Sudden and massive awareness of intractable problems is an effect of the Internet information age. Whether this is a benefit or a hazard is difficult to answer.
Where we might agree is that we are sharing this planet and so global challenges affect our personal world. For instance everyone in Europe is now affected by the refugees’ influx and while the immediate cause appears obvious and intractable the underlying issues of poverty and unrest driving the violence are addressable.
We tend to view threats through simple lenses and it takes a deeper understanding of the problem to have an impact when the threat is global. Even with the necessary deep thinking and evidence based analysis of the threat an even more complex solution generally needs to be implemented to cause the reversal of a significantly sized challenge.
Simplistic solutions to grand challenges often result in unintended consequences and these simplistic solutions often are applied in ignorance of the entire situation. One of the most fundamental and common misunderstandings is that people perceive problems in isolation because that is what they see. Global problems most often occur as part of, sometimes vast, supply chains or webs.
In fact most global problems are a result of an intricate supply chain that needs comprehensive and practical local and global knowledge in order to be addressed. In order to make a real shift the interventions required must be at the right points in the problem supply chain and must have as few and as manageable unintended consequences as possible. When you are caught up in the excitement of making an intervention it is easy to overlook the downsides of other people’s previous interventions. It is relatively simple to look for possible unintended consequences as long as you put your ego aside and learn from others. Unintended does not mean entirely unpredictable.
Simplistic solutions do not work. Tom’s Shoes model was to make two pairs of shoes for each sale, one to be sold cheaply to the poor and one to be sold at high margins to the rich. The intervention came from a direct observation of the number of people without shoes. The result was the collapse of the livelihood of local shoe makers and thereby the reduction in local shoe making capacity.
Another fundamental misapprehension is to see people who are stuck in the grip of a global grand challenge as somehow incapable. We have all heard the axiom “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. There are several problem with this model. While we can possibly agree that simple handouts are both wrong and even injurious to the recipient there are deeper problems with the thinking in the axiom. Often it is women not men who are often the key change agents to empower. The key issue is one of placing the recipient in a position of supplication by having to be taught something in order to thrive. When you create a beneficiary you automatically create an inequality.
If you are going to address a global grand challenge you must seek to enrol everyone in the supply chain as a partner. No handouts, no hand ups, just committed handshakes of people empowered to work together as equals in solving the challenge.
When you view the problem through the lens of everyone being capable then the resources available multiply. Then with sufficient understanding of the whole you may be able to take more than one intractable problem and by analysing the surpluses of one be able to create a reciprocal solutions for several problems.
This is already working through three different charities to solve nine different global grand challenges between them. Climate change, food security, water security, local poverty, empowerment of women, homelessness, the lack of talented computer programmers in industry, children learning and ageing alone.
InHoming.org is a startup seeking to create foster grandparents. In doing so its working to solve two global challenges at once; Homelessness and Ageing alone. We are all aware of the global homelessness crisis. Many though are unaware of the health problems ageing alone are creating for people. The greying of societies coupled with the collapse of the extended family mean that loneliness is literally killing people as they get older.
InHoming is based on the fact that there are a large number of people living alone who have no living relatives whilst at the same time there are huge numbers of homeless families, who have jobs, but who cannot afford to rent or to buy accommodation.
CoderDojo.org which tackles another two problems, again with reciprocal solutions.
Kids need to learn to code as programming computers is one of the most powerful self-actualizations there are. Also there is worldwide need for talented programmers. As a language skill, this is best learned young in a creative environment and the kinds of mentors who can assist kids to learn advanced programming are too expensive for Schools.
Companies that need coders often have such mentors who can volunteer their time and they often have spaces that are free, after hours, which are comfortable, and creative. CoderDojo is now the world’s largest network of independent programming clubs for kids and is free.
WeForest has by far the most complex supply chain. Global warming affects us all and the best solution is to plant trees on barren land and turn it back into rainforest.
Trees also can be planted in cleverly designed local forest food farms such that they create additional income and food security for local peoples especially women. Global brands have the twin challenges of branding themselves as green and doing something about climate change, whilst still making a profit. By creating an integrated supply chain and marketplace for the spirit of a planted tree WeForest has funded the planting of 11+ million trees while improving the lives of the planters and the marketing value and profits of the businesses funding the trees. Consumers resonate with the value of a real tree to the profit of the companies who then pay for the trees. Everyone in the problem chain has been converted into an active participant in the solution chain.
The surprising trick in all these cases is to see the potential recipients and beneficiaries of charity as powerful actors and contributors.
About the author:
Australian entrepreneur, venture capital investor, diplomat, author and speaker, Bill is co-founder of the CoderDojo movement, founder of Weforest and is the investment partner for Europe of SOSV eu.indiebio.com. SOSV is a $250m international investment fund.