TIME 2030

The World's Biggest Problems Are Interconnected. Here's How We Can Solve Them This Decade

how can we solve world problems

T wo decades ago, people around the world rang in the new millennium with a growing sense of optimism. The threat posed by the Cold War was fading slowly in the rearview mirror. Leading thinkers like Francis Fukuyama touted the benefits of globalization , saying it would bring democracy and prosperity to the developing world. The nascent Internet economy promised to bring us closer together.

The following 20 years took some of the air out of the assumption of steady progress, but when future historians assess the 21st century, the year 2020 is likely to serve as the point at which the optimism bubble burst. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a complex web of interlocking problems that have morphed into full-blown crises. The coronavirus laid bare the dangers of endemic poverty not only in the developing world but also in rich countries like the U.S., where millions lack health care and are one paycheck away from living on the street. Around the world, racial and ethnic minorities have demanded justice after centuries of structural discrimination. Woven through it all, the earth’s climate is increasingly unstable, posing an existential threat to human society as we know it. In the next decade, societies will be forced to either confront this snarl of challenges, or be overwhelmed by them. Our response will define the future for decades to come.

The recognition that these challenges are fundamentally linked isn’t new. Activists and academics have for many years pointed to the cascading effects of various social ills. Whether it’s the way racism contributes to poor health outcomes or gender discrimination harms economic growth , the examples are seemingly endless. But this understanding has made its way into the conversation about solutions too.

Notably, for the past five years, the U.N. has touted 17 interrelated sustainable development goals, objectives for building a more viable world, and called for a push to achieve them by 2030. The goals, which cover environmental, social and economic progress, are nonbinding but have become key benchmarks for commitments at a national and corporate level. Countries from China to the Maldives, as well as companies like Amazon , Microsoft and PwC, have committed to rolling out policies over the next decade that will set them on a path to eliminate their carbon footprints.

The understanding that these problems require holistic solutions has only grown amid the pandemic and its fallout. President Joe Biden has referred to four urgent crises—the pandemic, the economic crisis, racial injustice and climate change—and promised a push to tackle them all together. The European Union’s program to propel the bloc out of the COVID-19 crisis targets climate change, while incorporating equity concerns. As stock markets soared last year, institutions with trillions of dollars in assets demanded that their investments deliver not only a good return for their wallets but also a good return for society.

All these developments and many more have created new opportunities for bold ideas . These new ways of thinking will come from government leaders, to be sure, but also from activists, entrepreneurs and academics. Here, our eight inaugural members of the 2030 committee offer their own specific solutions—and in them, perhaps, the seeds of 21st century optimism.

This appears in the February 1, 2021 issue of TIME.

Write to Justin Worland at [email protected] .

how can we solve world problems

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How to solve the world's biggest problems

Nature volume  525 ,  pages 308–311 ( 2015 ) Cite this article

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Interdisciplinarity has become all the rage as scientists tackle climate change and other intractable issues. But there is still strong resistance to crossing borders.

how can we solve world problems

Asking for US$40 million is never easy, but Theodore Brown knew his pitch would be a particularly tough sell. As vice-chancellor for research at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in the early 1980s, Brown had been tasked with soliciting a major donation from wealthy chemist and entrepreneur Arnold Beckman, a graduate of the university. Beckman was hesitant, believing that the university should receive most of its support from the state. So Brown decided to devise a project like nothing he had ever seen before.

In 1983, he and his colleagues put together a proposal for an institute that had little chance of being funded through normal channels. It would defy the powerful disciplinary cartography that defines many modern universities, bringing together members of different departments and inducing them to work together on common projects. Brown argued that it would allow faculty members to tackle bigger scientific and societal questions than they normally could.

how can we solve world problems

“The problems challenging us today, the ones really worth working on, are complex, require sophisticated equipment and intellectual tools, and just don't yield to a narrow approach,” he says. “The traditional structure of university departments and colleges was not conducive to cooperative, interdisciplinary work.”

It was an early example of the push for interdisciplinary research that is now sweeping universities around the globe. Although Brown was not completely alone — the interdisciplinary Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico was founded around the same time — he was advocating crossing boundaries before it became fashionable. And his proposal met strong resistance. Department heads fretted that faculty members — and their grants — would be snatched away. Some colleagues scorned Brown's idea of creating open office spaces to foster interactions between graduate students: surely the din would make it impossible to get serious work done. And then there was the stigma. “Interdisciplinary research is for people who aren't good enough to make it in their own field,” an illustrious physicist chided.

But Beckman liked the idea and committed the full $40-million asking price — at that time, the largest-ever private donation to a US public university. A few hectic years later, the 29,000-square-metre Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology was born.

The institute struggled to recruit a qualified director willing to take a chance on the new model, so Brown took the helm. Soon, large grants from organizations such as the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation poured in, hushing many critics. By the time Brown left the institute in 1993, other leading universities were sending delegations there to learn from the model. Researchers from Beckman — which now has more than 200 affiliated faculty members — have achieved attention-grabbing results, including helping to create one of the first graphical web browsers.

Since the Beckman was founded, the interdisciplinary model has spread around the world, countering the trend towards specialization that had dominated science since the Second World War. Cross-cutting institutes have sprouted up in the United States, Europe, Japan, China and Australia, among other places, as researchers seek to solve complex problems such as climate change, sustainability and public-health issues. The interdisciplinary trend can be seen in publication data, where more than one-third of the references in scientific papers now point to other disciplines . “The problems in the world are not within-discipline problems,” says Sharon Derry, an educational psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies interdisciplinarity. “We have to bring people with different kinds of skills and expertise together. No one has everything that's needed to deal with the issues that we're facing.”

how can we solve world problems

Even so, supporters of interdisciplinary research say that it has been slow to catch on, and those who do cross academic disciplines face major challenges when applying for grants, seeking promotions or submitting papers to high-impact journals. In many cases, scientists say, the trend is nothing more than a fashionable label. “There's a huge push to call your work interdisciplinary,” says David Wood, a bioengineer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “But there's still resistance to doing actual interdisciplinary science.”

Highly disciplined

The idea of dividing academic inquiry into discrete categories dates back to Plato and Aristotle, but by the sixteenth century, Francis Bacon and other philosophers were mourning the fragmentation of knowledge.

One problem lay in the rapid growth of science: there was too much information spread across the disciplines for any one person to handle. Science historian Peter Weingart of Bielefeld University in Germany points to Carl Linnaeus's taxonomic treatise Systema Naturae as an example: between its first edition in 1735 and its last in 1768, the catalogue swelled from 10 pages to 2,300, covering 7,000 species.

In the nineteenth century, the disciplinary boundaries of the modern university started to take root. The disciplines surged in number and power after the Second World War, as nations, particularly the United States, boosted their research support. “It's the moment when universities increased exponentially,” says Vincent Larivière, an information scientist at the University of Montreal in Canada. “And the size of the university increased by creating more departments.”

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union also played a part, says Weingart. The Soviets boasted a research programme geared towards solving societal problems, for example improving agriculture to boost food security. By contrast, US President Dwight Eisenhower argued that basic research should be untethered. “In the field of intellectual exploration, true freedom can and must be practised,” he said in a 1959 speech. And although basic research need not necessarily be disciplinary, it does not have the same pressure towards interdisciplinarity as does applied research.

Specialities proliferated as individual disciplines were repeatedly subdivided. Biology was split into botany and zoology, then into evolutionary biology, molecular biology, microbiology, biochemistry, biophysics, bioengineering and more. Late last year, Jerry Jacobs, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, counted the number of biology-related departments at Michigan State University in East Lansing. There were nearly 40.

We have to bring people with different kinds of skills and expertise together. No one has everything that's needed.

From this thicket, the term 'interdisciplinary' emerged. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to December 1937, in a sociology journal. But even at that time, some believed that the word was already overused. In a report to the US Social Science Research Council in August that year, a sociologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois lumped 'interdisciplinarity' in with other “catch phrases and slogans which were not sufficiently critically examined” ( R. Frank Items 40, 73–78; 1988 ).

As an academic movement, interdisciplinarity caught on during the 1970s and has been growing ever since, says Larivière. He credits that rise in part to libraries, which began to stockpile subscriptions and improved researchers' access to journals in alternative fields. A particle physicist could more easily browse biology journals, say. Furthermore, the US focus began to shift from basic research and scientific liberty back to societal problems such as environmental protection, which can rarely be tackled by a single discipline.

The United States was not alone: in 1994, an influential book partially sponsored by the Swedish Council for Planning and Coordination of Research called The New Production of Knowledge (Sage) predicted, among other things, an increasingly interdisciplinary future as science seeks to solve socially relevant questions. That book had an impact, says Larivière, particularly in the European Union's Fifth Framework funding programme, which ran from 1998 to 2002 and emphasized interdisciplinary, problem-oriented research.

Soon, interdisciplinary institutes began to sprout up around the world, each with its own unique structure and purpose. One of the first, the Santa Fe Institute, founded in 1984, focused on applying advanced mathematics and computational skills to a range of disciplines. Others, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research in Cambridge, or the neuroscience-focused Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, tackle questions within a specific discipline but draw in work from other fields. And some, such as the Monash Sustainability Institute in Clayton, Australia, focus on specific problems.

how can we solve world problems

Even as the trend gained momentum, interdisciplinary researchers continued to hit the same hurdles that Brown had encountered. In 1998, chemist Richard Zare at Stanford University in California helped to launch the interdisciplinary institute Bio-X. But an influential colleague urged him not to move his lab into the Bio-X building. Doing so would essentially take Zare away from the chemistry department and his committee and teaching duties there, the colleague argued, weakening the department.

Although he was well established, Zare worried about going against the establishment. “It was very serious,” he says. The risk is even greater for young professors seeking tenure, he notes.

In 2004, in response to the growing interest in interdisciplinary work — and the challenges that face those who attempt it — the US National Academies released a report called Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research . The authors advised institutions to lower barriers, for example by making budgets flexible so that costs could be shared across departments.

There is constant pressure on me to make a cross-faculty, cross-institution alliance. If I want to build a new building, The more allies I have, the easier it is to raise the money.

The publication drew a large audience. It has been downloaded more than 7,600 times and had impact beyond US shores. At Durham University, UK, says physicist Tom McLeish, administrators referred to the report when they were forging a series of on-campus interdisciplinary centres. Around that time, McLeish was serving as pro-vice-chancellor of research, and saw interdisciplinarity as a way to make the small university shine on the world stage. He battled with department chairs who feared that the centres would reduce their budgets, and he worked to set up a promotion system that rewards investigators on large team grants in the same way as those on single-investigator grants. The university now has interdisciplinary centres on topics ranging from resilience — both ecological and psychological — to the history of medieval science.

The interdisciplinary trend is also growing in Asia. In 2000, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) laid out a plan for interdisciplinary research, and universities have launched several cross-cutting centres over the past decade, including the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies at Peking University in Beijing. The NSFC plans to launch further interdisciplinary projects in the coming years, says Yonghe Zheng, deputy director-general of the foundation's Bureau of Science Policy. “China is a developing country,” he says. “So the universities and institutes can quickly set up some new centres which reflect the new trend in interdisciplinary research.”

Nanyang Technological University in Singapore established its Interdisciplinary Graduate School in 2012; it already has 335 students, out of a total graduate-school population of 2,000. Nanyang's interdisciplinary graduate programme, which bills itself as the first of its kind in Asia, was designed in part to expand the university's fundraising options, says Bo Liedberg, dean of the programme. Because industry is often focused on real-world problems that cross disciplines, an interdisciplinary programme could foster more collaborations with business, he reasons.

how can we solve world problems

That focus on interdisciplinarity as a revenue stream is widespread, says Merlin Crossley, a molecular biologist and dean of the faculty of life sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “There is constant pressure on me to make a cross-faculty, cross-institution alliance,” he says. “If I want to build a new building, the more allies I have, the easier it is to raise the money.” Arizona State University in Tempe saw its federal funding rise by 162% from 2003 to 2012 as it promoted interdisciplinarity across its campus .

Despite this pressure, interdisciplinarity's reach remains modest. For every Nanyang or Durham, there are hundreds of universities that have not embraced significant change. Departmental dividers remain in place — and in power — at most institutions, says Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City who co-chaired the committee that wrote the National Academies report more than a decade ago. “It has been an enormous disappointment.”

For institutions or programmes that have embraced interdisciplinarity, the transition has not always been easy. The most common mistake is underestimating the depth of commitment and personal relationships needed for a successful interdisciplinary project, says Laura Meagher, a consultant based near St Andrews, UK, who coaches interdisciplinary teams. “You see people who think it's not much more than stapling a bunch of CVs to the back of a proposal,” she says. “They don't realize that it takes time to build a relationship.”

When the push for collaboration comes from the top, some of that focus on personal relationships could be lost — leaving the project to suffer, she says. The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in London, which since 2004 has coordinated and carried out sustainable-energy research, learned how delicate interdisciplinary relationships can be, says Mark Winskel, a social and political scientist at the University of Edinburgh who evaluated the centre's first decade. Its initial five-year phase went well, he says, and culminated in a key publication: Energy 2050 , which synthesized the institution's results and translated them into recommendations. But the next five-year phase failed to produce a similar achievement.

You see people who think it's not much more than stapling a bunch of CVs to the back of a proposal. They don't realize that it takes time to build a relationship.

Winskel surveyed members and found that changes in the UKERC's structure designed to open it to a wider community — for example by offering several rounds of fresh grants in the middle of phase two — had upset some established long-term relationships. “We became a more diverse community of scholars and disciplines,” he says. “But that also means you become less cohesive.” The UKERC learned from the experience: its third phase, launched in May 2014, aims to provide more stability for collaborative relationships.

Social scientists in particular often face that lack of cohesion , says Thomas Heberlein, a social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. When funders emphasize the societal impacts of the work they support, social scientists are often called in to assess the broader implications of a project. But, he says, it is obvious — and insulting — when a social scientist is asked to join a project as a way to tick a box, without a true commitment to incorporating the discipline into the project.

Social struggle

Several UK studies have found that social scientists are less likely than researchers in other disciplines to want to participate in interdisciplinary projects. For Heberlein, who has long collaborated with ecologists and environmental scientists, one of the stumbling blocks is what he calls “the hegemony of the natural sciences”. Those disciplines tend to be held in higher esteem than more qualitative fields such as the social sciences, and they are deemed more rigorous by funders and researchers , he says. That imbalance leads to frustration and undermines collaboration. Heberlein, whose speciality is in conducting surveys of public opinions, says that natural scientists often naively suggest that they can design and execute surveys themselves using an Internet tool such as SurveyMonkey. Heberlein disagrees: “It's really hard to do the stuff we do,” he says. “Our measurements are complicated.”

how can we solve world problems

Lack of respect can run in many directions when different kinds of researchers come together. Wood says that bioengineers are always cautioned against having their grants reviewed by panels of biologists, who may be dismissive of engineering research goals and measurements. But he has also served on review panels in which engineers have recoiled at the limitations of clinical research.

As more researchers become involved with interdisciplinary work, the mutual suspicion has started to ease. There have also been some signs of success in the funding arena. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, says that interdisciplinary proposals fare as well as, or slightly better than, more conventional applications. The European Research Council, by contrast, has noted that interdisciplinary grant proposals on average do not fare as well in review panels as projects that are narrower in scope.

The atmosphere for publishing is also mixed. Interdisciplinary researchers have long complained that it is difficult to get their papers into top-tier disciplinary journals. Heberlein says that the rise of interdisciplinary journals has helped in his field, but he worries about the standard of some of the papers they publish. And he questions the wisdom of training graduate students across disciplines before they have immersed themselves in the rigours of one area. “You've got to develop your disciplinary skills first,” he says. “The bad news is the quality of this research is pretty bad and may be getting worse.”

Many view the institutional push for interdisciplinarity as an experiment in progress. “The celebrations have begun, but the actual data on what kind of difference this makes are not in,” says Scott Frickel, a sociologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

As more institutions adopt new ways to organize research, some are also trying to rethink their assessment processes, says McLeish. In July, Veronica Strang at Durham and McLeish released a report called Evaluating Interdisciplinary Research , and he was surprised when academic societies and funders flocked to learn more. “We didn't anticipate that we'd be launching this report into an atmosphere where everyone wants to know this,” he says.

And the pace of change varies across the globe. In the United States, the NIH ran a programme to stimulate interdisciplinary research from 2004 to 2012. It resulted in some changes, such as starting to recognize multiple principal investigators on what had been considered single-investigator grants — a switch that removed a disincentive to collaborate. Since then, the agency has not perceived a need to follow up with any other incentives, noting that there are more than 4,000 active NIH-funded research projects that bill themselves as interdisciplinary. “Our general sense is that interdisciplinary research has become a very standard way of doing science,” says Betsy Wilder, head of the NIH Office of Strategic Coordination. “It really pervades NIH funding.”

how can we solve world problems

In some other countries, the experiment has just begun. Chemist Ayyappanpillai Ajayaghosh, director of the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram, India, says that momentum is building in his country to promote more interdisciplinary projects. In Japan, theoretical physicist Tetsuo Hatsuda left the University of Tokyo in part because he felt that the boundaries between disciplines were too heavily enforced there. In 2013, he joined the RIKEN research institute in Wako, Japan, and launched an interdisciplinary team of theoretical physicists, chemists and biologists to work out techniques that will accelerate all three fields. He hopes that the effort will stimulate more interdisciplinary work in the country. “Japan is a little behind other countries,” he says. “Theoretical science is a good starting point because it is easy for us to interact.”

Some 25 years after it opened, the Beckman Institute's experiment in interdisciplinary research has been a success, says Brown. The centre continues to attract distinguished faculty members and large team grants — last year it won a research contract worth up to $12.7 million from the federal government's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity programme — even though competition for such money has increased as more universities build interdisciplinary teams.

And Brown bristles at the suggestion that the global push for interdisciplinarity might be a fad. “The answer is a resounding 'no',” he says. “Things have changed — now people focus on big problems, and if you go for a big problem you need to be interdisciplinary.”

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An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the report Evaluating Interdisciplinary Research to Tom McLeish and his colleagues at Durham. The authors were Veronica Strang and McLeish. The text has been updated.

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Europe’s superlab: Sir Paul’s cathedral 2015-Jun-23

Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy 2015-Apr-01

Arizona's big bet: The research rethink 2014-Oct-15

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The Borgen Project

Top Problems in the World That Can Be Solved

problems in the world that can be solved

Top Problems that can be Solved

The Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank that researches the smartest solutions to global issues, organized a panel of five distinguished economists in 2012 to set priorities for fighting the 10 top problems in the world that can be solved:

The panel was asked to describe the best ways to advance global welfare, specifically that of developing countries. The experts then assembled a prioritized list of thirty solutions.

Solutions to the World’s Issues

The number one solution was “bundled interventions to reduce undernutrition in pre-schoolers” and addressed the challenge of hunger and education. Some other proposals high on the list were subsidies for malaria combination treatment and expanding childhood immunization coverage.

The group of experts covered topics besides health, with solutions ranging from investing in early warning systems for natural disasters to increased funding for green energy.

With this list in mind, world leaders at the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Sept. 2015. On Jan. 1, 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replaced the eight Millennium Development Goals of 2015.

The new 17 SDGs were to:

A New Set of Problems

80,000 Hours, an independent nonprofit organization that researches how graduates can make the biggest difference possible with their careers, came up with another list defining problems in the world that can be solved. Drawing from research from groups such as the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and the Copenhagen Consensus Center, 80,000 Hours created a framework to rate global issues.

The organization based its scoring on how solving the problem would reduce the risk of extinction , raise the global economic output, increase the income among the world’s poorest 2 billion people and save years of healthy life. It also used factors like the amount of good done compared to the percent of the problem solved and the number of resources required.

Risks from artificial intelligence topped 80,000 Hours’ list  out of 11. Also on the list were biosecurity, developing world health and climate change. Other issues 80,000 Hours has yet to rate include science policy and infrastructure, cheap green energy and promoting human rights. The group indicates that improving health would be more beneficial than topics like empowering the poor and education.

Due to how differently each solution overlaps with others there are various ways to rank a list of top problems in the world that can be solved. Thankfully, experts are doing their best to target issues to focus on and world leaders are taking calculated steps to implement solutions to such issues.

– Connie Loo

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“The Borgen Project is an incredible nonprofit organization that is addressing poverty and hunger and working towards ending them.”

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UGA Today

How do people solve global problems?

how can we solve world problems

Developing a vaccine is an example of the way to tackle big issues

What do the 3,000-year-old actions of an Egyptian pharaoh say about how we should tackle the biggest challenges of the 21st century?

Quite a bit, according to anthropologists at the University of Georgia who analyzed archeological evidence over thousands of years to examine how societies have approached adversity. Their work suggests that rigid, top-down approaches to complex problems have been a doomed strategy throughout human history. Instead, solutions to our most complex challenges begin and end with cooperation and varied, well-functioning institutions.

The researchers observed that healthy societies tend to have multiple institutions that deal with somewhat distinct problems – such as health care and environmental pollution — and that abolishing them or over-centralizing their functions usually blocks the path to critical solutions.

how can we solve world problems

Stephen Kowalewski

“Climate change and a global pandemic are some of the biggest problems humanity has ever faced,” said Stephen Kowalewski, Professor Emeritus of anthropology and the study’s co-author. “Throughout history, humans have always solved big problems by forming social institutions, groups of people organized to respond to a variety of issues. Since people are always faced with multiple, different problems, they tend to create institutions that are varied in origin as well as purpose.”

But societies that swiftly abolish old institutions or centralize power are not equipped in the long-term for complex problems.

Take, for example, Pharaoh Akhenaten (circa 1350 B.C.) in New Kingdom Egypt. The pharaoh imposed a monotheistic religion throughout his kingdom and attempted to eliminate temples and cults associated with all other gods. He also shuttered diplomatic institutions, leading to the breakdown of international relations, adverse military actions and loss of territory.

Twentieth-century attempts to totalize — that is, to abolish existing institutions or to tightly control them as in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia — can build enormous power initially, but that power does not endure.

The research suggests that if humanity wants to solve contemporary global problems, the solutions must be social and organizational.

how can we solve world problems

Jennifer Birch

“Totalizing institutions do not work. There has to be a lot of buy-in from small groups throughout a society,” said Jennifer Birch, associate professor in the department of anthropology and co-author on the study. “We need to have effective institutional responses that can compel people to act in a certain way. We can’t do it as individuals. You need effective coordination of institutions across multiple levels of society to reach enough people to cause real change.”

This method of problem solving can be seen in the development of coronavirus vaccines.

“The speed of the development, from the biotechnology to communications to peer-reviewed publishing, trials and governmental approvals are the result of decentralized efforts that create the possibility, and hopefully the reality, of a successful response,” said Kowalewski. “This isn’t a race for a winner but a global collaboration.”

This paper is published in the new book, “The Evolution of Social Institutions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.”

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How to solve all the world's problems, the best answer we've found so far (a few humble tips for world-changers).

Now is not the time for sweaty palms. Because that would, like create some pretty weird polar ice caps. (Or, maybe somebody needs a humanicure/bipedicure? Is this thing on?)

article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Blake

Let's start with a really interesting (and true) story.

Once upon a time, there was a very smart, very earnest guy who wanted to change the world.

He wanted to cure poverty in Africa.

"The debate is over...We know how to end poverty in our lifetime" he said. He was no dreamy-eyed, bong-banging hippie: a Harvard professor, director of Earth Institute at Columbia, worked with the UN, credential salad, etc.

He believed that poverty was a problem that could be solved. And was willing to solve it himself.

He was given $120 million dollars.

How did it turn out?

Well, you can read the full story in The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, which tells the story in some detail.

The Cliffs Notes version?

Why are we telling this story?

Because we think it illustrates a good point.

Wanting to change the world isn't enough .

Being sincere, earnest, and having good intentions isn't enough .

Being "smart" isn't enough.

Having tons of money and resources at your disposal isn't enough.

So then, if all this isn't enough... what is?

How do you really change the world in a way that's truly effective, and that doesn't just make a bigger mess of things?

Let's explore.

The world has problems.

Let's start there. This is our premise.

These problems range from big to small, near to far, high to low.

We can rattle off some real unbearables pretty easily: war, famine, cancer, poison ivy, tyranny, corruption, oppression, death, famous people who are famous because they're famous, daytime television, the heat death of the universe...and so on. Just to name a few.

Naturally, anyone with a bit of spunk in them becomes aware of these problems and wants to solve them.

At this point, much of the time, folks will dash off with the best of intentions and proceed to create a flood of new problems.

But some don't.

how can we solve world problems

Those with a certain degree of smarts in them stop for a minute or two and ask the key question:

" How do I solve the world's problems?"

Of course, there are plenty of other forks in the road we could take here. For example, the “why?” question - as in “ Why do you want to solve all the world’s problems?" Or the responsibility question: “Is it really your responsibility to solve all of the world’s problems?" And of course, there's the good old "it's impossible" angle, and plenty more.

We did figure out how to solve one problem. Only 6 trillion, 937 billion or so more to go.

At this point, we're just going to skip by those & keep traveling the trail we're on. (If we need temporary "working hypotheses" to keep us moving, for now, we can just not assume the worst. Meaning, we'll assume for the "why" question, the "because we want to" is good enough. For the responsibility question, we'll assume that, sure, it really is up to us; and for the good old "impossible" question, we'll just assume a certain amount of the "spunk" factor in that we won't assume at this point that it can't be done. We'll revisit these questions later...but for now, on to the "how.")

So...how to solve all the world's problems?

Well, one thing we can also be pretty sure of: it's going to be difficult.

It might even be really difficult. It might even be harder than giving up sugar or watching daytime television. It might even be so difficult that it tests us to the very core of our being.

So if it's going to be that difficult, we're going to have to get in shape.

Not just physical shape. We're going to have to be mentally and emotionally strong . We're going to need to be able to handle stress. We're going to need to understand happiness (we can't really make the rest of the world happy if we're miserable ourselves, right?) - and, if we're really serious about it, we'll probably want to look into "antifragile happiness." We're going to need a lot of virtues - courage, for example, and fortitude - so we're going to have to become a certain kind of "character." Probably more of a "character" than we are right now.

This old guy barged in and kept telling us he'd figured it out, and kept trying to explain it to us. Eventually we figured out that he was talking about that horse-and-buggy situation above.

We're also going to need to be sane . After all, if we set about fixing all the world's problems while being a little crazy ourselves -like many of the rest of the folks who have attempted this feat before - then we're likely to do more harm than good. (And that, exactly, has been the result of all those others who have attempted this before us. More on this to come.)

So we need to be sane, in touch with "reality" - no moral narcissism , no god complexes , no busybody syndrome, no martyr complexes, no raw lust for power, and so on.

In a few words: we'll need to know ourselves .

A lot of folks skip this part.

After all, we study the universe, but we often forget to study the mind that we're using to study the universe with.

Which is to say, most folks forget to study themselves first.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said it well:

"What will bring peace is inward transformation, which will lead to outward action. Inward transformation is not isolation, is not withdrawal from outward action. On the contrary, there can be right action only when there is right thinking and there is no right thinking when there is no self-knowledge. Without knowing yourself, there is no peace..."

So, coming even this far in the problem is good progress. At the very least, we've quite possibly dodged a few misadventures.

After all, a person who knows themselves, is basically sane, is physically, mentally, and emotionally strong, and even - to dust off an old-fashioned yarn-spinner - " virtuous " - well, chances are that person is already doing the world some good, in ways small and unnoticed or big and well-known, wherever they go.

But it isn't solving all the world's problems yet. So we'll keep going.

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." - Leo Tolstoy

Part of being "sane," it seems, means this: we can't base our personal happiness on the results - the outcome - of this endeavor.

After all, if this effort is going to be even moderately difficult or more, and if plenty of people have attempted this before and failed...then it's likely, at the very least, going to take some time.

And if we've based our happiness on the outcome, on succeeding ...well, that means we probably aren't going to be very happy until we've solved all the world's problems.

And that would be bad for us. Which is a problem. (After all, we'd be unhappy.) Which would mean that we actually haven't solved all the world's problems.

But also, it also makes us less likely to succeed. After all, the idea of some unhappy person who is trying to fix the world, but is a mess themselves, is not entirely unfamiliar. And probably never ends well.

In other words, this seems like a good idea: don't try to cover the world in leather; put on shoes.

"Wanting to reform the world without discovering one's true self is like trying to cover the world with leather to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns. It is much simpler to wear shoes." - Ramana Maharshi

So we need to base our happiness on something other than our success at this endeavor.

But what should we base our happiness on, if not that? This is something else we'll have to investigate .

This makes intuitive sense: if we try to "fix the world" without being "fixed" ourselves, we could well be going about it backwards.

For example, one way of looking at this - using religious phraseology - is to say that "trying to fix the world" is something along the lines of trying to create some kind of "heaven" on earth.

To use some religious language for a moment, as Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov says, "divine order" or "heaven" "...cannot be imposed from the outside. Only once the kingdom of God is established within us, will it also come about in the world. Therefore, it is our responsibility to work and establish within ourselves the order and harmony from above."

A lot of signs point in this direction. Work on ourselves first; then work on "the world."

“When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree. The world is perfect. It's a mess. It has always been a mess. We are not going to change it. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.” - Joseph Campbell

In the meantime, one other thing is pretty certain:

if we're going to even have any chance of success in this, we're going to have to understand how the world really works.

More specifically, we're going to have to understand two things: 1) getting things done through other people; and 2) unintended consequences.

We pretty much figured it all out. Really. But then we came down off the drug we were on, and forgot what we had figured out.

In regards to getting things done through other people...well, we can assume that we aren't going to be able to do this ourselves. After all, the world is full of people. So we'll have to be pretty good at relationships to get much of anything done. And in regards to being pretty good at relationships, we know it's not enough to just walk out and start bossing people around. You have to go deeper.

Ken Wilber said it well:

"...They think that in order to fix the world's problems we need to do something in the exterior world - we need to stop polluting the atmosphere, we need to control guns, we need to stop nuclear testing, we need to move to solar power, we need to...always something to fix in the exterior world.

Those are all important, but the real problems are on the interior - we need to help consciousness evolve from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric, or else people won't want to fix all those things in the exterior world to begin with!"

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” ― Confucius

In regards to the second aspect of understanding how the world really works before rushing out to save it: we have to understand unintended consequences.

By "unintended consequences," we mean the simple scenario: "I have good intentions; I tried to make X happen, but it turns out that Y happened instead."

The world is full of examples of folks with good intentions (especially ones who aren't all that happy or aren't totally sane) rushing out to change the world for the better...and creating a total disaster. More often than not, they even wind up hurting the very people they were trying to help.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A few examples are in order.

A politician promises "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" while running for office; seven months after taking office, we got hit with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. (The politician was Herbert Hoover).

Another idealistic politician promises farmers a bright future where his citizens/voters will have pork to eat every day (good intention). Not long after, somewhere between 15 and 45 million people die of famine (The Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961). (Bad result).

But let's try something smaller and more simple. Some folks simply want bicyclists to be safer (good intention), so required them to wear helmets. As a result of that, after a certain period of time, more bicyclists actually began dying. (Bad result). Why? It turns out that didn't want to wear helmets, so they stopped riding bikes, so became less healthy & more disease-prone.

A group of folks became concerned about the number of poisonous snakes in the area, and wanted to help (good intention). So they offered reward money for every dead snake. This seemed to work for a while. But then, some folks started breeding snakes just so they could turn them in for the reward money. Once everyone realized what was happening, they stopped giving the rewards for snakes. At that point, all the snake-breeders turned their snakes loose...and there were more snakes than before. (Bad result.)

So we worked for a few more years, then we pretty much figured it all out again. Really. But then we came down off the drug we were on, and forgot what we had figured out again.

A different group of folks saw the number of automobile accidents caused by texting and driving. So they decided to pass a law against texting while driving. (Good intention). What they discovered eventually was that the number of automobile accidents actually increased . (Bad result). Why? People still texted while driving, but since there were laws against it, they had to hide their phones and hold them lower, which resulted in them focusing even less on the road. More crashes ensued.

We could go on. (If you want to dig deeper along these lines, a good place to start in one area is here , or here .)

The moral of all this is something along these lines: everything is more complicated than we think it is.

At least, it's a good rule of thumb to assume that everything is always more complicated than we think it is.

It's also good to assume that things don't ever turn out the way we expect them to. In other words, "expect the unexpected." Things won't go as planned. Plan for that.

"I'm still more frightened by the fearless power in the eyes of my fellow psychiatrists than by the powerless fear in the eyes of their patients." - R. D. Laing

We also can't assume that good intentions are all that matters, or that good intentions will create good results in the real world. As shown in the examples above, good intentions can create a lot of unnecessary suffering.

But when we persist even in spite of this happening, it becomes a case of "moral narcissism," where the important thing is how the do-gooder feels about themselves, not how much the victim of all this goodness is harmed by it.

And anyone who winds up inflicting the world with their moral narcissism, especially if they don't have a good grasp on what's really, actually happening out there in the world as a result of their actions, can paradoxically turn them into someone who is actually creating more problems in the world. All the more reason why sanity is mandatory.

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." - C. S. Lewis

So, let's back up a bit more.

What we're really saying is, first we need to understand the world.

In order to "understand the world," we need to understand the nature of the world.

To understand "the nature of the world" means truly, deeply understanding what the world is, where it came from, why it came to be (if there is anything that could be described as a "reason why"), and what our place is in it.

"Seek first to understand, then to be understood." - Stephen Covey

Because of course, we are part of "the world."

So before we rush out to try to rearrange and remake everything, that means we need to understand who we are , why we're here , what our place is, what suffering is and what the right thing to do about it is, and who or what, if anything, created this whole crazy scene . In other words, we have to really, truly, deeply understand The Big Picture .

At this point, all of the paths we've explored merge.

We need to be mentally and emotionally strong ; we need to be sane ; we need to have some kind of happiness that's based on something solid; we need to understand how the world really works, which means understanding the nature of the world, which means understanding ourselves, which means understanding who we are , where we came from, where we're going, why we're here, what we should be doing while we're here, and so on...in other words, " The Big Picture ."

It seems to us that once we figure all that out, then the rest of the questions we touched on earlier - is the world really fixable, whose responsibility it is to fix it, whether we should "fix it" at all, and if so, why - all of those questions and answers, and more, should become clear as a result.

Of course, figuring out "The Big Picture" is no small feat. It might be even tougher than solving all the world's problems. It would require a lot of character and a lot of experiments.

And in the end - who knows - it might even turn out to be more valuable.

"The one who has conquered himself is a far greater hero than he who has defeated a thousand times a thousand men." - The Dhammapada

"...Yours is the earth, and everything that's in it. And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son." - Rudyard Kipling

Once you get to this point...then when it comes to "solving all the world's problems," (assuming you still see that as worth doing), then it becomes a matter of getting your "to do" list together, and prioritize.

And once you do that, you pick the top priority, and you do the "journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" thing.

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More From Forbes

Bluesky entrepreneurialism: how to solve the world’s problems.

Forbes Books

Why do we often expect someone else – government agencies or some other large nebulous body – to have the answers and ability to solve all the world’s issues? After all, many of us tend to have strong opinions on any number of hot button topics from world hunger and healthcare to climate change. What if we all stopped waiting for someone else to do it? What if smart, capable, innovative individuals and organizations were motivated to leverage their resources to solve these problems?

BlueSky Markets – What Are They?

That’s just what the concept of BlueSky entrepreneurialism proposes. BlueSky markets seek to take these big problems out of the government’s hands and put them in the hands of all those entrepreneurs who will emerge as a result of these exchanges. The idea being that money would be issued directly to fund commodity exchanges that effectively solve these big problems.

The purpose of these projects wouldn’t be to create money just to keep people surviving; they would create money for the purpose of fixing what is broken and making a more sustainable, stable, and compelling future. The impact of these solutions would create a self-supporting cycle that would benefit society in such a freeing and motivating way – regardless of the cause addressed.

How Would This Really Work?

One example of a solvable problem that urgently needs solving is, of course, global warming. In this case, businesses would bid on the exchange to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Money that is not debt based, taken directly from the Federal Reserve, would pay the lowest bidder to remove the CO2. How much CO2 to remove could now be controlled by entrepreneurs who figure out how to remove the most for the lowest cost. Competition for profits would compel entrepreneurs to figure out how to do it efficiently and effectively. The amount of money used to buy CO2 in the exchange could slowly increase if prices are too high and quickly increase as prices come down. This kind of mechanism means global warming becomes solvable.

How does this happen, just to be clear? Through the creation of special commodities exchanges, where the buyer of the removal of pollutants is money from the general ledger of money at the Federal Reserve. Imagine all that becomes possible in such a scenario. Now there is actual money and incentive to remove plastics from the oceans and nature, take acid out of the oceans, create fisheries in the middle of oceans (where there are no fish currently), save forests and plant trees, the possibilities are endless. The same approach could be just effective for challenges faces our healthcare system, or disease research and management.

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Consider what could happen when we properly fund and incentivize businesses to pursue the common good; it benefits everyone. The Big Solution to our global financial mess recognizes the importance of a social fabric that takes care of everyone. Market strategies like BlueSky entrepreneurialism can help business naturally navigate toward the common good while still making a profit.

Jarl Jensen

To solve big issues like climate change, we need to reframe our problems

how can we solve world problems

Reframing our problems could help yield new solutions to major issues like climate change and gender inequality. Image:  Unsplash / @pinewatt

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  10. To solve big global issues, we must reframe our problems

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