Resilience Theory and Wicked Problems

43 Pages Posted: 20 Jul 2020 Last revised: 26 Feb 2021

Date Written: December 13, 2020


This Article posits, first, that resilience theory offers important insights into our understanding of wicked problems and, second, that to understand the value of resilience theory to wicked problems, we should start by going back to the context of Rittel’s and Webber’s 1973 delineation of the ten characteristics of a “wicked problem.” Rittel and Webber were in fact among the vanguard of researchers beginning to articulate the realization that social and ecological systems — now social-ecological systems, or SESs — do not follow the predictable and mechanistic rules of Newtonian physics. As a result, SESs do not yield, at least not over the long term, to engineering-based “solutions” designed to satisfy contemporary priorities and desires. Instead, like resilience theorists, although lacking resilience theory’s vocabulary, Rittel and Webber acknowledged that change is the norm for both social and ecological systems and that the realities of complex adaptive social-ecological systems make “once and done” planning and management impossible.

In re-reading Rittel and Webber almost 50 years later, however, it becomes useful to pull apart the blending of social capriciousness and ecological panarchy that for them together added up to “wickedness” in social problem solving. Social capriciousness — the fact that social priorities and desires can both evolve over time and flip in response to political events such as elections — has become the far more accepted component of “wickedness”; few anymore expect social “solutions” to persist indefinitely. However, that same acceptance of continual, often unpredictable, change has not yet translated to the ecological side of wicked problems — which is precisely why resilience theory can help 21st-century citizens to formulate more productive approaches to those problems.

Keywords: wicked problem, resilience theory, panarchy, trickster, adaptive governance

Suggested Citation

Craig, Robin Kundis, Resilience Theory and Wicked Problems (December 13, 2020). 73:6 Vanderbilt Law Review 1733-1775 (2020), University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 376, Available at SSRN: or

Robin Kundis Craig (Contact Author)

USC Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

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