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Solving a Wicked Problem

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food.jpgBy all rights, an alarm should have gone off, or a gong sounded, or a siren wailed. But for 99.9% of us, the event slipped silently by.  Last year at some point, world food consumption pulled out ahead of production.  In other words, we started eating - literally - a hole in our global food supply.

That historic event is just one of many signaling a need to pay serious attention to food security worldwide, Will Hueston, director of the U of M's Global Initiative for Food Systems Leadership, told the audience at IonE's Frontiers in the Environment talk earlier this week.

Plenty of things are challenging food security, Hueston said: population increase, growth of mega-cities, increase demand for animal protein, fewer people working in agriculture, finite amount of arable land, climate change - to name just a few.

Most challenging of all is that food security is a "wicked problem." That means, Hueston explained, that it's a dilemma so complex that no single entity can understand or address it alone, yet so compelling that we have no choice but to act - even though it's not always clear ahead of time whether any particular action is more likely to do good than harm.

How do you solve a wicked problem?

In this instance, at least, it's not a matter of new knowledge. "We don't need any more new technology to feed the world," Hueston said. "This is not a technology problem, folks."

Instead, he said, we need to use systems thinking, and to collaborate. We need to turn to shared leadership, where scientists and the public work together to define and craft solutions. IF we can develop a new way of thinking about solving problems, IF we can create a culture that values and rewards efforts to pursue and apply solutions together, and IF we can apply all of that on a global scale - we just might find a workable solution.

View the video of Hueston's talk here.

Photo by Giuseppe Bizzarri with thanks to the UN World Food Programme.

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.