Wicked Problems: The Opioid Crisis

Carnegie Mellon University School of Design



  1. Joseph Kim
  2. Maggie Ma
  3. Teresa Lourie
  4. Elysha Tsai
  5. Zimmy Kang


Over recent decades, the opioid crisis in the United States has become the worst addiction epidemic in our nation’s history, and present research shows an upward trend in opioid-related death rates in northeastern states especially. This gigamap serves to visually represent the current causes and effects, inputs and outputs, stakeholders, and feedback loops that fuel this wicked problem (Rittel & Webber, 1973) while demonstrating the interconnectedness of individual facets in the system. In response to the crisis, the map proposes several leverage points (Meadows, 1999) that aim to intervene in terms of education, policy, healthcare, the environment, and the economy:

  • A unified drug education system
  • Enforcement of legal prescriptions
  • Increase in needle exchange programs
  • Increase in job opportunities for past addicts
  • Wastewater filtering
  • Decriminalization of illicit substances

Because the complex and changing nature of a wicked problem prevents the existence of one overarching solution, we aim to propose methods and ways that could manage and contain the issue at smaller scales.

“How to Read a Map”

The concentric layout represents the scalar complexity of the opioid crisis. Each oval demonstrates “personal,” “communal,” and “national” lenses along with the change in hue as the scale increases. The information on the map follows a linear flow, beginning with “inputs” and concluding with “outputs.” Many of the subcategories, however, cannot simply be represented in a linear format, thus the yellow lines demonstrate the interconnections and loops that exist within the nodes. The placement of the yellow numbered dots on the map represent where, in the system, designers will intervene, and corresponds to the intervention methods listed below the map.


Meadows, D. H. (1999). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability
Institutes, 1–19. Retrieved from http://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1e5CfcA9oF4EN1DP4vV4sJ9boaRXulN9A_41oqwbe3Wi4zU5_eCMfFOXw

Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy
Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. doi: 10.1007/bf01405730

Posted: Oct-2020

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