The World’s Ten Most Intractable Problems

aha6My recent conversations with my colleagues working on AHA! have taken some intriguing turns, and since many of you have been very encouraging on this project, I wanted to share them with you. Just as a brief reminder on what AHA! aspires to be:

  • A vehicle and methodology to explore and discover approaches to complex issues, from global warming and violence and poverty in the Mideast to the dysfunction and lack of innovation in large organization. We know that complex issues can’t be addressed using the old merely-complicated approaches (like systems thinking, reengineering, cause-and-effect analysis, etc.) — three years later you look back at the project you poured so much sweat into and nothing has really changed. AHA! implements Einstein’s advice that we won’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking that gave rise to them. Complexity theory is new and largely untested in this area but there are some fascinating and powerful techniques that seem well-suited to support a complex adaptive system ‘discovery-and-learning based’ methodology.
  • A group of people who will develop AHA! and will then certify others who have the capability to apply it to the many complex problems and challenges that other methodologies and approaches have failed to solve — people with the experience to know what works and what doesn’t, and why.
  • Completely open source and creative commons licensed. We may charge for-profit organizations to help them apply the methodology, but only for the purpose of funding sessions to use the methodology to solve the world’s most intractable problems for free. 

Some readers have asked if AHA! will be based in one or more physical centres — we don’t know yet. Other readers have asked whether AHA! will be software — it will be more than that, but there will undoubtedly be software and other tools that will be part of the methodology. And some readers have asked if AHA! will use Open Space methodology — we will use Open Space extensively in developing the AHA! methodology, but we don’t know whether it will be a significant part of the final methodology. It will be what it will be.

My AHA! colleagues are agreed on the following:

  • It is essential that AHA! differentiate itself clearly from all the other methodologies out there that claim to have the ideal approach to solving all the world’s problems. Perhaps the only way to do this is to use it to ‘solve’ a problem that none of these other methodologies has solved.
  • Developing and using AHA! is going to take a significant commitment of time and energy of its core group, and ultimately of anyone who wants to use it effectively. This is not a ‘spare time’ project. The purpose of the design session is not academic, it is to set out a plan for a lot of people to do a lot of work to accomplish some remarkable results.
  • We need to just start. One initial design session, start of November, invitations to go out by the end of this month, invitations to be open to anyone (including you) who is interested and can make it and cares enough to invest some time and a bit of travel money (we are trying to get sponsors to cover other costs) to get there (either Toronto or San Francisco) — and that session will:
    •  ‘create the container’ for what AHA! is, 
    • set the agenda for where AHA! goes from there, 
    • establish the business model for AHA! (how it will make money),
    • identify what kinds of problems and challenges it is appropriate for, and
    • then begin to offer it to the world
  • AHA! needs to create a bridge between reasoned cynicism and reasonable optimism:
    • it must appreciate why so many existing and promising methodologies have failed, yet
    • it must acknowledge that there are some astonishing activities occurring right now (most of them very focused, one-off, but employing radical, leading-edge thinking) that could be leveraged and incorporated into AHA!

My AHA! colleagues also disagree significantly on the following:

  • Should the objective of the initial AHA! design session be just to develop the methodology (by grappling with why all the old ‘complicated system’ methodologies don’t work), or to simultaneous develop and apply it to try to solve one intractable problem? Advocates of the former say the latter is too ambitious for one session, while advocates of the latter say that we’ll attract more exceptional and diverse people if we really stretch and focus on one ‘burning platform’ issue, than if we try to ‘get people energized about process’.
  • Will business be willing to invest in AHA!, or are business leaders too incapable of thinking outside the box, too timid and risk-averse, and lacking in any sense of urgency for change to participate in this? We are quite split on this, and as a cynic and an idealist I’m torn on this question. I had imagined business funding AHA! (both to solve its own problems and also via some altruistic funding of its use to solve broad social problems) and also hoped business would bring some (often much-needed) business perspective to intractable non-business problems that AHA! might grapple with. But if business is going to opt out, we’d be better off looking for other sources of financing and stick to people who really will have passion around AHA! and what we believe it could accomplish.

It would be presumptuous and premature (and contrary to the spirit of collegiality and collaboration) to try to lay out some preliminary vision of AHA! (I am willing to ‘let go’ of AHA!, and let it go wherever the consensus of those involved see it going). But I think we are agreed that it would be useful to create a list of some of the problems, issues and challenges that a complex adaptive systems approach like AHA! might be able to deal with to a degree no other tried-and-true approach could.

So here’s my list* of the world’s 10 most intractable problems, and my preliminary assessment on the degree to which (on a scale of 1 to 10) AHA! or some other complex adaptive systems approach might address each problem better than all the approaches that have failed so far:

  1. Creating a health care system that works, based (probably) on preventative care and self-diagnosis and self-treatment, instead of on learned helplessness and dependence. (8)
  2. Creating an education system that is based on just-in-time learning by doing, learning from acknowledged experts, self-discovery and peer-to-peer collaboration, in the field, in critical life skills selected by the learner and learned the way the learner learns (and graded by the learner), instead of on ‘teachers’ in expensive remote facilities in one-way lectures with grades assigned by the teacher. (8)
  3. Achieving energy and other resource self-sufficiency and sustainability, based on renewable and non-polluting sources and conservation, using mechanisms like radical tax shifts, real R&D on sustainable energy, and local energy co-ops. (8)
  4. Creating a food system that does not inflict massive suffering on animals, does not waste billions of acres of land in inefficient monoculture, does not require billions of dollars in annual subsidies to keep it afloat, does not involve absurdly inefficient transportation and overpackaging of products, does not exploit farmers and divert desperately needed food from poor to rich, and does not create massive waste disposal problems and contribute substantially to global warming. (8)
  5. Reforming corporate conduct through constructive public-private agreements and partnerships so that business is encouraged (financially and through reputation and customer goodwill) to pursue socially and environmentally responsible policies, instead of discouraged (through taxes, sanctions, laws, regulations and other often-unenforced or unenforceable means) from being irresponsible. (6)
  6. Creating integral, intentional communities based on love and commonality of interest and beliefs instead of economic standing and proximity to the workplace, and in the process, weaning communities off cars — by integrating personal and work life in one place, by eliminating the roads that fragment communities, and by making all transit public (e.g. a shared fleet of community vehicles on the outskirts of the community and a community-run bus/limo service for community members). An essential part of this is resolving the tragedy of the commons, so that instead of fragmenting and destroying community and collective responsibility by making everything privately owned and laissez-faire, we are encouraged to acknowledge that the value of community property is much greater than the value of our individual share of it. (5)
  7. Reducing over-crowding and over-population by e.g. using smart urban design (that creates more psychological space than physical space), by eliminating space waste (more effective, modular, changeable house configurations), and by developing physical (not chemical) contraceptives with zero risk of unwanted pregnancy, use of which becomes the easy, default behaviour until and unless conception is actually wanted. (4)
  8. Reducing poverty (and economic and political inequality in general) and by doing so reducing violence (there is substantial evidence that levels of violence correlate closely to inequality, at every political level). (4)
  9. Increasing business innovation. (4)
  10. Increasing wilderness and biodiversity.(3)

If you have comments on resolving the two areas of disagreement, or any suggestions on approaches to any of these 10 problems that appear to really work (or have a real chance of working, rather than just being wishful thinking), I’d love to hear from you. More about AHA! when the date is nailed down, and the invitation finally crafted (soon!).

* Jason Kottke loves lists, and I’m grateful for some of the new traffic he has brought to this blog.

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17 Responses to The World’s Ten Most Intractable Problems

  1. Patry says:

    It’s heartening to see the “ten greatest problems” numbered and defined. If we can identify them, maybe we can begin to do something about them.

  2. Herbinator says:

    It looks just like a green party platform.Needless to say, I like it! (Especially #1).

  3. Sandy says:

    I would choose #5 over #9, and I think you have to apply at least some of the methodology that you develop, simply because the “small wins” that you’ll accomplish will build the momentum of the project. Methodology alone will not entice people who are interested in results into your project. Whether business will be willing to invest in AHA is too broad a question. You probably don’t want all of your funding to come from corporate foundations, but I would think that one or two might be interested. Individual philanthropists who made their mark in the business world? I’m sure you could identify some who might be willing to invest. The founders of Google, for example. I do think the fundraising issues are easier to sort through if you pick one “problem” to focus on, at least at first. The appropriate fundraising targets are completely different, even within the corporate foundation sector, if you are looking for funding to address hunger, rather than corporate responsibility, for example.

  4. daniel says:

    There are two things I can relate to this, one positive and the other negative.Once I read in a weblog (unfortunately I lost the URL) that a very effective method to reduce some of the problems of poverty and education was to create programs directed at young women. As women are who educate children and in most cases organize the home, there is a very stron multiplying effect in the efforts you invest.The other issue has to do with the apparent fact that abundance does not diminish violence or competition or implies the comming of a better distribution. A n example that comes to my mind is that when animals find food they will try to compete or agress their same-species indiciduals to put them away despite there is enough for everyone.I am sorry I do not have thre references but I think they are good points. If anyone knows better, please let me know. Thanks.

  5. Carroll says:

    David, I’ve been regrettably slow to “catch on” to your blog, but this line of thought is simply fascinating to me. Am passing it on pronto to my idealistic and optimistic older son as well as to a (very “green”) local young friend of mine. Much food for thought!

  6. Zephyr says:

    A magnificent proposal. And one has to think in terms of a decades long time frame to accomplish these things.It’s interesting this welling movement of change in oursociety. My generation was raised by parents whowere the student protestors and civil rights activistsof the 1960s and we are just coming of age – headinginto our 30s – to a point where we are starting totake positions of influence in the world. I think we’llaccomplish quite a bit in the next thirty years. It won’tbe fast, and everybody has to spend the years of timeto learn the skills which they can eventually contributeto changing their world.I remember, as a child looking around at my peers andknowing that we were all the kids of the free love movement.And I wondered what we would do, when we grew up.And now I think I’m starting to see it…I think it’s going to be analagous to the period of timebetween the decades between 1915 and 1945 – wheresuch monumental changes in society were achievedover the course of time – women’s right to vote,the food and drug and administration, end of childlabour, the institution of social security, the creationof an extremely wealthy society.We have different goals now – and you arevery eloquent in expressing these many thingswe have to work on diligently.

  7. FishEpid says:

    Very interesting list. IMO, after identification the next step is to assemble a bibliography of sound materials (peer evaluated comprehensive critical reviews?), on-line preferably, detailing the empirical evidence of the current status for each problem and the rationale for change. Otherwise, unless we have a common foundation of information on the problem, it seems to me that we unknowingly start from different positions only to proceed by different paths to disparate destinations. For example, although I am very interested in the sustainability of the food system, I am unaware of how billions of acres are currently wasted in inefficient monoculture. What alternatives would increase the density of production sufficiently to free up billions of acres? Thanks.

  8. medaille says:

    From my perspective it sounds like what you are trying to achieve is a change in culture. So your biggest challenge will be in converting people from the old culture to the new culture. I think your best way of achieving this would be to find a city that is receptive to change and try to repattern it’s infrastructure in such a matter so that the changes in culture happen naturally as opposed to an abrupt change. I think that this is a good idea because if the city is large enough it will develop its own culture that can be independent of our countries’ cultures. It would be able to serve as a model for other communitiesDue to the coming to prominance of the theory of peak oil and its reprecussions, we are approaching a period of time were more and more people will be accepting of infrastructural changes as a method of attempting to alleviate the pain or future pain of an energy shortage. This to me is the issue that should be focused on. All but the most ignorant are capable of seeing that our current way of living is unsustainable for eternity, and most would agree that we should try to figure out a method of achieving sustainability before the day comes when we need to have it.This would allow you the opportunity to weave in a lot of your issues on the list. I think that topics 3,4,6 & 7 could all be directly tied into this by trying to create a “post cheap oil community.” You would try to create energy and food self-sufficiency for that one community, as that would be required anyway. 6 & 7 would be the resulting changes in city layout as necessary.Eventually, I think you would want to create a program that would slowly bleed away children from schools and send them to work at responsible companies. This would be used to teach the children skills and develop their abilities as opposed to a means for cheap grunt labor.This is a brief scattering of some of the ideas that I’ve been toying with, but haven’t put together in a cohesive manner. Just my thoughts though.

  9. Ko Chira says:

    Excellent project… I especially like that you’ll look into different ways of thinking. I think that focusing on strengths (rather than against problems) is powerful, and I hope AHA! does even more of this. Rather than solving problems, what attributes does the world need in order to overcome them? What would it take to develop those attributes? And what would it take to concretise that development? It’s a process with many steps, and actually solving any problems might not even be part of it (think of “solving opportunities”). It’s similar to looking where we want to go whilst driving, rather than looking at where we’re afraid we’ll crash.I.e., what’s a list of the world’s 10 most promising opportunities currently available? Which opportunities involve tangible results, and which opportunities develop our ability to develop collective intelligence?

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you, everyone. I was a little nervous about the presumptuousness of putting together such a list, and appreciate the encouragement and confirmation that it’s of value. We’re taught, after all, that recognizing the problem is half the battle. FishEpid: You are correct — a knowledge base on each of these subjects, which accommodates conflicting points of view about them and eschews ideology, is essential. Zephyr, I hope you’re right, though I sense that this ‘welling’ is limited to a minority with the time and inclination to think and learn about these things — though perhaps that is enough. Medaille: Correct, we need to create models (more than one) because culture changes very slowly and reluctantly, and models to follow make this change much easier. I’m seriously thinking of creating a Model Intentional Community — and trying to get up the courage to do it now, instead of waiting until the pension kicks in in a few years. Ko Chira — I like the ‘driving’ analogy!

  11. Zephyr says:

    The internet is our think tank, Dave.

  12. Zephyr says:

    I would never want to live in a communalenvironment (co housing) for a long time.However, I would really appreciatesomething with a lot of cottages togetherin close proximity, with winding bicycletrails between them.If you have audio capability on yourcomputer – listen to this npr article: cottage builder’s business site ishere:

  13. Zephyr says:

    Sorry… you’ll have to copy and paste that npr linque… or try this one, instead:

  14. Marty Avery says:

    You’ll need an unusual facilitation/mediation process to surf, not stem, the flow of ideas.Get really young idealistic people to come. Try Canadian Film Centre’s Habitat or OCAD’s Beale Centre, or university drop outs.The former Governor General, Adrian Clarkson, led a 2-3 year study of what makes communities thrive vs. decay. She would be a good person to include. She was very involved in the process. Visionary, cross-industry, cross-culture folks got their own sponsorship from their companies/communities to join Ms. Clarkson in her search (for two week periods). Might point to a different model than “big biz pays for problem solving”?What is sexy about AHA!? Figure that out and you know to whom and how to “sell” it. It will be very personal. For some, it’ll be belonging to the group, others discovery of something new, others transformation, others empire protecting, others growth of self…

  15. George says:

    great list. i hope everyone who feels trapped in a cubicle will pick one and get to work. i’m on disease, which didn’t make the list, but that’s okay. i know it’s a bad thing.

  16. None of these problems are intractable; they do require a change of culture to be solved; the requisite culture change includes “the creation of conscious culture through educational innovation” (see It also includes a sea change in cultural attitudes on behalf of progressives and environmentalists, away from reflexive hostility towards entrepreneurship and markets and towards a more realistic view of entrepreneurship and markets as amazingly effective tools when designed well and used correctly. The social entrepreneurship movement is huge and growing larger. Many of the problems listed could be solved (or will be solved) entrepreneurially (see for how to eliminate poverty and create global peace). There are also structural problems with existing market mechanisms, and a focus on new ways to internalize externalities so that the costs of goods reflect full environmental costs is an important part of the long-term solution. But “internalizing externalities” essentially implies making everything privately owned (even if the owners happen to be Greenpeace and The Nature Conservancy). Thus the one sentence in this list that is terrifyingly wrong-headed is “An essential part of this is resolving the tragedy of the commons, so that instead of fragmenting and destroying community and collective responsibility by making everything privately owned and laissez-faire, we are encouraged to acknowledge that the value of community property is much greater than the value of our individual share of it.” I am all for intentional communities (which, again, would be “privately-owned,” even if that “private” entity was a collective). But the notion that “we are encouraged to acknowledge that the value of community property is much greater than thevalue of our individual share of it” could be effective in anything but a small tribal-sized group is terrifying because it sounds as if Dave is thinking that large-scale tragedy of the commons problems could be solved by means of a different attitude. Large scale tragedy of the commons problems will only be solved by means of property rights solutions.

  17. Ben Tremblay says:

    *waves hand*You have AHA?! I have the software design.You probably know Compendium, and maybe CMap … how about “Rationale”? It’s new, from AustThink (home to Tim van Gelder and Paul Monk). Anyhow, what I’ve worked out is /not/ like that. Or like Belvedere, though that’s close. is my (intentionally vague) thinking on the subject. The sooner I get this launched the sooner I can get back to becoming a sidha, like I should be doing, if it weren’t for this stubborn emancipation project.;-)regards

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