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The Wicked Problem of Undertaking Responsible and Ethical Research in Multidisciplinary and Geographically Diverse Teams

1. Introduction to Wicked Problems

Many technology design projects are “wicked problems”. Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve problems that are typically ill-formulated and confusing (Churchman, 1967). They are also characterised by “no definitive conditions or limits” (Buchanan, 1992). Rittel and Webber (1973) propose the following six distinguishing characteristics of wicked problems: you don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution; wicked problems have no stopping rule; solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong; every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel; every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation’; wicked problems have no given alternative solutions. A problem does not necessarily have to possess each of these characteristics to be defined as wicked, instead problems have degrees of wickedness and may also have some tame elements (Conklin, 2005).

A number of ways to ‘tame’ wicked problems have been offered which include specifying a fixed definition of the problem, providing objective parameters to determine the success of the solution or perceiving the problem in a similar way to one that has already been solved (Conklin, 2005). However, although these approaches may appear to simplify the problem in the short-term, there can often be unforeseen consequences later in the project if the extent of the problem’s “wickedness” has been underestimated.

Taking a different viewpoint, Roberts (2000) has identified alternative strategies to cope with these types of problems including collaborative strategies, which attempt to actively involve a range of different stakeholders within the project in the problem-solving process. There are a number of advantages to employing a collaborative strategy such as sharing costs, risks and benefits of developing the technology as well as allowing each stakeholder to add value in the specific areas they possess expertise (Roberts, 2000). However, there are also drawbacks; with the main issue being the fact that involving large numbers of people spread across various institutions and often different countries can result in vast amounts of effort expended on interactions between stakeholders.

The collaborative model underpins the European Commission (EC) STREP funding stream. While there are constraints in place to facilitate the collaboration process and to ensure that goals are met, namely work packages with delivery dates specified within the initial proposal that are regularly reviewed, the problem solving process is managed by partners from different areas of expertise and countries across Europe.

2. Our Research Context: The ILearnRW Project

ILearnRW is an EC funded ICT STREP project involving 7 partner institutions in 4 different countries including the UK and Greece. These partners include five academic/research institutions, one assistive technology company and one non-profit organisation providing dyslexia support. This consortium of institutions combines experts from a wide range of areas, amongst which are designers, developers, education practitioners and dyslexia specialists.

The project aims to tackle the problems experienced by dyslexic children with reading/writing difficulties through the development of “next generation learning software, which uses a computer to facilitate and promote the learning process” for both the English and Greek languages. Teaching dyslexic children how to read and write is clearly a wicked problem, particularly due to the wide spectrum of manifestations of dyslexia within the child population and also with regard to measuring the success of the software in terms of its’ impact on children’s learning.

Our consortium has chosen to address this wicked problem with a collaborative strategy. However, as we have argued, this approach can also introduce a further layer of wicked problems as we have been discovering within our project. One of these wicked problems is how to ensure that we undertake our research in a responsible and ethical way, which becomes even more important when the key stakeholders within the project are a vulnerable group, in this case children with learning difficulties.  It is important to acknowledge that a collaborative strategy involving diverse project team can result in the identification of responsible and ethical research issues, which may not have been recognised in other circumstances. However, it is our experience that there are also many associated challenges within this area.

This case study explores how a number of Rittel and Webber’s (1973) characteristics of wicked problems have provoked new challenges in managing responsibility and ethics within the ILearnRW project as a consequence of our team dynamics. Taking a user-centred designer’s perspective, we offer a set of recommendations for influencing ethical decisions across collaborative projects such as our own. We hope that by acknowledging, analysing and responding to the challenges of responsible and ethical approaches to research within technology design projects, other researchers will be able to better identify and prepare for the potential challenges they may face.

3. Responsible Research and Wicked Problems

You don’t understand the problem until you’ve developed the solution

In wicked problems, each solution proposed reveals new aspects that refine the initial problem formulation. Despite the fact that our consortium is collaboratively developing a learning technology for dyslexic children, each partner nonetheless is responsible to deliver certain technological components assigned to them as a consequence of their domain expertise. Due to these distributed work practices and partners’ own research philosophies, over time, partners form numerous problem definitions and solutions, often arousing controversy on what constitutes a suitable solution. To give one example, game designers view users as players prioritising the issue of engagement, while educationalists turn to their practice to advocate guided learning. The more fragmented partners’ individual understandings of the problem become, the more difficult it is to be reflexive in order to foresee how the parts, when combined, may lead to anticipated harms, with partners often feeling accountable only for their own work zone.

Wicked problems have no stopping rule

The end of a project is reached when an appropriate solution is developed, or due to external circumstances. Given the nature of funding, the stopping point in our project would be considered by the majority of partners to be when the funding runs out. However, in order to undertake the research responsibly and ethically it is important to think of longer-term accountabilities: this raises the issue of how end users may be affected by the removal of any technology or support provided to them during the project, once it comes to an end. For instance, children’s motivation for learning may be negatively impacted if an enjoyable and effective learning technology is suddenly removed. It remains unclear who is responsible in sustaining the project long-term. Furthermore, as the project is structured around time-stamped deliverables, even within our funded period a short-term view is reinforced with accepted deliverables acting as sufficient stopping rules. As a consequence, decisions made earlier in the project are perceived as sanctioned and it becomes more difficult to challenge them in light of ethical implications revealed as the solution evolves.

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong

Determining whether a solution is successful is purely subjective. The success of both the project and the final learning technology produced can be viewed in a number of different ways and depends on stakeholders’ values and personal motivations. From the funder’s perspective, success is mainly centred on showing that children have progressed with their reading and spelling. For partners, however, success definitions vary. For some partners, it is interlinked with the EC’s quality assurance process. Success is the outcome of submitting each of the agreed deliverables on time and having these accepted by reviewers. Successful ethical research simply forms a subset of one of these deliverables through gaining the approval of the relevant university ethics board. Other partners want to develop a learning technology that is commercially viable, or that incorporates the latest technological advances, or that can help an educational practitioner do their job. Yet for others, approval from the ethics board is a minimum and success is viewed as having a direct benefit to end-users. This spans from children improving their reading and spelling skills by using the technology, to them gaining something from participating in the technology design process; be it acquiring new knowledge, developing creativity skills, increasing confidence or simply having an enjoyable experience. The practices undertaken to ensure ‘success’ by different partners align more or less with responsible and ethical research. As a consequence, some partners must cover more ground to understand how to embed ethical and responsible practices in their own philosophy and practice.

Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel

Project partners’ specific skills and knowledge, combined with the range of past experiences and cultural backgrounds (both within different countries and types of organisation), forms a unique wicked problem. This means that no two consortiums would approach our problem in the same way. Therefore, with each new solution, new ethical matters will arise and will need to be considered. Ethics forms are unlikely to guide us in responding to concerns arising from these dynamic contextual factors.  On the surface, we all agree that reaching a shared understanding on how to take a responsible and ethical approach to designing technology for this vulnerable population is vital. However, this is difficult to achieve in practice given our disparate views on what responsible research might be.

To give an illustrative example, for some partners responsible and ethical research involves anticipating and responding to possible harms by inviting users (i.e. teachers, parents and children) to participate and deliberate with us at every stage of the decision-making process. However, this perspective is not shared by everyone and user involvement has become a critical point of tension. Some partners rely on users to get quantitative responses to train their machine learning algorithms, which in time will personalise the learning experience. They do not have previous experience directly working with users and therefore fail to understand how their individual personality traits, opinions, values and preferences can inform these efforts. Many partners prefer to involve expert practitioners as proxies for users as they feel more comfortable dealing with other adults, making project discussions and requirements gathering a more straightforward process.

4. Challenges and Obligations

The consideration of responsible and ethical research as a wicked problem within the context of the ILearnRW project has raised a number of challenges that will also be faced by other research projects. Resolving many of these issues can only be achieved through appropriate leadership. However stepping outside these team dynamics, we believe as user-centred designers (UCDs) that there is still scope for us to tackle some of these issues ourselves, as our research philosophy is compatible with ethics and responsibility. Therefore we suggest employing the following strategies, which have been organised thematically.

User Advocates – UCDs should be a champion for the users throughout the project, finding ways to give them a voice within the decision-making process and enabling them to have a direct impact on the resultant decisions.

Education – UCDs should seek to educate other project partners with less experience and knowledge of responsible and ethical approaches to research. This could be through the development of a plan with project leaders to periodically reflect on the user research findings and adapt future research plans accordingly to ensure responsible and ethical practices are maintained. This could also be through enabling developers to gain exposure to potential end users of the technology they are developing, to help raise their sense of responsibility towards the users.

Engagement – In order to engage the project team with the issue of responsible and ethical user research UCDs should attempt to understand the goals of other project partners and establish how user-centred design practices could fit within their existing practices.

Responsibility – UCDs should provide users with opportunities for gaining something from their involvement in the project in the short term, from their participation within the design process or within the evaluation of any prototype technology. UCDs should also ensure the users are aware of how their efforts have directly impacted the technology design.

It is hoped that the issues raised within this case study prompt UCDs to think about the challenges of responsible and ethical research within this setting and that the above strategies provide a starting point from which they can begin to manage these issues.


Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5-21.

Conklin (2005). Wicked Problems and Social Complexity. In: Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems, Wiley.

Churchman, C.W. (1967). Wicked Problems, Management Science, 14(4), 141-142.

Rittel, H.W.J and Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences. 4(2), 155-169.

Roberts (2000). Wicked Problems and Network Approaches to Resolution. The International Public Management Review. 1(1), 1-19.

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