Wicked problems: How systems thinking, technology and new partnerships can tackle sustainability’s challenges

A Thought Leader Series Piece

Bruno Sarda

By Bruno Sarda

Note: Bruno Sarda is the director of global sustainability operations at Dell, a consultant for the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, and a faculty member at the School of Sustainability.

Our world faces ‘wicked’ problems.

Wicked problems, as explained by Ann Kinzig, chief research strategist at ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, are challenges that are complex “all the way down.” They resist simple solutions.

Wicked problems include how to deal with a rapidly changing and unstable climate. How to feed a projected 9 billion people on this planet while enabling many to rise out of poverty. And how to do all of the above while respecting the physical boundaries and finite resources of our planet. These problems are the key challenge of sustainability.

Sander van der Leeuw, dean of ASU’s School of Sustainability, has advanced the idea that such thorny problems, let alone their potential solution paths, are so complex they exceed the human brain’s capacity to fully grasp them. They involve massive data sets and require a level of systems thinking that can only be achieved with the computing power of technology — lots of it.

Delivering such power — the power to make sense of what is unfathomable to the best human minds — requires a new approach. It demands open public-private partnerships, extensive interdisciplinary research teams, and latest-generation technology able to process extraordinary amounts of data.

The world already has corporate-based models of how new kinds of collaboration might make this work. Dell, for example, has partnered with the Translational Genomics Research Institute and others to accelerate personalized treatment for pediatric cancer. The partnership applies Dell cloud technology to help researchers and doctors quickly analyze aggressive tumors in a patient and identify the best treatments to administer.

A number of universities are also stepping up their collaborative projects. ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability was launched specifically to tackle the world’s wicked problems by directing talent and resources toward developing solutions-oriented research. The Institute is particularly adept at working in partnership with organizations outside of academia — cities, nonprofits, and businesses — to address complex issues and develop new models for understanding and addressing sustainability challenges.

Nevertheless, researchers and decision-makers around the world need more powerful analysis and greater reach to effectively extract knowledge from enormously complex data sets. How can we fulfill these needs?

One strategy is to establish open collaborations anchored by businesses and universities aimed at developing what are commonly called “community research computing services.” One model for this approach is the set of initiatives partnering Dell with ASU, Clemson University, and University of Indiana. These projects support groundbreaking research by providing “big data” research analytics, open source frameworks, large-data management, and other important services.

But even broader computing partnerships are needed, perhaps more along the lines of the new supercomputer project, Stampede, built by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Center. This collaboration partners seven universities — including Texas, Cornell and Ohio State — with Dell, Intel, and the National Science Foundation. When deployed in January 2013, Stampede will rank as the most powerful supercomputer system in the National Science Foundation’s eXtreme Digital program, with the ability to support scientists investigating our most challenging scientific and engineering problems related to genomics, climate, environment, nanotechnology, and others.

The October 2012 SXSW (South by Southwest) Eco conference in Austin provided a fitting opportunity for bringing this big collaboration idea into focus. Participants discussed the need to scale up the pace of change for sustainability by beginning to address whole systems. This requires bringing all stakeholders to the table, a potentially tricky endeavor for companies. When businesses join forces with public institutions they often collide with unfamiliar cultures governed by vastly different missions, standards, and disclosure requirements.

To overcome collaboration issues, we must first focus on the most important goals and then be willing to change behaviors to reach them. We must, ultimately, find new ways to share our needed resources and bring all of our intellectual, scientific, and analytical capabilities to the table.

Wicked, indeed, are the big problems we all need to solve. But our future is yet to be made. With a concerted effort to apply whole systems thinking, powerful technology, and inclusive partnerships, we can ensure our researchers and decision-makers always have the best possible resources to guide them. This will unleash a powerful wave of positive change.

About the author: As director of global sustainability operations at Dell, Bruno Sarda oversees sustainability governance, information strategy, measurement, and reporting, as well as supporting advocacy, policy, and objective setting across internal and external stakeholder engagement. Sarda is also a consultant for the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives where he advises a professional master’s program in sustainability practices. He is an adjunct faculty member at ASU’s School of Sustainability.