Wicked Problems: A Personal and Painful Journey by Richard Gijsbers

This is one paper arising from the Wicked Problems Symposium in Victoria in 2018. Click here to return to the summary report and links to the other papers.

Richard Gijsbers BForSc (Melb), DipFor (Cres) is an ISCAST Fellow. 

In the 1970s social planners vented their frustration about complex social problems. Why couldn’t we close the gap between indigenous people’s health and that of the rest of us? It was not for lack of trying. Why is protecting nature so difficult? Is the problem with Climate Change really only about “Goodies” vs “Baddies”? Why will we always have the poor with us? Problems like these simply will not go away!

Bluntly, in Laurence J. Peters’ words: “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

In 1973 Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber introduced the idea of “Wicked Problems”. They saw the problems as “wicked”, not because they were inherently evil, but because they were so complex. Simply put, Wicked Problems:

  • Have multiple stakeholders and therefore multiple values and objectives to address;
  • Involve multiple disciplines and therefore have multiple associated sciences, each exploring their own part of the problem; and
  • Involve limited knowledge of the causes and effects involved.

For social policy, science would never be, could never be the “only game in town”. Science is rarely, if ever, sufficient for us to fully support our decision making.

Rittel and Webber contrasted Wicked Problems with “Tame” problems: the sort scientists are trained to tackle. These are discreet, independent, stable, clearly defined, and almost invariably involve just a single discipline. In fact, “science” was so successful at tackling such problems, we are now trained to see all problems as tame problems, and, where they are not, to force them into that mould. Theological and ethical perspectives on complex problems have also tended to take this approach. Rittel and Webber broke with that consensus. For them, “the search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail” (the emphasis is mine). High school physics students who have studied Simple Harmonic Motion in which only one force is acting on a pendulum and chaotic motion where more than one force is involved will understand the distinction.

Wicked problems are now part of political discourse and public policy (certainly in Australia).

For Rittel and Webber Wicked Problems have some or all the following features (Adapted from Rittel and Webber’s paper):

  • They cannot be definitively formulated, and each problem is unique.
  • They have no stopping rule and there is no ultimate test of a solution.
  • Solutions are not true-or-false, right or wrong. There are just decisions each with their own consequences. It is up to society to decide whether these consequences are acceptable.
  • Every attempt at a solution is a “one-shot operation” and there is no scope for trial and error. Every attempt counts, with each significantly changing the manifestation of the problem, raising its own new challenges.
  • They do not have enumerable or exhaustively describable sets of options to be considered. However, decision makers are accountable in ways that lobbyists, advocacy groups and others are not.
  • Each problem can be considered a symptom of yet another problem.
  • A wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways depending on who is considering it. The choice of explanation will dictate how the problem is understood.

Christians and Wicked Problems: Reflections from Experience

Below I present “eight theses” regarding Christians and Wicked Problems based on my experiences. We can test these as we work through the ISCAST(Vic) discussion today.

a)    Wicked Problems are society-wide requiring “whole of society” responses

These problems are not the preserve of Christians alone. Further, there is no uniquely “Christian” answer to these problems because they affect everyone (“God inflicts Wicked Problems on the just and the unjust” as Jesus nearly said in Matt 5:45). Because of this, developing exclusively Christian “solutions” (“theologies”) in isolation can be self-defeating. Muslims, Buddhists, atheists etc will all be affected, and each have their insights.

b)    There is an urgency

Society cannot allow the status to remain the quo. It is not good enough to say: “the problem is too complex!” We need to tackle these problems in all their complexity and confusion and, just because we can’t see the end result or the path ahead, or that we cannot be 100% sure that what we are doing will be the ultimate answer, does not mean we do nothing. Rather, we need to tackle them differently to how we would tackle tame problems. The call here is to manage ourselves within these problems rather than to chase the dream of “solving” them once and for all.

This urgency means we must make decisions and act to bring about change. But those decisions and actions will have consequences that we will have to work through. Doing nothing also is a decision with consequences.

c)    Doing the immediately obvious can make things worse

Often the immediately obvious (John Howard’s “Intervention” when the Australian government imposed a number of measures on aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory in 2007, the random planting of trees in Nepal, giving cash to beggars and so on) can make things worse no matter how well-meaning the motives might be. Care and accountability, ongoing involvement, and being open to learn are required, but we must start somewhere!

d)    Our sciences are limited, our knowledge incomplete and usually conflicting

In forest planning we had to deal with over 12 different sciences (see appendix), each had their own prescriptions for protecting the values of their concern, some of which were contradictory. Expecting science alone to provide “The Answer” is naive. In many cases we simply won’t know what we need to know until after we got involved.

This is still not a reason to not get involved but it is a reason to be careful in our certitude as to what should be done and how effective that will be. We need to tackle these problems, drawing on the best of our sciences and professional expertise, being aware that we are going into an unknown and messy situation with much to learn.

e)    Different World Views will have different motives for getting involved

…and each have a contribution (i.e. none is automatically right or wrong). Helmut Thielicke’s conclusion regarding politics in his Theological Ethics is that usually Christian contributions to such situations are often indistinguishable from that of non-Christians. It is our motives that are different.

That could be said about the best of the professional inputs from other faiths and world views. Understanding this, indicates that the best way forward is to get as many people involved in the “conversation” as possible. We have to learn how to conduct such conversations, how to listen and how to share ideas.

f)     It is not just a technical or a moral problem

Although addressing/utilising technology and ethics will be part of the solution we must approach the problems on a much broader basis. Mike Hulme explores this in his book “Why we disagree about Climate Change”. Ultimately, what we do is about politics—a messy combination of culture, identity, values, power, contradictory perspectives and values, and a whole lot of things as well as ethics and technology. If we want to make a difference, it is in this space where Christians should be working.

g)    Christians don’t have a monopoly on wisdom or the truth

If we say we Christians have The Answer or that, because the prescription is derived from Scripture, this is what MUST be done, that is probably because we don’t know what is involved.  “THE Christian Position” on a Wicked Problem is usually just another perspective of one stakeholder and does not represent any greater wisdom or insight than any other, and there are usually other “Christian” positions on that problem anyway.

h)    Wicked Problems can be a blessing or an opportunity

Wicked Problems remind us of our reliance on God and how the future is not solely in our hands. They remind us of our true status before God. We are finite, our ignorance is massive, our capacity is limited, and the demands are great and contradictory. Within this confusion there is the opportunity to find the grace of God and see God in action if we have eyes to see that.

Christians do have a perspective they can offer:

If there are no unambiguous Christian strategies to dealing with specific Wicked Problems what can Christians offer? Is there anything specific to our faith that will make our contribution valuable to a secular society, suspicious of religion in any form? I believe there are. These include:

1)    The model of Christ’s incarnation as an ideal for engagement (Philippians 2:6-11)

2)    Recognising that humans have both dignity and shame—while many of the problems can be traced to humans at their worst, we are the only ones who can do anything about it.

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content. (C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian)

3)    Accountability: Christians see that their ultimate accountability is to God and not the political cycle, short-term interests or themselves. Accountability to God means applying the highest professional and community standards as they are understood at the time.

4)    Idea of providence and therefore hope: Christians are looking to a New Creation that God will bring about in God’s own time and in God’s own way. This is not a reason for complacency or fatalism but of expectation and action.

5)    The value of prayer: prayer is not what we do when we have run out of options but rather the offering of everything we do as unto God as we do it.

But this perspective will only be a contribution to the rest of society’s struggle. We must offer what we have humbly, being open to learn and explore. Salt and leaven (Matthew 5:13 & 13:33), after all, aren’t the whole meal.

We are to do our best with the knowledge, skills and resources we have but our wisdom is also in recognising the limitations of these and working within these.

If there are any among us who are at our wit’s end, we ought to try for once to put aside all our grievances and perhaps even all our petitions and simply praise God, in order to turn our hearts to the end of the ways of God, where the eternal liturgy resounds in heaven. Nothing so changes us—precisely in the darkest moments of life—as the praise of God. (Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father)


Wicked problems are not new, they are as old as Moses (Deuteronomy 15). What is new are the attempts to tame them and to deal with them as if they were tame. Even our theological and ethical reflections on these problems are so often developed as if simply reorienting our relationships is all we need to do. We have much to unlearn.

Understanding the Wickedness of the problems changes the way we tackle them, our expectations of ourselves and of our sciences. For Christians, it throws us into the arms of a loving creator God as we seek to serve God’s Kingdom and tackle with our non-Christian brothers and sisters, the really big problems of our age.


Hulme, M. (2015). Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, C. S. (1951). Prince Caspian: The return to Narnia. Geoffrey Bles.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 155-169.

Thielicke, H. (1969). Theological Ethics: Politics (Vol. 2). (W. H. Lazareth, Trans.) Philadelphia, IL, USA: Fortress Press.

Thielicke, H. (1975). Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. Baker Book House.


Sciences I used in forest planning:

  • Archaeology
  • Meteorology/Climate science
  • Geology
  • Geomorphology
  • Fire Ecology
  • Forest hydrology
  • Botany
  • Eucalypt forest ecology
  • Wildlife ecology
  • Pathology
  • Entomology
  • Silviculture
  • Sociology
  • Cartography/remote sensing

Principles for Ecological Management:

I developed these as a summary of what we should strive to do in our relationship to nature. It seems to me that represents the current wisdom as to what should be done. As humans we should:

  • Recognise, protect, and maintain existing ecological processes including maintaining biodiversity.
  • Use non-renewable resources productively, carefully and wisely.
  • Harvest and extract renewable resources within their replacement rate.
  • Recognise and respect the value of place: the social, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual value of places important to humankind in general but also to minority groups.
  • Minimise the impact of harvesting, mining and gathering operations, including ensuring rehabilitation of disturbed ecological processes.
  • Strive for equitable and efficient allocation of nature’s resources and values, acknowledging the disadvantaged and those without a voice in decision making.
  • Minimise waste, in both the production processes and consumption with due concern for the impacts of its disposal into the air, waterways and land, including off-site or down-stream waste disposal.


Note that #4 and #6 are the only ones that I could derive in any way directly from Scripture.