

            8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. While an ordinary problem is self-contained, a wicked problem is entwined with other problems. However, those problems don’t have one root cause.

            9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. A wicked problem involves many stakeholders, who all will have different ideas about what the problem really is and what its causes are.

            10. The planner has no right to be wrong. Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions they take, because those actions will have such a large impact and are hard to justify. (Camillus, 2008)

Wicked problems can be found within many realms whether it is environmental, social, or economic issues. Almost all human problems are, on some level, wicked problems. One of these human based problems is the consumer confusion and lack of awareness when it comes to labeling and greenwashing.

Green Seal has been an established nonprofit ecolabel for 25 years, creating their own set of standards and offering 3rd party certification — proving their legitimacy and gaining the trust of consumers and companies alike, but some lesser market instruments/graphics are nothing more than an unverified claim. This has led to consumer confusion when it comes to environmental product labels.

Consumers want to be able to find the healthiest option—the choice that’s best for them, their family, and the environment. Greenwashing blurs the lines of these choices, and a label doesn’t necessarily mean what it says anymore.

With greenwashing growing in popularity in the retail marketplace, how do consumers differentiate – how do we counter greenwashing?

In the next blog post we will dive deep into the wicked problem of greenwashing by sketching out some mind maps and discovering some potential solutions using design thinking. Stay tuned!






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