Wicked Problems Demand Systems Thinking and Innovation in Partnerships

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Humankind is at a crossroads. We are facing a perfect storm from a combination of climate change, heat waves, drought, floods, and natural resource degradation. From this stems greater poverty, hunger, socio-economic inequality, geopolitical tension and even armed conflict. 

Food security is synonymous with human security and is failing despite progress in recent decades. The proper functioning of food, land and water systems, the livelihoods and health of vast numbers of low-income consumers and smallholder farmers – women and men, young and old – and their families and communities, are threatened.

Our only hope for facing these challenges and prevailing, lies in innovation which requires us to ask:   

  • What drives innovation (or the lack of it)?
  • How do we achieve synergistic, re-enforcing innovation in products and technology, delivery and uptake, institution-building, investment (both private and public), and policy change?
  • How do we plan not just for incremental innovation through existing processes, institutions, and markets but for transformative improvements that feature learning about the nature of relevant solutions and pathways to impact?   
  • How do we foster and resource institutional cultures for innovation in public, private, and community organizations in food systems and farming?
  • How should we build the ‘eco-systems’ of skills and cooperation – the partnerships, in other words, in an atmosphere of ‘guided serendipity’ – that are needed to rise to the innovation challenge, facilitate knowledge sharing and joint learning, and build agreement and shared ownership for transformative new visions and practices?  

CGIAR is the world’s largest public international agricultural research network and concretely answering these questions goes to the heart of what we do. And while we are proud of our global footprint and track record, we are challenged like never before to rise to the land, water, and agri-food related risks and opportunities of our era.

The CGIAR agenda is one that runs easily into ‘wicked problems’ that are tough to solve and even to define in actionable ways for two reasons: their complexity and interconnectedness across different, potentially competing sets of challenges, and the need for demanding systems analysis and multi-actor collaboration across disciplines to take things forward.  

Wicked problems require mindsets bent on cooperation rather than siloed approaches. They demand attitudes that can accommodate failure, ambivalence, and different perspectives and dissent, while working towards building trust, and the resilience and strength required to regroup after false starts. 

We are hard at work at CGIAR, absorbing the lessons and implications of this from a ‘systems-transformation’ perspective.

The One CGIAR reform, which weaves independent CGIAR Research Centers together for systematic cooperation across global and regional groups, is designed to foster innovation at scale while avoiding trade-offs among outcomes in different impact domains. Science is key to all of this and must guide the process and lead. At the same time, innovation is about more than science and research. Innovation closes the gap between knowledge and the delivery of value for impact.

Innovation is combination. It is the calling together in ‘innovation eco-systems’ of the contributions needed to develop and disseminate methods, products, services, and solutions that facilitate the ‘significant positive change’ that for many defines innovation.

Innovation must be human-centric and relentless about addressing users’ and beneficiaries’ needs and satisfaction gaps as they experience them. It must consider the use of business models to define how value is created, for whom, and how it is going to be shared. And innovation should encourage clever failure (cheap, frequent, and as early as possible).

The challenges our world faces now are more connected and interdependent than ever before. A ‘systems innovation approach’ is needed to address many of the problems arising at different geographic scales. No one organization, regardless of size or expertise, can tackle these challenges in isolation.

The key therefore is to deliver value through innovation together, overcoming resistance to change (that hard-wired human and institutional trait), and achieving the equitable and sustainable food futures humankind, and indeed the planet, need.

This blog is authored by Marco Ferroni, Chair of the CGIAR System Board.

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