“We need design to tackle the world’s wicked problems!” is the familiar catch-cry that we are used to hearing from designers. It is a noble call to arms.

But what if we were at the point where Wicked Problems (as they have evolved in people’s approach to design thinking) ceased to be the issue that designers needed to grapple with?

What if the great challenge for designers wasn’t the Wicked Problem itself, but the desire for leaders to make Wicked Decisions?


Surely there are still problems?

We first heard about Wicked Problems in 2000 directly in relation to the work of Dr Richard Buchanan when he was a design mentor of the Integrated Tax Design Project in the Australian Taxation Office, of which Justin was a part, and a few years later in New Zealand’s IRD as Mel was involved in the journey to build professional service design capability there. The term Wicked Problem is older than this, of course, but Buchanan really brought it into focus for us in terms of applying design methodologies to address these problems.

As we learnt, and have been practicing for the following 18 years (15 of those across multiple service systems at DMA), the way we should strive to look at Wicked Problems is through a number of levels:

  • Take a systems thinking approach and deconstruct the ‘wickedness’ by defining and understanding the related systems at play.
  • When designing use a multi-disciplinary approach focused on facilitating a design-led dialogue about the problem and potential solutions.
  • Design the solution with a ‘fourth order design’ mindset – that is, don’t design products or services on their own, design the experience of service systems and their constituent parts.

Our work in this space has been predominantly and successfully focused on Wicked Problems in the public and community sectors. And as we move through our 18th year of practice, we have started to ask ourselves some critical questions about Wicked Problems.

From our point of view (public and community services in Australia) we and our peers now have 20 years of experience taking a systemic view of the problems that are presented to us – so why are a range the social outcomes within which we have been delivering excellent design not demonstrably better?

Continual reference – and sometimes reverence – to Wicked Problems suggests new problems emerging. But increasingly, though some elements might be new, the core systemic drivers of access, equity, resourcing, ownership and regulation in the public domain remain.

We (the design community, not just DMA) have established, built and evolved an expertise in diagnosing, researching, hypothesising and designing solutions for Wicked Problems. As experienced designers we can and do pull apart these problems quickly and expertly.


So why do Wicked Problems keep presenting themselves?

Firstly because the same ‘types’ of problems emerge but with new elements. AI as we know it now didn’t exist in 2000 – nor did digital for that matter. But we would contend the problems are no more ‘wicked’. The underlying design questions, needs and outcomes are the same.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Wicked Problems that we know about continue to present and emerge because of people. The greatest element of complexity in all Wicked Problems! And in this case, we don’t mean citizens, users, or consumers, we mean in terms of people who are supposed to lead and do the decision-making.

The most elegant design can present the most extraordinarily basic solutions to complex and so-called, Wicked Problems. We are then left with the question – why haven’t they been actioned?

We’re prepared to posit that at the same time we as an community have been evolving an expert capability in design’s response to Wicked Problems, the opposite is true in the field of leadership.

In the public sector people in leadership positions are still rewarded in the same way they were in 2000. The management constructs and hierarchies surrounding those making decisions has, if anything, become more narrow in the last 20 years.

Brave decisions to implement complex design responses that at their heart question and alter pre-conceived notions of ‘how things work’ are rare and generally result in ‘pilots’ or ‘trials’. Whilst the emergence of digital and technology solutions, as they always have, provide respite from the Wicked Problem, on their own they can’t and don’t address the underlying societal complexity of the problem itself.

So if the Wikipedia definition (yes, Wikipedia not Buchanan) of a Wicked Problem is a “problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize” then we have to ask ourselves:

how do we admit that maybe the Wicked is in the decision making and not the problem.

Otherwise – what have we been learning and achieving for the last 20 years…