• Opinion
  • February 7, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Everyone wants “win-win” solutions — these questions will help you find them

Opinion: Multisolving does not require complicated technology or huge budgets


This piece was written by Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, Co-Director of Climate Interactive. Her work focuses on helping leaders find ways to protect the climate for the long-term that also improve people’s lives today. You can follow her on Twitter and to learn more about multisolving you can watch her TEDx talk. 

Picture this: factory walls, covered in curtains of green vegetation, laden with colourful blossoms and ripening vegetables. The vegetation shades the factory and the workers and equipment inside of it, which reduces the energy needed for cooling the building.

This in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions and improves the business’s bottom line. The vegetables growing on the vines are harvested and included in meals in the company cafeteria, saving money and contributing to healthy diets.

This may sound like a scene from a utopian sci-fi film, but in fact it is the current reality for more and more factories in Japan, and an example of a trend growing around the world called multisolving.

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Multisolving allows businesses, cities and regions to find ways to solve more than one problem with a single investment of time and money.

Multisolving often starts as a response to a crisis. In Japan, the impetus was the need to conserve energy in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

In the UK, people are responding to a health-threatening decline in physical activity in children by multisolving. They are designing programs that promote walking to school, not only boosting physical activity but also saving money that would have otherwise been spent on fuelling the family car, reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

In New Zealand, doctors can refer patients for home energy retrofits, which improves residents’ health, reduces medical system costs, saves money on heating and cooling and provides good jobs in the construction sector.

Multisolving allows you to solve more than one problem with a single investment of time and money

The one thing these multisolving projects have in common is that people found ways to work across departments, sectors, or jurisdictions to implement solutions that might not have been possible or cost-effective for any one entity alone.

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All multisolving projects are different, but three questions are key for any multisolving effort:

How might the solution to my problem solve someone else’s problem?

Say you are tasked with delivering carbon emissions reductions in the transportation sector to meet the mayor’s greenhouse gas target. Who else will win when you are successful?

At Transport for London, they are betting that it will be residents who are healthier as a result of more opportunities to walk and cycle, shopkeepers who see more sales from foot-traffic due to more inviting streets, people with respiratory illness like asthma who will breathe easier with less air pollution from cars and trucks and non-car-owners who will be better able to move around the city via improved public transportation.

Each of those groups of people represent potential voters, allies, and sources of financial support.

What adjustments can I make to my strategy in order to assure that someone else’s problem is solved as well?

Multisolving doesn’t ask you to give up your own goals, timetables, or disciplinary knowledge. Rather, it requires you to take the time to learn what your potential partners need, how they think about the world, what barriers are in their way and what success would look like to them.

That process will take time, and you’ll likely feel less like an expert and more like a learner. It is important that your boss, funders and stakeholders recognise that the rewards of win-win solutions come to those who make the time to forge relationships and who are able to let go of a single-minded focus on their own unitary goals.

Where do I have the ability to connect outside of my usual network?

By and large we live in fractured, artificial systems that chop up the real, interconnected, and living world into jurisdictions, departments, and specialties. To begin seeing how the problems you care about might yield solutions to the problems of others, you first need to know those others and understand their worlds.

This requires taking the time for person to person connection. Schedule a coffee with your colleague three floors up in a seemingly unconnected department and learn what’s on her mind. Take a walk through the neighbourhood upstream from yours in the watershed and notice what you see. Attend the forum on a topic that seems only vaguely connected to your own official job title and listen hard for connections; I assure you they exist.

Multisolving isn’t magic. No new apps or technologies are needed, and budgets don’t have to be huge. But multisolving doesn’t happen on its own either. It won’t happen until we start asking different questions and follow the answers where they lead us. — Elizabeth Sawin

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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