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Corona as a Wicked Problem (8/11): No copy-paste

Almost half a century ago, Horst Rittel en Melvin Webber, both professors at the Berkeley University of California, coined the term ‘Wicked Problems’. Their description of wicked problems may help in shedding some light on the current Corona-situation, which is why I have decided to create a series of posts on this topic. This is part 8.

No copy-paste

Property 7: "Every wicked problem is essentially unique" (Rittel & Webber, 1973, pp. 164-165)

Of course, for any two problems you can always find some trivial characteristic that distinguishes one from the other. In that sense the situation is always unique. But that's not what Rittel and Webber mean when they speak of wicked problems being 'essentially' unique. What they mean by this, is that although there may be many similarities between your current problem and a previous one, there will always exist some characteristic that distinguishes it from another problem in a significant way.

For tame problems this is no issue. Once you understand the principles of solving a tame problem, you can solve all the problems from the same category in the same way. Think back to math or language classes in school: they taught you the rules of how to dissect equations and sentences and once you understood how to do it you could apply the solution to every equation and every sentence they confronted you with. Or at least that was the intention ;-) In essence, they gave you the same problem over and over again, only in a different form.

And that's what Rittel and Webber mean when they say 'essentially' unique: you can't just assume that wicked problems 'in essence' are the same problem over and over, only in a different form. So you shouldn't deal with them as if they were the same, by applying the solutions that worked for other problems. Because there are no categories of wicked problems with principles of solutions that fit all members of the category. Despite similarities between them, which of course exist, you can't be sure that the particulars of the wicked problem do not override the commonalities. So where for tame problems you can transfer solutions for one problem to the contexts of other similar problems, you don't have that luxury with wicked problems. The direct transfer of solutions might even be harmful since they can be highly incompatible with the situation at hand, when 'essential' characteristics or properties are different. The art of dealing with wicked problems lies in postponing your judgment that your wicked problem is 'just like' some other problem and critically check whether you can indeed copy (parts of) the solution we once used for that other problem.

What makes this difficult is that this requires patience. And when dealing with a wicked problem like Corona people get worried and anxious and we want something to happen now. The urgency is high, people are dying, ICUs risk overflowing, the economy is suffering. So the temptation to look for other cases to copy from is huge. What have we seen in other times and in other places? And what are the similarities? How have we handled pandemics throughout history? The temptation is even bigger since we are all dealing with seemingly the same thing: the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Same virus, same problem, same solution right?


The virus causes problems which are quite different from country to country. There are relatively few Germans dying: what are they doing that we could copy? The Swedes can still go out for a drink, can't we copy their more relaxed solution? In Belarus they can even go to sports games, as long as they drink enough vodka and watch baby goats... The Dutch can still go shopping, resulting in very weird situations on the borders with neighbouring countries in lockdown. Seemingly positive results in South Africa are watched with suspicion: are measures actually working or is this the lull before the tsunami? Same (perhaps even different strands of) virus, but different countries so different problems and different ways of handling the situation.

The COVID-19 elite?

In the realm of countries that are being watched as positive examples to follow we see Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. These exemplary countries have even been named the "COVID-19 elite". So if we were dealing with a tame problem we could just watch this elite and copy-paste whatever they were doing because we would all be dealing with the same problem.

The point that Rittel and Webber want to make is that countries are not dealing with the same problem. So we can't just transfer what worked in one context to other contexts without giving it any thought. For example:

  • It matters where the virus first entered the country, in what part of the population. In Germany "(m)any of the early patients caught the virus in Austrian and Italian ski resorts and were relatively young and healthy,"

  • It matters what the age structure of the population is like (are there relatively many old people or many young people? Italy's median age is almost triple that of many African countries).

  • The living arrangements of people matter (are there many generations living under one roof? Do elderly live with their families or in special homes?)

  • It matters what the culture is like. Countries low on Hofstede's Individualism and high in Power Distance might show more obedience and better listening to whatever decrees their government issues for the collective good. Also Indulgence could be a nice indicator.

McKinsey published some reports on how also the exit strategy should be localized: "decisions on which measures to deploy when and where should be made locally—when possible, district by district—because there are material differences in the severity of the crisis and economic circumstances". They for example propose that based on a region's virus spread and the state of its public health system, a different approach would be in order. In Rittel & Webber's terms these two aspects are the 'essence' that may vary country by country according to McKinsey. Another diagram can be used for deciding which sectors to open at what moment. Here sectors are plotted based on the risk of transmission and the economic relevance of the sector (see below).

Now the point is not that these are the axes or dimensions based on which we should decide what to do. The point is that Corona and Corona may be very different problems in different contexts and we should keep in mind that although the problems elsewhere may seem similar and their solutions may seem successful: we should be vigilant and keep an eye on the unique essence. The last thing we want is to make matters worse by copying a wrong solution after all.

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