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sara gry og anders erlendsson

How to Turn Wicked Problems Into Ambitious Opportunities

30. Mar 2023

The term wicked problems occur more and more often in our conversations and work areas – especially in public innovation. Wicked problems are, by definition, complex, dependent, and systemic. But do they call for wicked solutions? To start, we must ask questions and collaborate in completely new ways. The questions we ask determine the answers we find and the systems we build

Long reads

By Anders Erlendsson & Sara Gry Striegler, DDC – Danish Design Center

It’s no news that the world is changing rapidly, and we are in increasingly volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous situations. The complex societal challenges are rising before our eyes and are no longer ripples on the sea’s surface. They are meter-high waves that are difficult to capture and influence, and they wash away what we thought was safe and predictable.

As we turn to the news, we’re constantly reminded of the widening gap between the supply of caregivers and the demand for labor, as well as the escalating prices for energy and food. A growing number of reports indicate that many young people are not thriving, and it’s all too common to feel a sense of hopelessness and despair about the future. In fact, one in five Danes has stopped reading the news altogether due to the overwhelming negativity that leaves us with a feeling of fatalism and paralysis.

The questions we ask matter

Our challenges are complex and interdependent, and we cannot address them isolated. Experts and leaders have referred to them as poly-crises, and recently at the Davos Summit in January 2023, world leaders recognized that we need to address them in a new, more holistic way. But how can we understand, address and influence these problems? How can we create hope, possibilities, and dreams?

The Wicked Series

This article is the first in a series of four:

The articles explore and explain how we work with wicked problems from a design- and mission-driven perspective.

"At DDC, we believe the future is bright and full of opportunities, but to make it a reality, we must be willing to ask new questions and work differently than we do today"

Sara Gry Striegler

Photo: Anne Ravnholt Juelsen

Untamable problems

In various places, both inside and outside the Danish borders, the concept of wicked problems has grown. We see it in many contexts, particularly in public sector innovation. The concept resonates. Wild or “wicked problems” are complex, coherent, and dynamic, spanning institutions, administrations, and systemic frameworks. 

The theory of wicked problems was first put forward by Rittel and Webbers in 1973 in the context of social policy development. Wicked problems are, per se, intractable because the challenges they describe are unlikely ever to be fully resolved. However, this does not mean we cannot achieve positive, sustainable, long-term change.

But if the crises are interconnected, complex, and wild, do they require wicked solutions?

Our questions determine the answers we find

Now, you may think that solving wicked problems requires equally wicked solutions, but that’s not necessarily the case. Whether simple or complex, solutions are merely a means to address specific needs or potentials. If we want to bring about radical and systemic change, it’s more interesting to question the purpose of the existing systems. After all, the purpose determines the legitimacy and value of solutions and courses of action.

"The changes we seek depend on how we understand and frame the problem and the opportunities. Ultimately, the questions we ask shape the answers we receive"

Anders Erlendsson

Photo: Oliver Herlitschek

These answers may be simple and familiar solutions but placed in a completely different context, logic, and structure. What’s certain is that wicked problems require coherent solutions that work together to address the problem and create new opportunities for action that didn’t exist before.

The mission model for wicked problems

At DDC, we are committed to addressing complex and systemic societal challenges through design and mission-driven innovation. Working closely with foundations, businesses, public institutions, and non-governmental organizations, we are taking concrete steps to address various wicked problems, such as the growing number of young people not thriving, the need for a circular transition of society, and demographic development. In addition, we work with public organizations to strengthen their capacities, mobilize ecosystems, and set directions in various areas of the Danish welfare society.

Through continuous development and learning, we have developed a comprehensive model that moves from identifying a systemic, complex problem to a portfolio of interventions that address the problem incrementally with innovative approaches.

The model can be divided into four dimensions:

  • Uncover logics and structures in the existing system and reframe the problem
  • Develop alternative future scenarios
  • Determine a preferred future and development of the mission
  • Establish the governance model with an associated portfolio of opportunities and initiatives. 

Understand the current system – then rethink your problem

To address and solve complex societal problems effectively, it’s advisable to examine and understand how our current systems work. Re-discovering the origin and underlying behaviors allows us to be reminded of why systems typically are sympathetic. 

Today, many people find it hard to contribute and support young people in vulnerable positions, ultimately hindering our efforts to act on the growing number of children and young people who are not thriving. We prefer to have the most qualified – the professionals – helping our children. That’s sympathetic! And understandable. However, the treatment usually occurs outside the context where the problems arise or are expressed. Ultimately the undesirable situation remains when young people reenter the same context or situation once treatment is completed. Meanwhile, our tendency to diagnose and treat young people in distress strictly professionally makes it difficult for those close to the child in everyday life to offer help and support. We are afraid of causing harm. We become passive. No matter how benevolent the intentions are, they can also have unintended and potentially negative consequences for those we intend to help.

Through our work on our mission, Thriving Youth, it has become clear that thriving or the opposite is collectively experienced by young people. The question is whether it expresses increased mental illness or rather a natural and perhaps even healthy response to dysfunctional structures and systems. If the latter, should we continue to insist on treating symptoms in our healthcare system? Or should we instead work on the underlying causes and create frameworks that promote well-being?

Once we have a better understanding of how systems work, in what ways they are successful, and why they are sympathetic, we are in a better position to make suggestions for what to invest in further and what to wound up and close down. It helps us to see unutilized resources and potential. And perhaps even more important, the people and stakeholders we must invite into our work and collaborate with to discover and develop new or complementary systems. Systems that eventually might challenge and even replace the current ones.

The problems are just as attractive as the solutions

The argument for system innovation usually arises from a challenge or problem. However, system innovation can also be triggered and driven by an opportunity. Although both are not necessarily required for larger systems innovation, the case for change is all the more compelling when challenge and opportunity work together. The more urgent the challenges we face, the more urgent our search for new systemic opportunities. And the greater the potential for systemic opportunities, the easier it will be to reduce our dependence on existing systems and free ourselves from them.

"Problems and opportunities thus mutually reveal their potential, and we are as interested in the opportunities as we are in the problems"

At DDC, we simultaneously apply hands-on design methods to address problems and opportunities. By mapping the material of systems – including purpose, power structures, resource flows, and patterns of relationships – we examine and challenge prevailing understandings of problems.

The material composition is what defines a system and sustains its function. Mapping helps us understand two things: 1) the characteristics of the system we want to change together, and 2) how changes in the material composition turn the problem into an opportunity and open up new and unexplored possibilities.

Wicked problems in the City of Aarhus

In our close partnership with Aarhus municipality, we have introduced and shared system innovation as a method and approach to investigate and challenge existing and prevailing understandings of problems. Aarhus Municipality has identified seven wicked problems and turned them into strategic focus areas. Through our partnership and collaboration, the employees from Aarhus municipality working on the seven wicked problems have found a common language for how to work with wicked problems and system innovation. At the same time, they have recognized that the problems transcend existing systemic structures, frameworks, and administrations. 

This insight implies that one of the main obstacles, but also the great potential for radical innovation, new solutions, and systems change under the municipal aegis, is that problems span across systems, logic, and discourses that are a natural part of a municipality. And most importantly, the municipality has realized that addressing these problems is not just a municipal task but a societal task that also requires great efforts from the business community, civil society – and even the citizens themselves.

"Creating systemic change is not just about building something new. It is also about being open to the possible dismantling of existing logic, practices, and routines"

the three horizonts framework

The Three Horizons Framework

We must believe we can create better systems

When we work strategically on long-term and wicked problems at DDC, we work simultaneously on three different tracks, strongly inspired by Bill Sharpe’s work on the Three Horizons Framework.

  1. A track that helps us define and maintain a shared focus on what a sustainable and preferred future might look like so that we avoid reproducing the logics and structures we want to abolish. 
  2. A track that helps us dismantle the structures working against the emergence of new or complementary systems.
  3. Finally, a track that helps us create the conditions and infrastructure necessary to facilitate the turbulent transition from the current system to a better one.

Systems innovation theory is now an established field with a growing body of historical knowledge about how systems have changed over time. However, there is still a lack of practical knowledge on intentionally changing systems and creating new ones. To address this gap, we are currently working with Aarhus municipality, The Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS), and the Local Government Denmark (KL) to connect theory with opportunities, practice, and people.

Systems innovation is more than just optimizing or fine-tuning existing systems in times of crisis. It is about boldly asserting that together we can create better conditions and systems than those we have today. Some may argue that systemic opportunities exist only theoretically until someone seizes and implements them. But one thing is for sure: we can not do it alone, not at the community level, not in the private sector, and not at the state level. Instead, we must collaborate in new ways, challenge the status quo, and share our important learnings. This requires that we seize the opportunities and insist that we can influence, even shape, the future we want.


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Sara Gry Striegler

Director of Social Transition

Phone +45 6110 4778
Social LinkedIn

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