Global Engagement Forum Magazine Fall/Winter 2018

The Adapting Mosaic: Solving Global Problems in the Age of Disruption  

In this age of disruption, the complexity of our global challenges forces us to treat them like moving targets, where any adaptive response needs to triangulate across all three sectors—government, business, and nonprofits—like a GPS for sustained progress. When we fully map the problems we confront, we must recognize that in our interconnected world, the biggest challenges facing us today are borderless. For the borders that do exist, they cannot matter the way they once may have.

I am reminded of one of the “four futures” developed as part of the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005. These four future scenarios envisioned for humanity are Global Orchestration, where a globalized economy emphasizes efficient allocation of resources and growth, similar to our current paradigm; TechnoGarden, where a globalized world relies on technological fixes to substitute for diminishing natural resources; Order from Strength, where isolated, regionalized economies prioritize national security and fend for themselves; and Adapting Mosaic, a future where economic activity of regional populations is not tied to political boundaries; instead, it is limited to the natural boundaries of their geographies such as a watershed, a desert, or a grassland environment.

In the Adapting Mosaic future, confining economic activity in this way challenges populations to live within the ecological constraints of a single type of landscape, like the Chesapeake Bay watershed for example, where Washington, DC is located. Watershed residents would survive and thrive in this environment by safeguarding upstream benefits, managing downstream waste flows, and adapting. They are obliged to own the sustainability challenge. What is compelling about this idea is not the unlikely reframing of political borders, but accepting that context is key to sustainability.

In this issue of the Global Engagement Forum Magazine, we turn our attention to a selection of problems that are the focus of the Global Engagement Forum: Live this October. These are challenges that are solvable in our lifetimes, but can only be solved if we think about borders and boundaries in new ways, accepting the limitations and embracing the opportunities of context.

For instance, food insecurity affects approximately 815 million people, yet one-third of the food we grow—enough to feed twice that many, an additional 1.6 billion—is lost before even reaching the market. The solution lies in a more efficient agrifood value chain, which is well within our reach, if we are able to understand the challenges across the entire ecosystem and bring the best solutions and resources from each sector to address those challenges.

Where marine debris is concerned, we are all aware that we are being overrun by our own waste. Our oceans will soon contain more plastic, by weight, than fish. Yet we have the capability to close the material loop in our economy to eliminate waste as we know it. This will involve not just environmental remediation, but identifying the source of waste, its underlying drivers, and addressing the problem by looking across geographies and sectors at everything from production to usage, recycling, and disposal.

The future also depends on our ability to prepare the next generation workforce, providing more economic opportunity even in an age of automation. When we understand the current and future needs of employers, we can co-create programming with education providers that bridges the STEM skills gap, and helps to meet the demand for qualified job candidates for the digital economy.

Lack of access to energy—or energy poverty—also contributes to lack of economic opportunity, not to mention health risks and pollution. More than a billion people have no access to electricity, and many more do not have easy access to affordable energy. People facing energy poverty spend excessive time collecting fuel, often contributing to deforestation, and don’t have electricity to support economic or educational pursuits. Household and micro-grid solutions exist, and would have only an incremental impact on global emissions, but interests across sectors must align to make energy distribution a priority.

To make progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, we should feel motivated and inspired by the knowledge that there are solutions within our grasp, however they require us to work and adapt together, in a mosaic of partnership across sectors, cultures, disciplines, regions, and time.

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