Big Problem Perspectives Working Group

About "Big Problems"

“Big Problems” are critical challenges 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, and a key task is often properly framing questions and identifying and assessing relevant planning and operational contexts.

The group considers problems in their full context. We are a broadly 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. We are now exploring a new thrust: healthcare, including political science/policy, engineering, economics, and sociology perspectives and the increasingly significant nexus between healthcare, energy, and water.

With an initial focus on climate change, we established a student competition called the Northwestern Impossible Challenge.

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 underlying technical 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.