Solving Really Big Problems

Earlier this mIMG_20170404_150814749onth I attended Pyxera’s Global Engagement Forum in Washington, DC with many other leaders from multiple disciplines.  I was intrigued by the Conference’s post- SDG theme of solving really tough global problems — in other words, engaging in discussions of “solving the solvable.”  That theme was consistent with a conversation that I previously had with Deirdre White (Pyxera’s CEO) specific to food waste while we were on a panel together back in November.

Pyxera took a three-pronged approach to this conference, choosing to address preventable and treatable disease, the skills gap, and post-harvest loss.  The goal of the first track was to “reduce the personal, societal, and economic impact from three Non-Communicable Diseases – cervical cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.  The goal of the skills gap session was to “prepare and productively employ youth at living wages with growth opportunities in environments of mutual respect.”  Last, the goal of the post-harvest loss session, which I joined, was to “enhance food and nutrition security, enhance livelihoods along the agricultural value chain, and reduce negative environmental impacts by eliminating the loss of food between field and market.”  Big problems, to be sure, but solvable problems too.  And that’s the way that we need to view them today — not as daunting problems that are too big to address, but as opportunities that can be attacked and solved.

Many words and themes come to mind when describing this conference:  inspiration, aspiration, change, leadership, innovation, corporate responsibility, technology, and measurement.  Risk aversion comes to mind, too, because there is certainly an element of risk-taking when taking on the challenge of really big, global problems.  But the two themes that really stand out to me are inspiration and collaboration.  And that makes perfect sense, because to solve really tough, entrenched global problems we need to be inspired not only to jump in, but to stay committed for the long haul.  And further, such problems can’t be solved in isolation, they require input from multi-disciplinary experts along with the commitment of organizations and governments with a systemic view.  In other words, they require collaboration, (let’s make that global collaboration) coupled with a strong sense of moral responsibility.  Attacking these problems is simply the right thing to do, and in my mind, the Sustainable Development Goals provide an added incentive to do so right now.

Deirdre White inspired the audience in her opening call to action with the story of smallpox — the first infectious disease to be eradicated by mankind.  That effort required collaboration between countries at a time of strained relations, as Deirdre noted.  The benefits are clear, as the disease resulted in hundreds of millions of deaths over the course of history.  It’s an amazing story; there is an element of audacity there that is indeed a source of inspiration as we consider all of the global challenges associated with the SDGs.  The message:  If we can come together to eradicate smallpox, why shouldn’t we believe that we can come together to solve other pressing global problems?

Mark Kramer followed with a discussion focused on “creating the ecosystem of shared value.”  Kramer noted that shared value involves finding the competitive advantage in solving major social problems, and that today’s companies must recognize that their ability to compete — and ultimately their long-term success — is tied to their operating environment.  In addition, he noted that the role of business is to change the world in a way that strengthens both the business and the society in which it operates.  This notion is similar to that set forth by Anders Dahlvig (former CEO of IKEA) in his book The IKEA Edge, in which he notes that the business community is the best segment to find solutions to our two most pressing problems — poverty and the environment.  I couldn’t agree more; business solutions that make money while benefiting people and the environment (i.e. triple bottom line solutions) are incredibly powerful and critically needed.

Kramer also noted that collective impact is a valuable model for addressing complex global problems, which he defined as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale.”  We need to embrace such concepts in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.

These themes were supplemented by panel discussions on innovative resourcing, social design and entrepreneurship, measuring impact, and servant leadership — arming working groups to collaboratively ideate on potential solutions for preventable and treatable disease, the skills gap, and post-harvest loss.   In the post-harvest session, we delved further into developing world challenges such as access to finance, access to innovation, access to infrastructure technology, access to markets, and access to knowledge.  The conference ended with a series of fun, inspiring presentations from the working groups on the three major solvable problems.

The takeaway for many was that collaboration between multi-disciplinary leaders on major global challenges need not be painful, but can be fun and incredibly inspirational.  Clearly many relationships and commitments were formed in this process.  A further takeaway for me was that in the wake of the SDGs, we all need to allow ourselves to think audaciously about entrenched global problems — and how we can collaborate with one another and harness innovation, technology, and human capital to solve them.  To solve post-harvest loss, for example, there is an incredible amount of knowledge transfer and infrastructure development that must occur — and that work first requires commitment and a belief that losses and waste of 30-50% of the world’s food production can be tamed.

More than twenty years ago, Jean Francois-Rischard wrote an article noting twenty urgent global problems requiring new solutions.  In that paper, Rischard called for “more intelligent alliances between public institutions, private bodies, and civil society” to meet those challenges — with urgency.  I think Rischard had it right at the time, and it is even more appropriate now.  It’s time to think audaciously about solving our most pressing global problems.  The need for urgency still exists.

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