Big Ideas for Grand Challenges

Our world faces many grand challenges, which have proven chronically difficult to solve.

Climate change continues unabated. Affordable clean energy is not universally unavailable. Watersheds remain polluted. Communities lack access to clean water. Poverty and hunger persist, while food is lost from farm to fork. Many professions, including mine, engineering, have not achieved gender parity.

Grand challenges persist because the problems and their root causes lie in equilibrium. For progress to occur, the balance between the causes and effects of grand challenges must be disturbed.

I embrace the optimism that the future will be brighter than our past. Here’s one way to help students learn to embrace big ideas and become transformative leaders.

We begin by asking students to become familiar with grand challenges, helping them understand the diverse and local impacts of large problems. We note that no grand challenge has a simple solution, and their big ideas should not be too amorphous or abstract.



To develop big ideas, students learn that they must identify and understand the needs of the local beneficiaries who would benefit from possible solutions to grand challenge problems. This process of discovery evokes empathy in students, allowing them to formulate ideas that are globally topical and locally applicable.



The first ideas that students generate are simply propositions and these must be rigorously tested for applicability. The logical step for them to experiment by implementing their ideas on the smallest scale possible, all the while obtaining feedback from the beneficiary stakeholders.

Thus, students do not waste time building solutions that to do not achieve an intended impact. By building, measuring and learning, students learn to be agile and flexible.

In this manner, students learn how to fail fast. If a solution fails during an experiment, or if beneficiaries indicate that they are unlikely to adopt a process then students learn to fail gracefully and pivot to another design.

Engineers alone will not be able to solve grand challenge problems. Hence, we encourage students to work in interdisciplinary teams, use design thinking to iteratively work backwards from these targets and create solutions.

The design thinking process also requires students to learn to empathize with the beneficiaries of their solutions. Based on that empathy, students learn how to organize beneficiaries’ expectations into targets. Then, they build solutions, test them and, if the solutions fail, iteratively alter and improve them, or pivot to another possible solution.

MacChangers is an example of a grand challenge immersive learning program. It provides resources, coaching and support to interdicisiplinary teams of students. Each team is asked to propose an innovative solution to an issue that impacts society, both locally and globally.

The MacChangers teams develop a project on a topic of their choice through group coaching sessions, workshops with guest speakers, panel discussions with subject matter experts and consultations with stakeholders.

This year’s MacChangers focus is to improve transportation in Hamilton, Ontario. Come April, each team will present its results in front of a panel of faculty and community stakeholders.

As a MacChanger, a student learns first-hand about these challenges, as well as new hands-on ways to aproach them. The program works from the assumption that most of the world’s biggest challenges are closer than we think. Indeed, these can be manifest in the same problems facing our own community.

MacChangers learn that to be transformative leaders, using a command-and-control style of managing each other in an interdisciplinary team of equals is not the way to succeed. They learn that charisma, interpersonal skills, hard work, collaboration and personal contacts are more valuable to leadership than a simple hierarchical organizational stature.

Thus, MacChangers also learn to differentiate between transactional leaders who exchange rewards for services rendered and transformative leaders who are able to transform the self-interests of their team members into the interest of the team through concern for a broader grand challenge goal.

Students are enthusiastic and engaged in becoming beneficial agents of change. There is no reason at all to be pessimistic that the future will not be brighter than our past.

We are educating citizen scholars who want to transform our world.



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