For those unfamiliar, this is the social policy paper which formalized the concept of 'wicked problems'; complex issues where possible solutions are innumerable, costly, and impossible to prove except by demonstration. Most famously, these are issues like ozone depletion or pandemic outbreaks which demand urgent, large-scale responses and don't leave room for sequential attempts. But they also include cases like high crime rates, where the root of the issue is disputed and every attempt at a solution changes the nature of the problem.
It's an extremely interesting work, and a seminal (if often ignored) part of the switch from High Modernist attempts at direct social planning to complexity-respecting ideas like New Urbanism.
To motivate a careful reading of this work, I'll quote at length from the introductory remarks:
The Enlightenment may be coming to full maturity in the late 20th century, or it may be on its deathbed. Many Americans seem to believe both that we can perfect future history-that we can deliberately shape future outcomes to accord with our wishes-and that there will be no future history. Some have arrived at deep pessimism and some at resignation. To them, planning for large social systems has proved to be impossible without loss of liberty and equity. Hence, for them the ultimate goal of planning should be anarchy, because it should aim at the elimination of government over others. Still another group has arrived at the conclusion that liberty and equity are luxuries which cannot be afforded by a modern society, and that they should be substituted by "cybernetically feasible" values.
Professionalism has been understood to be one of the major instruments for perfectability, an agent sustaining the traditional American optimism. Based in modern science, each of the professions has been conceived as the medium through which the knowledge of science is applied. In effect, each profession has been seen as a subset of engineering. Planning and the emerging policy sciences are among the more optimistic of those professions. Their representatives refuse to believe that planning for betterment is impossible, however grave their misgivings about the appropriateness of past and present modes of planning. They have not abandoned the hope that the instruments of perfectability can be perfected. It is that view that we want to examine, in an effort to ask whether the social professions are equipped to do what they are expected to do.
I think several of the rules they give imply wicked problems are likely, though not necessarily, multi-causal issues like you describe:
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
1, 8, and 9 imply that the scope of wicked problems is undefined and linked to the choice of solution, so we should problems with multiple causes. 2, 4, and 6 imply that we can't be sure when a solution is adequately tested or a solution space is exhausted, so we can never eliminate the possibility that the solution is "all our measures plus one more." What's more, the difficulty of assessment means we might never know if a solved wicked problem was multicausal, or if the final measure which produced change might have sufficed on its own.
And you're definitely right that multi-factor solutions are a big part of what makes this harder. It's not enough to run antismoking ads, or raise tobacco taxes, or implement black box warnings; it could always be some combination that mattered. And if you try all three and smoking rates drop, you can't backtrack to find out, because the problem might be hysteresic - what if the taxes stopped smoking, but the ads plus warnings prevent it?
The implications for ongoing problems, from drug addiction to gun violence, aren't terribly comforting. Not only can we not try each solution, we can't be sure a measure we've already tried unsuccessfully is safe to dismiss.
I reckon the "problem" of climate change is a good example of a wicked problem:
> 1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
> 2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
> 3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
> 4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
> 5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
> 6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
> 7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
> 8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
> 9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
> 10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
"Planning is a component of politics. There is no escaping that truism."
homogeneity is the false assumption behind many issues. a personal favourite is the pilot seat designed for the average man that fit no-one
"Wicked problems are unique."
Complex systems deserve time unfortunately political systems are not aligned with time scales neccassary to solve most if not all wicked problems