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Understanding the world's biggest problems
Finding a framework for making a difference
There are around 828 million people who do not have enough food.
It's hard to believe but around 10% of the global population still goes hungry. The problem has gotten worse recently due to the severe impacts of Covid-19.
One of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is zero hunger by 2030. That's less than 7 years away and we still have a long way to go if we want to hit that.
Despite significant advances in agriculture over the last century, we still haven't been able to eliminate hunger. Arguably it’s gotten WORSE! Climate change is impacting farms’ ability to produce, while conflicts divert supply chains and redirect resources. And the problem is not static; Covid has added pressure to the problem around the world.
Hunger is one of the world’s biggest problems.
Understanding the World’s Biggest Problems
This weekend students were thinking about how they would even begin to tackle a problem as complex as hunger. It’s not something we can sit around and brainstorm solutions to. We need a process to understand.
The first thing is to understand how to break down a large problem into smaller more manageable areas. Students learned about root cause analysis, an approach that uses the 5-whys and first principles to narrow down a root cause. By asking why multiple times, we can break through surface-level evaluations of the problem and truly understand the cause.
The first level of why for world hunger might be “people don’t have food to eat”. This seems obvious to the point of being unhelpful. Unfortunately, the solution is never as simple as just giving them some food — this would only work temporarily. There are often deeper, systemic problems at play that we need to tackle individually to permanently solve the problem.
Solving complex problems requires a systematic approach. We can’t just sit and brainstorm solutions.
Let's be real for a second, there is no singular root cause of hunger. But by trying to identify some causes, we will be at a level where we might be able to eliminate the problem.
Traditionally, the goal of a root cause analysis is to get to a singular cause of the problem so we can solve it. You list out all possible causes at each level and systematically eliminate the ones that can’t be true through experiments and research. In our situation, we are more focused on building out a massive tree of contributing factors and deciding which path we are best equipped to make progress on.
To start, we discussed the high-level buckets of the problem: cost, nutrition, and distribution.
We then proceed to ask why.
These are helpful high-level starting points for trying to address the problem. From here we can start to ask why this is the case.
Let's take cost as an example. Using first-principles thinking, we start by identifying what factors go into the cost of food. Our goal is to be as exhaustive as possible if we want a full understanding of the problem. This will give us multiple avenues for solving the problem and making an impact.
From here, we systematically expand each path to include additional detail.
We can ask: if raw materials were the problem, why might that be? Has this changed? What is its impact on the final price of food? Answering these can help us decide: should we dig deeper into raw materials or might there be a bigger impact elsewhere?
At this point it’s helpful to pick a specific geographic region first – hunger is felt around the world but looks different in each country. It's key to understand what flavour of the problem you're dealing with before attempting to solve it.
It's required to use first principles here because it's tempting to get into systemic issues like climate change immediately. As the UN states on its website, the primary causes of hunger are climate change, global conflict, and income inequality. Yes, these an important factors, but what impact do they have on the problem? This is where a lot of students were getting stuck. If we stay at the level of these macro problems we can’t dig any deeper.
We need to get way more specific. How is climate change affecting food access and hunger? For example, the impacts of climate change might be that temperatures are too high for crop survival or there might be droughts in certain areas. Once we understand that we can being to potentially solve the problem.
Taking your brain off the beaten path
I won't walk you through the whole process, but you get the idea. Through a combination of asking why? and then using first principles to identify the fundamental components of that problem, we can lay out a problem in front of us in full detail. It lays out a path for how improving food transportation might be a means of solving world hunger in one country as much as automated irrigation might also be a path.
Our mindset of the week was unconventional thinking. It was a helpful reminder for students and possibly a new way of viewing the mindset.
When we first explore it, students are starting their TKS journey and caught up in a sea of mimesis. They are looking around at others to decide what success was to them. Achieving unconventional success requires unconventional thinking. This small tie to success is important because you need to start by identifying your definition of success. If all you want is something conventional, conventionality may be the best path. Not everything needs to be unconventional – only where it matters to you.
This time around, we’re taking that mindset further. We're trying to solve huge problems and conventional thinking won't get us there. There are entire books written on how to think unconventionally (which feels a bit ironic) and start to get creative. One that comes to mind is Range, which explores the value of being a generalist and using cross-disciplinary approaches to problem-solving. David Epstein argues that your ability to borrow ideas, metaphors, and analogies from other disciplines is one of the critical pieces to innovation.
Thinking unconventionally requires creativity. You need to think about problems from a different perspective if you want to arrive at a novel solution.
An unexpected example of this comes from the book The Knowledge-Creating Company where a team at Canon was working on their minicopier in the early 1980s. They were trying to find ways to reduce the cost of production for the copier as they were proposing a disposable drum (used to transfer toner onto paper). One night at a company retreat, the engineering team was having beers after work around a campfire to relax. As they were handing out the latest round of drinks, the engineering lead looked at the can in his hand and wondered allowed “how much do you think it costs to manufacture a can of aluminum beer?”
This simple question started a line of questioning and exploration into the process they eventually used to create an aluminum drum for their copier and launch their new product.
Half of thinking unconventionally requires you to have a wide array of potential ideas and approaches, often from other disciplines, that you can pull from.
Not only that, but unconventional thinking requires courage. You need the courage to stand out and look silly as you defy convention.
Back in the 1800s, an obstetrician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweiss first hypothesized that doctors were transmitting something to their patients, ultimately leading to their patients’ deaths. This was at a time before germs had been discovered. Patients were dying and nobody could find out why. His peers ridiculed his hypothesis and professionally rejected him. He ultimately ended up in an insane asylum! It wasn't a few months after his death (in the asylum) that he was vindicated.
Not every unconventional idea is as extreme, but expect some level of funny looks as you go down an unconventional path.
The session was a primer for the upcoming moonshot project that starts in a few weeks where students must identify 10x improvements for a given problem. But you don't get to 10x better by thinking conventionally. They will need to combine unconventional thinking, first principles, and root cause analysis to come up with novel solutions to huge problems.
We’ll talk more about moonshots in the future.
The fact that germs were discovered is mindblowing to me. We forget how far we’ve come in terms of what is now common knowledge.