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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.


The problems we face personally or professionally come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite simple - e.g. is basil a necessary ingredient of spaghetti à la Bolognese? - whereas others are more complicated - e.g. should we invite Jane and Mary, who dislike each other, to the same dinner party? The simplicity or complexity of problems are usually defined in terms of their solution: simple problems have one, correct, solution, complicated problems may have multiple. Hence, big problems can be simple - in the sense that just one solution exist - and small or trivial problems can be complicated - in the sense that there is more than one correct solution.

Both simple and complicated problems are instances of what is called ‘tame’ problems. They are tame in the sense that people generally agree on the definition of the problem as well as the possible solutions available (even if they disagree as to what which solution is best or most appropriate). Then there is a whole other, much wilder, class of problems: wicked problems. Wicked problems are problems about which there is little or no consensus as to what causes the problem, the nature or definition of the problem, or the kind of solutions that are desirable or even possible. In some cases there is even little or no agreement as to whether there is a problem in the first place. Many of the bigger problems facing humanity today, such as climate change, global inequality and poverty, immigration and migration as well as societal marginalization and racism, are arguably to a greater or lesser extent wicked.

Solving tame problems is a lot like being inside a maze: no matter how big or complicated the maze is, it is quite clear what you need to do to get out of there (find the exit) and it is a given that there is most likely an exit somewhere. Tackling wicked problems, in contrast, is more like exploring a new part of the world, or a new galaxy: it is almost impossible to know exactly where you are, where to go next, or what kind of risks or rewards are available. Hence, addressing wicked problems requires a different kind of thinking: a way of thinking that is not so much aimed at solving the issue at hand, but at trying to get a better understanding of what is at stake and at mapping out routes forward based on, by definition, insufficient information in a responsible manner.

The Wicked problems lab is aimed at using this other way of thinking to deal with real world wicked problems. As such, we build upon skills and knowledge gained during the honours class to help address a real-world wicked problem. We will draw upon theory from a wide arrange of scientific disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, organization studies and policy analysis, but we will put it to good use: to be able to come up with new, potentially fortuitous, ways to approach the problem at hand.

Course objectives

The course consists of four interconnected elements: 1) in-depth readings of scientific materials on the subjects of wicked problems and complexity; 2) in classroom discussions; 3) a research project on a real-world wicked problem, and 4) writing of an argumentative essay on a wicked dilemma. Students are expected to have read all required texts by themselves before each meeting. During the meetings we will further work in small groups on the theme of that particular seminar.

In addition, students are expected to complete a research project on a real-world wicked problem, using the theories and knowledge gained from the required readings as well as in classroom discussions. For the research projects, students will work in small groups (5-7 people) to analyse and propose new innovative ways to deal with actual wicked problems. Cases of wicked policy problems are provided by the Dutch development bank FMO. FMO helps businesses to operate and grow transparently in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Through its financing and investments in over 85 countries, it supports the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and aims to contribute to their achievement through its mission and activities. Students are expected to investigate these cases through pro-active data collection, searches for information, and, if necessary, interviews with key players as well as the problem owner. This research work should result in an actionable advisory report to FMO on how to handle the specific issue at hand, with an eye for its inherent complexity and short- and long-term consequences. Case-descriptions will be handed out in session 2.

The course is set up in such a way that there is optimal interaction between theory and practice: in between seminars student work on their research projects using the frameworks discussed in class. Hence, for instance: using the knowledge gained about the main features of wicked problems in session 1, students are invited to analyse a problem they will be researching in terms of its wickedness, and so on. An exception is made for the design of session 2; this meeting will be entirely dedicated to the theme of this year’s research project: FMO & trade-offs amongst Sustainable Development Goals.


See the the link at the right side of the front page.


When students have completed this course they will:

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

  • Understand why dealing with complexity requires a different way of thinking, i.e. nonlinear 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 actionable and policy advice to real-world policy makers on the wicked problems they struggle with based on research and literature.


See the front page of theis programme on the right side

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

This is a 5 ECTS course. 1 ECTS stands for 28 hours ‘pure’ study time. Total course load is therefore 140 hours. There are 8 three-hours sessions per week (24 hours in total). Students are expected to spend the remaining hours reading the compulsory readings (approximately 28 in total), working on their group project or writing their argumentative essay (approximately 88 hours in total).

Assessment method

Group project (report & presentation) = 50%
Argumentative essay = 50%



Reading list