Thursday, November 29, 2007

Grand Challenges, Risks and Visions

I follow Irving Wladawsky Berger's posts on Always On and sometimes comment. In his post on "Innovation and Fundamental Research" he raised the point about getting the universities more involved in the Grand Challenges. At the time of generating my reply I interpreted "Grand Challenges" more in the sense of James Martin in his "The Meaning of the 21st Century" which are much broader than those outlined by the Grand Challenges addressable by high-performance computing which Mr. Berger was actually referring to via the Wikipedia description. My comments to his Always On post on "Innovation and Fundamental Research" are given below as shaped by my interpretation of humanity's Grand Challenges as outlined by James Martin.

Little Reward in Grand Challenges

Encouraging research in the grand challenges is not an easy task when the risk-reward is viewed from the perspective of the individual researcher. Engaging in these Gordian knot problems where political reality often defies common sense seems to offer too little reward to risk one's relatively narrow career window opportunity to come up with breakthroughs that really resolves these challenges. There are far too many tradeoffs to easily find consensus as to acceptable solutions (hence Robert Horn’s interest in Visual Language to help create broader understanding among different perspectives and their tradeoffs).

Let's consider the recent Nobel Prize that was granted to Al Gore and the 1000 or so contributors to the IPCC reports on climate change - and their recently published assessments of the consequences of global warming. I happen to know one of the authors - Prof. Stephen Schneider of Stanford from his mid-70's book "The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival" (related to dealing with climate variability) that I read while at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO. Al Gore gets the headlines and these 1000 researchers and scientists are told to now let the politicians decide what to do with their projections of the potential changes and their consequences. To me, that can be interpreted as telling them that the "adults" will now take charge - both for the visibility and for the tough decision-making. If one could trust politicians to be relatively unbiased and appreciative of the science and pragmatic in balancing special interests against the good of the commons, that would be a reasonable solution. But given their dismal public approval ratings, one should not expect too much.

Grand Challenges Need Grand Visions

These grand challenge problems clearly take a systems and interdisciplinary approach and likely require regulatory actions to bridge the long-term time horizon and uncertainties of the challenges compared with the shorter-term nature of human action and investor focus on quarterly profits. Prof. Bruce Lusignan engaged Stanford students from a variety of engineering, business and legal disciplines in grand challenge-like courses as early as the late 1960’s in semester long projects – like “defining a framework for managing the resources of the oceans”. His intent was to foster interdisciplinary thinking among engineers and those who manage the business of society. It is refreshing to see UC Berkeley, Stanford University, MIT and others put more effort today into interdisciplinary collaboration working with industry on smaller than grand scale, yet still complex problems.

We can hope that a political awakening to the need to create visions that capture the imagination and commitment of our citizens will encourage effective collaborative action on these grand challenges. So far we are encumbered by inertia and self-interest of a globalized consumer society and motivated more by sticks rather than carrots because of little pull on the vision side of human motivation. We talk about what we wish to avoid but not what we wish to achieve given the reality of an inevitably changing world and corpus humanity. Perhaps more innovation is required in creating a vision of the future of humanity rather than where my health care will come from or how efficient my carbon footprint is. With a common vision comes focus and commitment from the bottoms up rather than the inefficient top-down hierarchical business model of the 20th Century. Open systems are emerging for a reason. Is someone willing to do a “wisdom of crowds” or “electronic markets” exercise in defining or predicting a common vision or are we too diverse a crowd of micro-markets to permit finding the overarching grand visions that lend to sorting out the many grand challenges?

Recommended reading – James Martin “The Meaning of the 21st Century.”