Grand Challenges and Why They Matter

Progress can only be defined by the way that major obstacles are overcome. Without hardship, there cannot be progress. Since history itself, humanity has faced many grand challenges that have shaped the world into what it is today, and the grand challenges that we currently face will determine what the future looks like. But what are grand challenges and why are they so important? To start, grand challenges are issues that directly affect humanity as a whole and require multi-stakeholder partnerships and cross disciplinary work to achieve results and find a solution within a given time frame. This term was first coined during the cold war, when the Kennedy administration ambitiously set out to land man on the moon for the first time. In 1961, Kennedy announced to the country: “before this decade is out, [we will be] landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” At this point in history, this was a grand challenge because no one thought it could be done and that it was out of the realm of what humanity was capable of. Yet it was achieved in 1969 with international help and with scientists from many disciplines, and the belief that it could be done.

If we look at some of the main issues of today, it seems impossible that we will ever end poverty, or ever become more sustainable, or be able to eliminate inequality. When the UN OWG met in Rio of 2012, 30 state members gathered together to address these grand challenges and frame them into the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Not only did they gather to identify the problems, but they gathered to set a critical deadline for when these goals should be achieved by 2030. Since the sustainable development goals were implemented, significant progress has been made. Between 1999 and 2013, poverty has been reduced from 1.7 billion to 767 million, which is very significant. Progress has also been made in hunger with the amount of undernourished people going from about 930 million in the early 2000’s to 793 million in 2014. In the field of medicine, “The risk of dying between the ages of 30 and 70 from one of four main non‑communicable diseases (NCDs)—cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory disease—fell from 23 per cent to 19 per cent between 2000 and 2015” (UN, Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017). However, with the deadline of 2030, the progress is not happening fast enough to achieve everything that the UN set out to do.

Although it may seem impossible to meet all of the goals set out by the SDGs before the year 2030, by setting an agenda and a deadline, it pushed countries around the world to take initiative and move in the right direction. Regardless of whether the goals are actually met by the given year, there will be significant progress made in making the world a better place for all.