Aside: Rittel and Webber on “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”

Almost half a century ago, in 1969,  two eminent professors at the University of California, Berkeley wrestled with the challenges of coming up with a “general theory of planning” and wrote in the abstract to their paper:

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

Does this mean that we should give up on our efforts? Let’s have a look at their thoughts on the topic of a General Theory in their field. .

“Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”

– Horst W. J. Rittel,  Professor of the Science of Design, University of California, Berkeley
– Melvin M. Webber,  Professor of City Planning, University of California, Berkeley

George Bernard Shaw diagnosed the case several years ago; in more recent times popular protest may have already become a social movement. Shaw averred that “every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.” The contemporary publics are responding as though they have made the same discovery.

Few of the modern professionals seem to be immune from the popular attack whether they be social workers, educators, housers, public health officials, policemen, city planners, highway engineers or physicians. Our restive clients have been telling us that they don’t like the educational programs that schoolmen have been offering, the redevelopment projects urban renewal agencies have been proposing, the law-enforcement styles of the police, the administrative behavior of the welfare agencies, the locations of the highways, and so on. In the courts, the streets, and the political campaigns, we’ve been hearing ever-louder public protests against the professions’ diagnoses of the clients’ problems, against professionally designed governmental programs, against professionally certified standards for the public services.

It does seem odd that this attack should be coming just when professionals in the social services are beginning to acquire professional competencies. It might seem that our publics are being perverse, having condoned professionalism when it was really only dressed-up amateurism and condemning professionalism when we finally seem to be getting good at our jobs. Perverse though the laity may be, surely the professionals themselves have been behind this attack as well.

Some of the generators of the confrontation have been intellectual in origin. The anti-professional movement stems in part from a reconceptualization of the professional’s task. Others are more in the character of historical imperatives, i.e. conditions have been thrown up by the course of societal events that call for different modes of intervention.

The professional’s job was once seen as solving an assortment of problems that appeared to be definable, understandable and consensual. He was hired to eliminate those conditions that predominant opinion judged undesirable. His record has been quite spectacular, of course; the contemporary city and contemporary urban society stand as clean evidences of professional prowess. The streets have been paved, and roads now connect all places; houses shelter virtually everyone; the dread diseases are virtually gone; clean water is piped into nearly every building; sanitary sewers carry wastes from them; schools and hospitals serve virtually every district; and so on. The accomplishments of the past century in these respects have been truly phenomenal, however short of some persons’ aspirations they might have.

But now that these relatively easy problems have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn. The tests for efficiency, that were once so useful as measures of accomplishment, are being challenged by a renewed preoccupation with consequences for equity. The seeming consensus, that might once have allowed distributional problems to be dealt with, is being eroded by the growing awareness of the nation’s pluralism and of the differentiation of values that accompanies differentiation of publics. The professionalized cognitive and occupational styles that were refined in the first half of this century, based in Newtonian mechanistic physics, are not readily adapted to contemporary conceptions of interacting open systems and to contemporary concerns with equity. A growing sensitivity to the waves of repercussions that ripple through such systemic networks and to the value consequences of those repercussions has generated the recent re-examination of received values and the recent search for national goals. There seems to be a growing realization that a weak strut in the professional’s support system lies at the juncture where goal-formulation, problem-definition and equity issues meet. We should like to address these matters in turn.

* This is a modification of a paper presented to the Panel on Policy Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Boston, December 1969.

– – > For the full text:

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Hmm. Half a century is a long time in a world in which Moore’s Law has been priming the pumps. The tool set has changed radically.

UNIVAC 1106 1969

1969 top-end computing. UNIVAC 1106. Vacuum-tubes, 128k-word. $12 million

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Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at and @ericbritton

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