Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Solving complex problems

(Photo: www.mit.edu. Design by Suzana Lisanti)

Solving complex problems is what some foundations claim to be doing. Many more wish they had the guts to stake this claim, but are perhaps more realistic about what they can do.

I've written a lot about crowd sourcing as a possible strategy for philanthropic ideas and insights - now we can all benefit from the brainiacs at MIT (I'm an alumni child so I am allowed to make jokes about pocket protectors) who take courses in "Solving Complex Problems" as freshman. They are then required to share their work live and online (December 4th, 7 pm EST). Check it out here.

In this class the Techies are working on "The Future of Fish."

If I were philanthropy queen I'd find a way to take advantage of these applications of methodology and creativity from smart people that are going on all the time all over the place. I'd bring in thinkers (students and faculty) from the social and natural sciences, arts, design, humanities, business, policy, and religion to co-craft possible solutions to poverty, hunger, sickness, cultural isolation, etc - as part of their own work. Then I'd develop critiques and review processes that were led by those living the conditions so that only applicable, reality-based strategies would survive the process.

Why is this valuable? The group work, methodological approach, intense presentation, and charrette style discussions are bound to produce better and more ideas than any single program officer or committee. Its not necessarily the answer - but it sure brings to bear a lot of intellectual horsepower that's already out there. Add in a good mix of lived experience from the community and then dedicate people to coordinating networks of thinkers and actors, finding implementation partners, and keeping feedback loops robust between funded work, thinkers, and critics. The whole process would be public so that those we hadn't yet found who had something to contribute could find it, use it, improve it - and it would feed a marketplace of ideas for the public good.

That's how I'd do it - and I'd call it open source charrette philanthropy. How would you do it?


Sean Stannard-Stockton said...

I love it! I believe that "cross disciplinary approaches" are key to many, many breakthroughs. You might be interested in the Book Consilience, by Edward Wilson or "Investing: The Last Liberal Art", where author Robert Hagstrom shows how the lessons or physics, biology and even classical literature can be used in investing.

Anonymous said...


I ran across your post while looking for some information on solving complex problems. We seem to be thinking on the same wavelength regarding "wicked" problems like poverty, AIDS, and other complex global issues. I just submitted a project for the MIT ideas competition yesterday. It has many of the qualities you're talking about. I'm still making some tweaks to the site, but free to check it out at www.floss4good.org. If you know any current MIT folks that might be interested, I would love some direction on folks to talk with.