A “grand challenge” is exactly what it sounds like: a complex problem that has a stubbornly defined solution (Branscomb). Tom Kahlil of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy defined grand challenges as “ambitious yet achievable goals that capture the public’s imagination and that require innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology to achieve.” One of the most well-known and inspiring historical examples of addressing a grand challenge is Robert F. Kennedy and his promise of the moon landing: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade.” Kennedy’s mindset of believing in the achievement of something nearly impossible, setting a timeframe, and planting the seeds of action is referred to as “moonshot thinking.” Proposing radical solutions to overwhelming problems through the use of research and science, technology, and innovation. The Medium lays out a five step framework for the methodology of ‘moonshot thinking:’ (1) reset our ‘operating system’ and start thinking exponentially, (2) launching the moonshot, (3) landing the moonshot through trial and error, (4) transform yourself, (5) transform your company.
This method can be utilized by any kind of actor in the pursuit of overarching problems, specifically the challenge of international development. The USAID addresses grand challenges for development through programs that mobilize governments, companies, and foundations, source new solutions, and test new ideas. Some of these programs include saving lives at birth, having all children reading, making all voices count, securing water for food, and many more. Even though this list only shows a small percentage of all of the challenges of development, it is easy to see how these issues span across all aspects of people’s lives. The Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) were the first commitment of its magnitude to consolidate the efforts of meeting the needs of the worlds’ poorest people. Building off of the MDGs, the UNGA created the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda is an action plan for “people, planet, and prosperity.” The SDGs are comprised of 17 lofty goals addressing the grand challenge that development poses, each goal accompanied by several targets and indicators in a time-bound fashion to measure the progress towards achieving the goal. Why is ‘moonshot thinking’ relevant for sustainable development? Even though landing on the moon seemed impossible to most, comparable with ending world hunger or poverty, or achieving all of the SDGs, with committed investment in research, innovation and technology, we can achieve truly extraordinary things.