At the World Economic Forum, my colleagues and I have the opportunity to work on complex, highly interconnected “wicked” problems that cross sectors, disciplines and borders, and that typically require multidisciplinary, multistakeholder solutions.
My cohort of Global Leadership Fellows and I recently spent an incredibly insightful and thought-provoking week at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, focusing on several complex, global issues through a cross-disciplinary approach focusing on climate science and risk, sustainability, global public health and alternative energy solutions.
During a packed week, we learned from leading academics and practitioners, engaged with policy-makers, and put our learning and skills to the test with an integrative exercise at the end of the week. As an energy and transportation specialist, this was a particularly stimulating programme for me and I left with five main takeaways:
1. The importance of a cross-disciplinary approach to complex problems
As an engineering student in India, I often wished that in addition to the science and technical skills we learned, we were also taught about the economics and policy challenges associated with the energy sector in India so that we were better equipped to address them. The Earth Institute is the Holy Grail of cross-disciplinary thinking, bringing together experts from diverse sectors to break the siloed thinking that typically plagues academic institutions, unleashing more collaboration and creative systems thinking that is so critical to addressing wicked problems. More universities, organizations and governments around the world, particularly in the developing world, can learn from the Earth Institute’s pioneering cross-disciplinary approach to complex problems.
2. The importance of boundary spanners
While there is a seeming abundance of technical experts with deep disciplinary expertise, there is a dearth of boundary spanners – people who are able to build bridges between groups from different fields. Boundary spanners are equipped with an interdisciplinary disposition and bisociative thinking, social intelligence and cross-cultural competence. During the week, as the fellows applied a systems approach to the complex web of drivers behind the diabetes epidemic – one of the biggest public health challenges that the world will see in coming decades – we saw the need for boundary spanners who could speak a common language to unite experts from different disciplines (medicine, policy, education, etc.) who had a role with individual drivers behind diabetes.
3. The importance of thinking of unintended consequences
Solutions to development problems, including the proverbial “silver bullet” solutions, can often unleash unintended consequences of cataclysmic proportions (e.g. the Bangladesh arsenic poisoning case, driven by tube wells that were originally meant to pump safe ground water). As we were exposed to some of the science behind the latest energy technologies associated with fracking and accessing reserves of shale gas, as well as carbon capture and storage, we also learned of the associated uncertainties and potentially dangerous risks and unintended consequences. It showed us that there were no easy answers to finding a balance between increasing energy access and mitigating risks to the environment.
4. The importance of effective policy solutions that are grounded in sound scientific evidence and executed with a sound political strategy
We were treated to a fascinating debate between New York’s Health Commissioner, a senior officer from a global beverage company and a public health professor to discuss New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on super-sized sugared soft drinks, the latest of several anti-obesity and nutrition initiatives undertaken by the city administration. The discussion highlighted the science, politics, ethics and interests behind various parties in this controversial public health policy move. Many seemingly obvious policy solutions are often stuck in political gridlock and ethical debates, and this case highlighted the need to couple strong scientific evidence with a strong political strategy to make progress.
5. The importance of recognizing cities as being at the forefront of addressing complex sustainability and public health problems
With increasing urbanization, the majority of the world’s population will live in cities. City governments will therefore increasingly be at the forefront of addressing complex problems in sustainability and public health. From my experience working with governments in developed and developing countries, I imagine that the most successful cities will be those that have the most power devolved from a national and state level to deal with these problems directly. This view was strengthened by a presentation we received from Adam Freed from the New York Mayor’s Office on PlaNYC, the city’s bold plan with steps to increase sustainability until 2030. It was fascinating to learn about how New York is fostering collaboration across its various departments. In our integrative exercise at the end of the week, the Fellows used their rich and diverse backgrounds to propose cross-disciplinary solutions to wicked problems in cities ranging from Sao Paulo to Lisbon, teaching us how rapidly growing cities need to learn from each other’s best practices in collaborating to address sustainability and how organizations like the World Economic Forum and C40 can serve as effective platforms for that discourse.
My cohort of Global Leadership Fellows and I were privileged to learn from the Earth Institute’s pioneering cross-disciplinary approach to wicked problems. It will serve us well in our careers and we are immensely grateful to the Earth Institute for that.
Author: Ronald Philip is an Associate Director, Supply Chain & Transportation Industries and Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum.
Pictured: Smoke rises from a chimney of a garbage processing plant on the outskirts of the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. REUTERS/Ajay Verma