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Nature of Big Problems

Big problems are those that if solved even partly can transform industries, change the way we live, and greatly better people’s lives.  (Several examples can be found on the Home Page.)  Big problems are multi-faceted, complex, systemic, and difficult to solve.  They cut across boundaries marked by disciplines, functions, organizations, industries, societies, and nations.  Deciding what is a big problem and whether it is worth solving is influenced by our values. 

Before tackling any particular big problem, it helps to develop a general understanding about them.  What is their nature?  Why do they continue to exist?  What approaches can be taken to tackle them?  Below are some writings that inform.  Where terms of use by the source allow, the file has been posted for downloading.  Where copyright prevents the posting of files, the source where it can be found has been provided.   

Camillus, John C. (2008). “Strategy as a wicked problem,” Harvard Business Review, May issue, pp. 99-106. (The term wicked problem has also been used to denote big problems.  This article provides a good explanation of the nature of wicked problems and contains ideas for how they can be approached.)

2013 Annual Letter from Bill Gates. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (As one of the most consequential big problem solvers of our times, Bill Gates’ annual letter is informative about several big problems and the work of his foundation.)

Pontin, Jason (2012). “Why we can’t solve big problems,” MIT Technology Review, vol. 115, no. 6, pp. 26-31.  (The essay explains some reasons why we have not taken on the solving of big problems.)