Grand Challenges: Background, Impact, and Implications

On every side, wicked problems demand a response–but what? How? Grand Challenges hold an answer.

Do you hear it? The urgent call to address large-scale societal problems? The stakes couldn’t be higher–the wellbeing of humanity and our planet. The way forward couldn’t be less clear. But that’s what Grand Challenges are made for. 

The term “Grand Challenges,” as I use it, refers to a toolkit of methodologies for addressing issues that are systemic in scope and require a sustained effort. What identifies a Grand Challenge is not its sector or scale, but its “all hands on deck” approach. For a deeper definition, read my post “Why I Facilitate Grand Challenges.”

As a facilitator, I work with leaders who want to apply a Grand Challenge approach to social problems in their domain, because Grand Challenges offer an effective response to problems that have never before been solved.

Examples of Grand Challenges

The eradication of Polio is an example of a Grand Challenge. That monumental goal required global collaboration and innovative strategies. No one knew HOW to end Polio; the search for the answer united various organizations and required the concerted efforts of thousands of health workers, vaccinators, and epidemiologists. Over time, the social movement to end Polio reduced the number of polio cases by over 99%. As a society, we not only learned how to activate the medical community and the public to address a devastating disease, but how to address future public health crises. 

Not every Grand Challenge is so large in scale. In 2017, the American Nurses Association launched “Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation” after recognizing that America’s 4 million registered nurses’ health was worse than the average American’s in every dimension except smoking. The ANA responded with a Grand Challenge to engage nurses, employers, and partner organizations around improving nurses’ health. I participated by helping to conceive, design, and execute the initiative. Just three years into the endeavor, the COVID pandemic dealt its calamitous blow. This illustrates the chaotic and emergent nature of the problem “Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation” addressed. The ANA remains committed to pursuing holistic approaches to nurses’ wellbeing directly and through strategic partners.

The Territory of Grand Challenges

A variety of entities undertake Grand Challenges, including governments, research institutions, universities, non-profit organizations, and private industry. In some cases, Grand Challenges may be initiated by a single organization or individual, while in other cases they involve joint efforts among multiple organizations and stakeholders.

 High-profile examples of organizations undertaking Grand Challenges include the National Science Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the XPRIZE Foundation. They have tackled climate change, global health, renewable energy, space exploration, and education.

Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama, posted on the White House Blog in 2012 that the Grand Challenge approach can:

  • Help solve important economic and societal problems;
  • Serve as a “North Star” for high-impact, multi-disciplinary collaborations among government, industry, universities, non-profits, and philanthropists;
  • Create a foundation for industries and jobs of the future;
  • Capture public imagination and increase support for public policies that foster science, technology, and innovation; and
  • Inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

While traditional approaches can be useful for making incremental progress in well-understood areas, Grand Challenges are necessary for addressing complex, multifaceted, and systemic problems. This is doubly true where the urgency of the problem makes it clear that there is no time to address an issue incrementally. 

Milestones in Grand Challenges

The term “Grand Challenge” was first coined in 1900 by a German mathematician, David Hilbert, who used it to describe 23 mathematical problems that, once solved, would enable further progress in his field. The term spread from mathematics to other sciences. 

The concept of addressing significant societal problems can be traced back to the 1960s, with efforts like the U.S. Surgeon General’s war on tobacco smoking launched in 1964 or Ralph Nader’s campaign for auto safety that led to federally-mandated seat belt use in 1966. These ambitious projects tackled complex public problems through large-scale initiatives that fit today’s definition of a Grand Challenge. 

 The term gained prominence when Bill Gates referred to the Hilbert origin story while announcing the 14 scientific goals that made up his Global Health Initiative’s 2003 Grand Challenges. In 2008, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) announced 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering for the 21st Century—a call to action that offered opportunities and challenges affecting the quality of life. Academic institutions got on board with Grand Challenges aimed at improving higher education’s affordability, access, and accountability. The Obama Administration supported the identification and pursuit of Grand Challenges and called on companies, research institutions, foundations, and philanthropists to join in. 

When John Kania and Mark Kramer published in 2011 on their Collective Impact model, change agents found a model that contributed greatly to the ability of an organization to lead and implement a Grand Challenge initiative. (I will post on Medium about how I use that model in my work.)

Today, Grand Challenges have become an important tool for addressing the most pressing issues facing society, because this approach drives innovation, progress, and positive social change where the issue is complex and multiple stakeholders must work together to make an impact.

Grand Challenges: Background, Impact, and Implications

The Future of Grand Challenges

Grand Challenges are providing a framework for bringing together diverse stakeholders and deep expertise from multiple fields to work together towards a common goal. 

As a Grand Challenge facilitator, I follow the work of thought leaders across the STEM fields, academia, business, and elsewhere. Michelle Popowitz, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research at UCLA, is one such thought leader, whose work I admire and with whom I connect occasionally. Thomas Kalil, who is now Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures, is another. 

I particularly like that he recognizes the role of America’s creatives in driving innovation. In a 2012 speech at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation titled “The Grand Challenges of the 21st Century,” he said, “Things that may seem like science fiction one day–like a cloak of invisibility or a tricorder–can rapidly become science fact.” I loved the original Star Trek series; when it first aired, it inspired me to imagine a hope-filled future for all beings, driven by limitless synergy between compassion, science, and the arts. 

Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL–it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders.

If you’re passionate about Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium page, where you can find a list of all my articles on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.

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