Sustainability fits all four criteria for a
wicked problem quite well. A summary of the
analysis is provided in Table 1.1. Further, it
becomes rather obvious why wicked problems
cannot be solved - they have no closed-form defi-
nition, their 'solution' can only be thought of in
relative terms, stakeholders will be in conflict
over solutions and actions, and the system is not
understood well enough to effect entirely pur-
poseful change. In a world that wants simple,
implementable solutions, sustainability is
unsolvable in any conventional sense. What
does one do then with a wicked problem such as
ambiguity - give insights into managing wicked
problems. First, two sets of outcomes need to be
managed in the situation:
System outcomes. System components -
profit, people and planet - need to be moved
in desired directions; their trajectories need
to change for the better.
Process outcomes. Relevant stakeholders
need to engage in the process, and they
need to participate in such a way that they
enable system change on the positive side
while not exercising their vetoes on the
Consider what happens when one or the other
of these two outcomes is not properly managed.
In the one instance, potential options to improve
the system outcomes will fail to be implemented
if the process results in stalemate or dissolution
with the offended stakeholders exercising their
veto, e.g. taking the debate public in a publicity
war or seeking governmental prohibit in law or
regulation. In the other instance, solely focusing
on process outcomes can devolve into endless
process (either unresolved debating or overly
polite avoidance of issues that truly divide) with
no action taken to improve the system. System
and process outcomes must be achieved together
if the wicked problem is to be managed.
Any project or process designed to manage
a wicked problem would need to begin with
Managing Wicked Problems
The literature on wicked problems suggests that
while they cannot be solved, they can be man-
aged. The trajectories of the system outcomes -
profit, people, planet - can be altered in the
short-run to create improved outcomes in the
long run. The key is to understand what to man-
age and how to manage it. (For ease of exposi-
tion, the 3P or Profit-Planet-People working
definition of sustainability is adopted for the
remainder of the chapter.)
The four criteria - no definitive formu-
lation, better or worse trajectories for system
outcomes, conflicting stakeholders, and system
Table 1.1. Sustainability as a wicked problem. Source: Peterson (2011).
Criteria for a wicked problem
No definitive formulation of the problem exists.
Ideal definition lacks specificity and is reduced to
slogan or tagline such as triple bottom line
(economic, social and environmental)
Its solution is not true or false, but rather better
One can never know whether sustainability has
been achieved. Only progress in its trajectory
can be predicted.
Stakeholders have radically different frames
of reference concerning the problem, and
are often passionate in their position
on the problem.
Businesses strongly favour economic outcomes.
Environmental groups strongly favour
environmental outcomes. Social justice groups
strongly favour social outcomes, such as fair
wages and equitable access.
System components and cause/effect
relationships are uncertain or
Many claims are made about what is sustainable
(such as local food systems are sustainable while
global food systems are not) with unclear
knowledge of what system characteristics assure
or even promote sustainability.