Big Problem Perspectives Working Group

About "Big Problems"

“Big Problems” are critical problems that are potentially transformative if solved or mitigated effectively, but that are seemingly intractable . They're distinguished by being closely interrelated, ambiguous, highly complex, and by having change-resistant legacies and multiple stakeholders with conflicting agendas. Approaches that work for other problems may not work at least in the same way with these challenges.

The group considers problems in their full context. We are a cross-disciplinary community spanning the university—including vital perspectives of social sciences, business, law and engineering—and engaging other institutions, industry, and government.

The group organizes a series of ongoing and emerging forums and programs. We not only consider a small set of selected problems on a standalone basis, but also look across problems to consider approaches for this type of problem and encourage regular interaction between problem-focused initiatives. Last year's focus was on climate change, during which we established a student competition called the Northwestern Impossible Challenge. We are now exploring a new thrust: healthcare, including political science, economics, and sociology perspectives and the increasingly significant “nexus between healthcare, energy, and water.”

And while we aim to enhance and stimulate research, we have a practical orientation and intent to drive real solutions. This work includes the application of planning/analytic tools and models as well as the development of progress metrics, teaching materials, simulations, and modules. A particular focus is on standards development and management.

The working group was formerly part of the Center for Technology and Innovation Management, which was launched in 2001 as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry-University Cooperative Research Center. We are currently revising our structure, priorities and driving questions in consultation with our faculty advisory board and through a planned series of roundtables.