It Starts with Wicked Problems

 Graphic: Trevor Melton

Graphic: Trevor Melton


In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, professors of design and city planning at UC Berkeley, published a classic paper on what they called “wicked problems.” These wicked problems are largely immune from traditional methods for managing complexity—and include, for example, systems of education, homelessness, and climate. The professors argued that everything is interrelated and concluded that high complexity confounds analysis.

Wicked problems cannot be fixed, only mitigated.

Despite our best intentions, solutions to wicked problems almost always create unanticipated problems. Because each new solution creates both problems and benefits, the complex interaction between “broken” and “working” is difficult to predict. We’re stuck in a game of whack-a-mole, where we progress in one area only to lose in another.

Education is full of wicked complexity. A vast number of actors, issues, disciplines and cultures must integrate their work to improve the system.

Consider the numerous actors. There are students, teachers, principals, central office personnel, parents, siblings, reading specialists, foreign language experts, nonprofit executives, mental health workers, early childhood workers, librarians, researchers, transporters, housing specialists, social workers, community health practitioners, etc. They deal with interrelated issues including student self-image, language acquisition, curriculum, poverty, transportation, housing, trauma, hunger, family, motivation, immigration, criminal justice, human resources, budgets, etc.

Add to that list disciplines and professions affecting education such as psychology, anthropology, healthcare, management, brain science, sociology, law, etc. Once you weigh the cultures affecting education—politics, higher education, ethnicities, native cultures, people in poverty—it’s easy to see education is wicked, high complexity!

One specific wicked problem is ensuring that third-grade students read at grade level. This is important because prison populations correlate with children not reading at third-grade level. And students cannot progress academically in any subject if they cannot read with understanding. Despite decades of literacy initiatives, still, only about thirty percent of public school third-graders read at grade level.

What would happen if all Nashville third-graders read at grade level? We’d reduce the prison population, turn people into positive contributors, generate billions of dollars of impact—and create blessings of happiness we can only imagine. This is possible.

There’s considerable wealth hidden in wicked problems. And that wealth is the diversity of knowledge and energy locked up in systems that keep people from connecting and fully expressing their insights and creativity.


Carter Andrews helps businesses and communities improve complex systems. He champions collaborative design that features strong participation by diverse participants. Download his paper Leadership for High-Complex Systems in Future Ready Nashville to dive into the world of complexity.