The “Global” Grand Challenge

Summary: In this blog post I discuss The Global “Grand Challenge” of Inclusive Sustainable Development and what exactly is a grand challenge.

There are five key points that define a “Grand Challenge,” as set forth by former Obama White House advisor Tom Kalil: it can have a major impact in domains such as health, energy, sustainability, education, economic opportunity, national security, or human exploration, it is ambitious but achievable, it is compelling and intrinsically motivating, it has a level of specificity and focus, and it is able to harness innovation and advances in science and technology (Kalil 2012). 

The above list is a strong starting place for this new model of social change. The first point speaks to the “grand” nature of the challenge; it must be of such scope that the achievement of success in the challenge reflects a revolutionary discovery that changes the way an important part of how life is done or inspires a large part of humanity. Yet, while a grand challenge aims to transform society for the better, ambition without achievability is foolish. A grand challenge must remain grounded in what is feasible and realistic – but still it seems difficult to say that a fine line exists between what is and is not feasible. Take, for example, the “moonshot” and it is hard to say that American society knew at the time that it could successfully put a man on the moon and have him return to earth safely. A grand challenge must specific and focused, not only because there must be a way to determine success and hold the participants accountable, but also because a specific challenge can be better assessed for feasibility. At the same time, a grand challenge is global when it is intentionally focused on an issue that transcends borders. The last characteristic of a grand challenge is that byproducts of the quest to fulfil the challenge can result to be themselves impactful outcomes.  

With regard to the fields of science and international development, Grand Challenges are now being used to display the efforts that development agencies/actors are prioritizing. In science there has been the debate around whether funding basic or applied research is more productive of innovative socially applicable outcomes (Branscomb 2013). The ten Grand Challenges of the United States Agency for International Development include: Saving lives at birth, All children reading, Powering agriculture, Making all voices count, Securing water for food, Fighting Ebola, Combating Zika and other threats, Scaling off-grid energy, Ensuring effective health supply chains, and Creating hope in conflict. These grand challenges show a pivot from the traditional view of development as industrialization and increasing GDP, to instead reflect the advancement of the human and  multidimensional facets described above.