Blogs, Systems Thinking

Solving Problems vs. Problem Solving?

By Ruth Richardson, Executive Director, Global Alliance for the Future of Food 

With the United Nations Food Systems Summit quickly approaching, there is more and more global attention on the need for food systems transformation. Set to take place later this year, the Summit has been organized around five Action Tracks (ATs). Each one of these has been tasked with identifying “game-changing” solutions, alongside trade-offs, dependencies, and interactions with other tracks. 

Solutions proposed range from providing living incomes and wages across value chains to promoting women-led enterprises to increasing agrobiodiversity to promoting true cost accounting. It is a wide-ranging suite of solutions to address food access, consumption patterns, production, equitable livelihoods, and overall resilience to shocks and stressors. The research, thoughtfulness, collaboration, and hard work that went into identifying this suite of solutions is impressive and the success of the Summit will in large part hinge on elevating and connecting those game-changing solutions that will lead us toward greater equity, rights, resilience, and health. 

There is an even greater opportunity to build our capacity as an interconnected network of local, sub-national, national, and global actors to problem-solve. 

Transforming food systems requires a radical disruption to the status quo structures that dominate our food systems, from the social norms and practices embedded in everyday life to the workings of the powers that be who regulate access to, use of, and control over, resources. Given the range and complexity of factors that impact the production, distribution, and consumption of food, any “solutions” put forward must understand these complexities and be cross-cutting.

Up until now, different models of strategizing and evaluation have been used to develop and understand solutions. These models result in solutions designed to address problems which equate to a simple “win.” While this approach allows for simpler planning, design, and implementation of projects, it risks over-simplifying the interconnectedness of the challenges and solutions for sustainable change. 

A systems-based approach, on the other hand, perceives a “problem space”, or the system in which the problem occurs, and focuses on taking account of all stakeholders, policy drivers, institutions, contexts, diverse and overlapping initiatives, and ongoing adaptation. This approach recognizes that systems are dynamic, unpredictable, and uncontrollable and that problems must be first understood rather than simply “solved.” 

With this approach, every success inevitably leads to new challenges — this means the problem space is never simply solved. There are discrete problems that need solutions. Getting people vaccinated against COVID-19 is a problem to be solved. Creating healthy, equitable, and sustainable food systems that meet the nutritional needs of everyone in diverse and complex contexts is not a simple, solvable problem. It is a dynamic system that requires ways of interacting that benefit everyone and that support adaptation to changes in the environment and context.

It’s a bit like that lateral thinking puzzle about trying to get a fox, a chicken, and a bag of grain in a boat across a river. For every quickly grasped solution, a new problem immediately arises. So, to work in this way, we must build our problem-solving muscle alongside identifying solutions for specific problems. This requires continuous learning, developing a deeper understanding of beliefs and perceptions. Importantly, collectively held principles, such as equity, human rights, resilience, and health can play a powerful role in guiding action. 

It’s also essential to take advantage of tools that enable systems-thinking. For example, true cost accounting frameworks can be a critical tool in building our problem solving muscle, providing users with a full and holistic picture of a system’s myriad impacts. A recent report submitted to the UN Food Systems Summit Secretariat highlighted, for example, that commitments to the Paris Agreement include emissions from agricultural production within the country territory but not those from food produced elsewhere and imported. The same report points out that there is no way to simultaneously connect food systems with climate goals, biodiversity goals, and public health goals, or to assess the robustness of food systems in relation to environmental or other shocks. True cost accounting is a comprehensive framework for assessing food systems at multiple levels including national and sub-national. 

As this piece is published, reports from the National Food Systems Dialogues and Independent Food Systems Dialogues will have been released. These assessments capture major themes and ideas emanating across the dialogues, shining a light on what issues need to be addressed at the Summit, who needs to act on the issues identified, and offer up guidance on meaningful engagement and next steps. As we look ahead to the Pre-Summit in July (26-28th), now is the moment to build our problem-solving muscle and effectively navigate a complex, unpredictable future of food together. 

For a first synthesis of the emerging themes across the Action Tracks captured as part of the Independent Food Systems Dialogues, we encourage you to read this report by the Blue Marble Evaluation team here. This Blue Marble Evaluation analysis is supported by the Global Alliance and members. To find out more about how Blue Marble can be used as a tool for global systems change, read this blog.