Wicked problems and the role of social media

CRS    March 16, 2015

Organisation name: Various


What is a wicked problem?
A wicked problem (as defined by Webber and Rittel in 1973) differs from a tame problem primarily due to its complexity and the fact that it does not have a single or straightforward solution. Humankind currently faces many wicked problems in relation to the state of health, environmental degradation, climate change, poverty, hunger, economic inequality, human rights, and violence. By nature, wicked problems require complex solutions and input from individuals with a variety of perspectives, skills, knowledge, and expertise.


As the above video suggests, problems have multiple causes, thus no single solution exists. Problems evolve and issues shift, forcing the need for new solutions and understanding.

More and more, members of society are using social media to share perspectives, information, or scientific knowledge. This use of social media to facilitate widespread sharing of information or opinion from the grass root level, to the halls of academia, and everywhere in between, gives social media an important role in history. Since common understanding and a multitude of perspectives are needed to address wicked problems, instantaneous sharing through social media has the potential to change how we think, communicate, and learn about these problems.

Social media and wicked problems:

Although social media can play a role in creating wicked problems, positive examples of the use of social media also exist. While over-simplification is not the answer, individuals or organizations are using social media to propose simple solutions to particular aspects of wicked problems.

Take for example issues related to health. Health organizations or health practitioners themselves are communicating valuable information by using social media in creative ways.



Similarly, social media is used to share information, opinions, and scientific knowledge related to environmental issues.

Infographics like the one below from TVO informs about poverty in Ontario.

While these examples may have particular relevance to certain countries and cultures, other approaches are created to fit the specific context of the receiver of the information.

In places where instant messaging is used more widely than other methods of social media, innovations are changing banking, activism, education, entertainment, health, agriculture, and disaster management.

We are also seeing organizations emerge around the use of social media to facilitate information sharing on specific topics. For example, 0rganizations such as be Waste Wise are using social media tools to “communicate about waste to create an engaged global community.”

Furthering the discussion: 

Ongoing dialogue is essential to build common understanding of wicked problems and  collaboration. Social media which is relevant to each user provides opportunities to participate in conversations. Furthermore, the advent of social media provides us with tools to track conversations in response to wicked problems–something that by itself enhances learning.

Web references:

Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Rittel and Webber

Wicked Problems Modelling Social Messes with Morphological Analysis, Ritche

Seven ways mobile phones have changed lives in Africa, Ogunlesi

be Waste Wise


Submitted By: Aileen MacMillan, SMBP student, University of Waterloo

If you have concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Programme Director, Social Media for Business Performance