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Wicked Problems Lab: working with governance, leadership and social innovation


This course is only available for participants of the Honours College Tackling Global Challenges offered by the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs in The Hague.


Wicked problems are, essentially, ‘wild problems’; unlike our, relatively tame, day to day problems they defy clear definition, there is a complex interplay of forces that cause the problem in the first place and – because of that – there is no consensus as regards a problem solving strategy. Tackling wicked problems therefore requires another mindset that solving tame problems: A mindset not so much aimed at finding the best possible solution, but at what can be best described ‘muddling through’. By that we mean learning about the problem as well as possible solutions as you go along, an understanding what it means for the problem to be complex as well as a commitment to go along in a morally responsible manner. The Wicked Problems Lab is devoted to helping students acquire this mindset. During the lab, we will study theory on complexity and wicked problems and immediately apply that theory to develop a project on a real-world wicked problem. In this way we get a feel for what takes to be able to ‘muddle through’ when facing the wildest of problems.

Course objectives

When students have completed this course they will:

  • Understand what it means for social issues to be complex (i.e. wicked).

  • Understand why dealing with complexity requires a different way of thinking, i.e. non linear thinking.

  • Be knowledgeable of the most important insights around complexity and wicked problems from different scientific fields, including philosophy, political science, psychology and policy science.

  • Be able to analyze wicked problems and suggest ways to deal with them with respect to these problem’s complexity.

  • Understand and be able to use techniques and methods such as visualization, stakeholder analysis, integrative negotiation, framing / reframing and their relation to wicked problems.

  • Be able to give policy advice to real-world policy makers on the wicked problems they struggle with based on research and literature.


Tuesdays from 18.00 – 21.00
February 6, 13 and 27, March 13, April 10 and 17, May 8 and 15 (Final presentations Municipality).

Mode of instruction

The course is taught in seminar format: students are expected to participate in classroom discussions as well as to work on exercises (related to the research project) in class. The course is taught entirely in English.

Course Load

Course load
This is a 5 ECTS course. 1 ECTS stands for 28 hours ‘pure’ study time. Total course load is therefore 140 hours. Of which:

  • 8 * 3 hours in class = 24 hours

  • 7 * 4 hours individual preparation = 28 hours

  • 7 * 2 hours group assignments per session = 14 hours

  • Research project (in groups) = 74 hours

Assessment method

The final grade is made up of the following components:

  • Quality of individual work (answers to questions on readings, discussion questions, participation in class): 50%

  • Quality of the research report & presentation: 50%

Individual work

  • Students are required to read at least two papers in preparation for the meeting (required readings). Reading all the readings (required + optional readings) is advised. Students are expected to be able to provide a summary of their understanding of the papers read when prompted in class.

  • Before class, students are required to provide their own (individual) answers (one paragraph per question) to two or three essay-questions posted on blackboard at least three days before the class related to the readings of that meeting.

  • Students are also required to provide at least one discussion question for discussion in class based on their own (individual) understanding of the readings of that meeting.

  • In class, students are expected to participate in class discussions and to help each other understand the themes and issues of the meeting.

Group work

  • Students work in small groups (five people max) on a research project related to an actual wicked problem, provided by our partner organization.

  • Each meeting is devoted to a ‘chapter’ in their research project. Students are expected to work on the research project between classes so that chapter 1 is done before meeting 2, etc.

  • The research project results in a research report and a poster that students will be able to present to people representing our partner organization.


The coordinator will enroll the students in the Blackboard environment of the course. Information and announcements about the course will be published on Blackboard and/or sent by U-mail. The Blackboard environment will be open at least two weeks before the start of the course.

Reading list

Meeting 1:

  • Morin, E. (2007). Restricted complexity, general complexity. In: C. Gersherson, D. Aerts., & B. Edmunds (eds.). Worldviews, Science and Us. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 5 -29. (Optional)

  • Rorty, R. (1981). Method, social science and social hope. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 11, 569 – 588. (Required)

  • Heylighen, F., Cilliers, P., & Gersherson, C. (2006). Complexity and philosophy. ArXiv, preprinted online. (Required)

  • Rittel, H.W., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4, 155-169. (Optional)

Meeting 2:

  • Abend, G. (2011). Thick Concepts and the Moral Brain. European Journal of Sociology, 52, 143 – 177. (Optional)

  • Farber, D. (2008). The Case for Climate Compensation: Justice for Climate Change Victims in a Complex World. Utah Law Review, 377 – 413 (Optional)

  • Grant-Smith, D., & Osborne, N. (2016). Dealing with discomfort: how the unspeakable confounds wicked planning problems. Australian Planner, 53, 46 -53. (Required)

  • Woermann, M., & Cilliers, P. (2012). The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics. South African Journal of Philosophy, 31, 447 – 463. (Required)

Meeting 3

  • Critchely, S. (2002). Ethics, politics and radical democracy. Culture Machine, 4, (Optional)

  • Jaeger, H. (2007). “Global Civil Society” and the Political Depoliticization of Global Governance. International Political Sociology, 1, 257 – 277.

  • Melucci, A., & Avritzer, L. (2000). Complexity, cultural pluralism and democracy: collective action in the public space. Social Science Information, 39, 507 – 522. (Required)

  • McConnell, A. (2016). Reappraising Wicked Problems: Wicked Policy vs. Simple Politics. Paper presented at the Political Studies Association (PSA,) 66th Annual International Conference. (Required).

Meeting 4

  • Gigenrenzer, G. (2004). Fast and frugal heuristics: The tools of bounded rationality. Blackwell handbook of judgment and decision making, 62. (Optional)

  • Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: "Seizing" and "freezing.". Psychological Review, 103(2), 263-283. (Required)

  • Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2010). Construal-level theory of psychological distance. Psychological Review, 117(2), 440-463. (Optional)

  • Weick, K. E. (2005). 5 Managing the Unexpected: Complexity as Distributed Sensemaking. In: R. McDaniel, Jr., & Driebe, D. (eds). Uncertainty and surprise in complex systems (pp. 51-65) Heidelberg: Springer. (Required)

Meeting 5

  • De Dreu, C. K., Beersma, B., Steinel, W., & Van Kleef, G. A. (2007). The psychology of negotiation. Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles, 608-629. (Required)

  • Henderson, M. D., & Trope, Y. (2009). The effects of abstraction on integrative agreements: When seeing the forest helps avoid getting tangled in the trees. Social Cognition, 27(3), 402-417. (Optional)

  • Reinecke, J., & Ansari, S. (2016). Taming Wicked Problems: The Role of Framing in the Construction of Corporate Social Responsibility. Journal of Management Studies, 53(3), 299-329. (Required)

  • Usui, M. (2003). Sustainable Development Diplomacy in the Private Business Sector: An Integrative Perspective on Game Change Strategies at Multiple Levels. International Negotiation, 8(2), 267-310. (Optional)

Meeting 6

  • Ghoshal, S. (2005). Bad management theories are destroying good management practices. Academy of Management learning & education, 4(1), 75-91. (Optional)

  • Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2015). Wicked Problems. Administration & Society, 47(6), 711-739. (Required)

  • Lindblom, C. E. (1959). The science of "muddling through". Public administration review, 79-88. (Required)

  • Termeer, C. J. A. M., Dewulf, A., Breeman, G., & Stiller, S. J. (2013). Governance Capabilities for Dealing Wisely With Wicked Problems. Administration & Society, 47(6), 680-710. (Optional)

Meeting 7

  • Dorado, S., & Ventresca, M. J. (2013). Crescive entrepreneurship in complex social problems: Institutional conditions for entrepreneurial engagement. Journal of Business Venturing, 28(1), 69-82. (Optional)

  • Mumford, M. D., Zaccaro, S. J., Harding, F. D., Jacobs, T. O., & Fleishman, E. A. (2000). Leadership skills for a changing world. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(1), 11-35. (Optional)

  • Purser, R. E., Park, C., & Montuori, A. (1995). Limits to Anthropocentrism: Toward an Ecocentric Organization Paradigm? Academy of Management Review, 20(4), 1053-1089. (Required)

  • Tsang, E. W. K., & Zahra, S. A. (2008). Organizational unlearning. Human Relations, 61(10), 1435-1462. (Required)


To be announced by OSC staff.


Teacher: dr. Gijs van Houwelingen (Dual PhD Centre, Leiden University)

Honours Programme coordinator: Annette Righolt


The course consists of three interconnected elements: 1) in-depth readings of scientific materials on the subjects of wicked problems and complexity; 2) in classroom discussions; and 3) a research project on a real-world wicked problem. These elements are all interrelated: the readings speak to the discussions we will have in class, class-room discussion will serve to clarify what may not be clear in the readings and to bridge the gap between theory and practice, and in the projects we will apply theoretical knowledge to design possible routes to solutions to a real-world wicked problems.

Wicked problems are ‘wild’ primarily because there is more than one way to describe and understand them. To get a grip on their wildness, it is imperative that we understand this multiplicity and complexity of wicked problems. This implies the ability to take several perspectives at once, and a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Because of this, we will explore wicked problems (or social complexity) from several angles. The course is designed to consist to three, interrelated, parts – among them connecting the abstract (theoretical insights) with the concrete (policy implementations). We start out with exploring relatively abstract perspectives on (societal) complexity in meetings 1, 2 and 3. These meetings are devoted to the philosophy, morality and political theory of complexity, respectively. In meetings 4 and 5 we will then turn to study aspects of human psychology that makes it hard for us to deal with complexity in a meaningful way; these meetings are devoted to the psychological reductionism and integrative negotiation in complex circumstances, respectively. Meetings 6 and 7 are then devoted to explore the policy implications of all this: in meeting 6 we will discuss the challenges for policy making in complex world, and in meeting 7 a common called upon (but poorly understood) remedy: social innovation. Meeting 8 is completely devoted to students’ presentations of their research projects, hopefully combining these elements in a meaningful way.