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Bring on Your Unsolvable Problems

by Carrie Fox

What happens when you put a mechanical engineer squarely in the center of a university’s department of obstetrics and gynecology? No, this is not the start of a joke.

In fact, it’s at the center of one of the most fascinating research projects aimed at making childbirth safer.

Dr. Joy-Sarah Vink runs the pre-term birth prevention center at Columbia University Medical Center.  As she said earlier this week on NPR, “rare diseases are being cured in this day and age, but we don’t know what triggers full term labor…when it comes to pregnancy, basic research stalled decades ago.” Most of our research about pregnancy comes from research performed in the 1940s.

But, as other parts of the medical field have evolved, it’s those gaps in knowledge that become issues of life and death.

So, Dr. Vink teamed up with an unlikely ally in Kristin Myers, a mechanics and design teacher who got her start in the automotive industry studying how rubber works under high heat. Together, they’re advancing a powerful new research study to understand what leads to the loss of a pregnancy right on the cusp of viability.

I found this story by NPR’s Alison Kodjak especially fascinating because it’s a perfect reminder that some of our most complicated problems are at the root of some of our most basic and shared experiences. 

But, that’s often where the opportunity lies.

There’s great beauty and power in bringing together unlikely allies in the pursuit of problem solving. It’s an approach I’ve championed since the very beginning of my career, working with the team at The X PRIZE Foundation—an organization that at its heart challenges how we take on some of the world’s grandest challenges.

The reality is that when most of us have a problem to solve, we zero in, take it apart, and focus on that one problem until we have it solved—or think we have it solved. But what if we’re thinking wrong about how to find the right answer?

Putting problems at the center of our thoughts shuts down our creative abilities, but when we start by thinking about the solution, visioneering our desired ending, as my colleagues at the X Prize used to say, we have a far greater success rate of developing that much desired breakthrough idea.

That concept is at the center of our Equity+Design Thinking Days at Mission Partners. Each quarter, we welcome up to 8 people in our Bethesda office to bring on their stickiest social impact or communications challenges for a day of guided Design Thinking exercises designed to provide fresh perspective to the problem.

Design Thinking is a human-oriented problem-solving technique that involves exploring and reframing complex challenges to generate fresh, new solutions. The process was first described by the late Nobel Prize Laureate Herbert A. Simon in his 1969 book Sciences of the Artificial, in which he outlined the core concept that designers have to first empathize with the people whose issues they are trying to address. Design thinkers, vs. traditional problem solvers place human needs at the core of their final product.

Since that time, Design Thinking has seeped its way into nearly every field and every industry. The human-centered approach has helped product engineers get in front of consumer needs and has turned social impact entrepreneurs into booming enterprises.

Given the emphasis we place on Design Thinking, in all of our work with social impact organizations, we decided to turn the process into a public workshop experience, embedding equity-building into the process as well.  Now, our quarterly Equity+Design Thinking Days help social impact professionals work in real time with a small group of unlikely peers to take on their challenges in an out-of-the-box, and most importantly out-of-their-office environment experience.

Through teamwork and project-based learning, participants are given fresh opportunities to see their challenges from a completely different perspective, and therefore gain fresh ideas on how to go about the solution.

No matter the industry or the discipline, whether you work on issues of healthcare or housing, to meaningfully take on the issues that lie ahead, there must be a willingness to go after problems in new ways, and to put people at the center of the solution. Most importantly, there must be a desire to take on the seemingly unsolvable. For when you do, you can experience solutions in powerful new ways.

So, bring on the unsolvable.  We’ve got just the day for you.

To learn more about Mission Partners’ upcoming Equity + Design Thinking Days, and to reserve your seat, visit MissionForward.us