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Corona as a Wicked Problem (9/11): A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

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 9.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

Property 8: "Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem" (Rittel & Webber, 1973, p.165)

For wicked problems there are always various 'levels' that we have to distinguish. There is like a chain of wickedness in which problem A is the cause of problem B but at the same time it is also the symptom of problem C.

For tame problems the chain is much shorter and simpler. Take the example of a broken washing machine. If you find out what's wrong with it you can fix it or hire someone to repair it. Of course the cause of the error may lie in the fact that you put way too much laundry in the machine which causes it to break down. By correcting your behaviour you can try to avoid problems in the future. So there could be a deeper-lying, more structural cause of the symptom. But it is unlikely that fixing the washing machine itself causes yet another problem.

And that's the difference with wicked problems: in the case of wicked problems the removal of what you think was 'the cause' of your problem may pose yet another problem. Let's say that you have decided to automate some administrative processes in your organisation, to work more efficiently. On one level you can view the problem as one of choosing whether to build or buy a software package and how to implement it. But if you take other levels into account you could discover that by automating the processes as they are now you might maintain the inefficiencies, and you could instead decide to do something about the processes themselves. The level at which you choose to deal with the problem is your choice, there is no such thing as "the natural level" of a wicked problem. Systems thinkers have a helpful model to explain this principle: the Iceberg Model.


At the tip of the iceberg we find 'events'. We can observe and identify events and we can react to them. In the current Corona crisis there are people who get ill, who cough, who sneeze, people who have difficulty breathing, who have a fever etc. These are events that we see happening, and of which we assume or know they are related to the Corona virus. On this level we can only 'react' to the here and now, so we can give people facemasks, we can take their temperature, we can treat them, ventilate them etc. This all happens in the present, it doesn't change the future course of events. This is the level of treating symptoms. Do you have a headache? Take an aspirin.


When we recognise trends or changes over time we are at the level of 'patterns'. We see that certain events are related. Patterns may be that in certain regions there are more infections, or that the majority of patients with COVID-19 are similar in one way or another, or that there are changes in time. For example we saw that in some places where many people had gathered, for carnival, skiing or whatever reason, the virus had spread much faster. We see that the majority of ICU patients are older and/or have underlying health problems. The whole 'flatten the curve'-curves are representations of patterns in time. We can try to 'adapt' to or 'anticipate' these patterns. We can take measures like closing off certain hard-hit regions, lockdowns, social distancing, no group gatherings, increasing the ICU capacity in specific places, etc.

This is the level of connecting events to find patterns. Do you have a headache only on weekends and holidays? Then that's a pattern to which you could adapt your behaviour, for example by anticipating the headache and taking an aspirin before going to sleep. This is also the level at which data can help, since these can represent massive amounts of events from which one can try to deduce patterns.

Systemic Structures

But what causes the patterns? In a wicked situation patterns don't just emerge from nowhere. There is a 'systemic structure' level where we can figure out what produces or sustains undesirable patterns so we can do something about the ground conditions in a more permanent, sustainable (structural) way. The problem is that with Corona we are not here yet. We are still keeping an eye on the events and trying to figure out the patterns but what the systemic structure is we don't know. There are examples of ideas that people have proffered though, which I will use as examples.

  • People who indicate that many of the patients admitted at the ICU suffer from overweight would see a structural measure in doing something about overweight in the population.

  • Theaters, events, festivals, concerts, bars, clubs, all of these will have trouble adapting to the 'social distancing'/ 'one-meter-and-a-half'-society, since the social aspect is so important for them. Structurally there may emerge completely new and innovative business models here.

  • There are many self-employed people who can't work now so they don't have an income. There are specific measures for those in financial trouble but a more structural measure would be to take a critical look at the labour market and how it functions. And for the self-employed themselves a more structural intervention could consist of making sure there is a buffer to survive crises like this.

  • People who see a pattern that there is more spreading of Corona in cities and claim that this is because of air pollution (micro-particles that fly around to which the virus can attach itself and travel much further than 1.5 meters) may see a structural solution in taking more care of our planet/ nature/ environment/ ecology.

  • People who see a pattern in the human consumption of animals and the emergence of all sorts of viruses, might on a systemic structure level propose policy and laws on how to treat animals.

This is the level of trying to find the systemic structures that cause the patterns. Creating causal loop diagrams may be useful in finding these structures and thus in finding the leverage points to break the connections that sustain or create undesirable patterns. A well-known leverage point for weekend and holiday headaches for example may be changing one's coffee consumption.

Mental Models

The level of 'mental models' shows what causes systemic structures. Mental models are our deeply held theories, beliefs and assumptions of how the world works. We often learn them subconsciously from our society or family and we are mostly unaware of them. This makes it all the more difficult to change them. What we can do is to surface mental models and figure out which institutions (e.g. scientific, religious, cultural, governmental etc) support the systemic structures that are in place. We can question in what way these mental models are limiting or shaping our thinking, reasoning, and actions. This is something that you see and hear in various discussions now, especially where values are waged against each other, for example:

  • the economy (and thus loosened measures) versus protecting the elderly and others at risk (and thus maintaining lockdowns)

  • doing everything to stay alive versus being surrounded by your loved ones when the time is there

  • finding out as much as possible about patterns by using apps and big data versus privacy, security and democratic values

But perhaps more importantly: is the idea of one value pitted against another the only possibility or are there also mental models in which we can transcend this dichotomy? Solutions to problems that are successfully addressed at the level of mental models may change and disrupt everything. At his level we are not solving problems but rather 'dissolving' them by transcending the dilemma they pose.

In our wicked problems we have to make an effort to find out what is connected to what, what our chain of wickedness looks like. Higher levels (systemic structure, mental models) are more abstract and harder to implement, but just dealing with the wicked problem on the levels of reacting to events and adapting to patterns may be tricky too. Relieving symptoms on those levels might actually cause other problems, for example giving people protective face masks may lead to a risk of more laxity in their behaviour due to a false sense of security, or declaring a lockdown now might lead to the exact same but delayed problems later and delayed herd immunity. And that's why it is so important to try to deal with wicked problems on various levels, because we don't have the luxury of knowing what causes what and what is a symptom of what. We don't know. It's a wicked problem.

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