Quantum Problems, from Alpheus Bingham

Wicked Problems - colored gasAt Converge, we conceive of a quantum problem as a collection of wicked problems. Climate change is a mash up of all sorts of wicked problems, social environmental, even neurological. Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, explores these dynamics brilliantly.

We’re big fans of Rotman Magazine around here, and were very impressed by a recent interview with Dr. Alpheus Bingham, the founder of InnoCentive, about the power of open innovation in addressing wicked problems, challenges the military dubbed VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. Here’s what we learned.

“InnoCentive has embraced an approach called Challenge Driven Innovation. Please explain how it works.

Most of the problems we work on are ‘wicked problems’. Challenge Driven Innovation (CDI) essentially recognizes that big, complex problems are really collections of lots of little problems. Once a problem is broken down, each smaller problem gets written up as a semi-autonomous, stand alone challenge. At this point, each problem is ‘portable’ a module, and as solutions to the various modules are found, you assemble them as part of the solution to your bigger problem.

Talk a little bit about the importance of diversity of thought for solving wicked problems.

People start out with different assumptions so they ‘hop onto’ the rocky problem solving surface a different locations. Some of them might land near a ‘peak’, others in a ‘deep valley’, but they all begin navigating around the area they jumped in at. If you look at the results of that collective effort, each ‘hopper’ is actually mapping a different region of the landscape. We’ve done this 2000+ times, and we have found that by injecting diversity into the equation, we get to solutions that are not at all in line with the way things have been done before. And about 90% of the time, they come from someone with a resume that wouldn’t even have qualified them to work on the problem in the first place.

Which InnoCentive project best personifies your vision?

We did a project for NASA. To protect their astronauts, they tried for decades to figure out how to predict solar particle storms. These are a type of ‘extreme weather’ where particles burst out of the sun. After working on the problem for 30 years, they posted it on InnoCentive’s website. Within weeks, they had a solution – an algorithm that involved magnetic coupling between the sun and the Earth that surpassed anything they had come up with before. To me, the best part is that the solution came from a retired telecommunications engineer living in upstate New Hampshire. This guy would never have been considered for a job at NASA.

It never ceases to amaze me what people can come up with if given the opportunity. The future holds great promise for those willing to adapt to new ways of tackling problems.” 

Rotman Magazine, Winter 2015, Wicked Problems III