In Japan, manufacturing facilities use “green curtains”—living panels of climbing plants—to clean the air, provide vegetables for company cafeterias, and reduce energy use for cooling. A walk-to-school program in the United Kingdom fights a decline in childhood physical activity while reducing traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. A food-gleaning program staffed by young volunteers and families facing food insecurity in Spain addresses food waste, hunger, and a desire for sustainability.

Each of these is a real-life example of what I call “multisolving”—where people pool expertise, funding, and political will to solve multiple problems with a single investment of time and money. It’s an approach with great relevance in this era of complex, interlinked, social and environmental challenges. But what’s the best formula for implementing projects that tackle many problems at once?

Climate Interactive, which uses systems analysis to help people address climate change, recently completed a year-long study of multisolving for climate and health. We learned there is no one-size-fits-all recipe, but we did identify three operating principles and three practices that showed up again and again in the projects we studied. What’s more, anyone wanting to access the power of cross-sectoral partnership can adopt them.

Three principles

Multisolving projects—no matter their scale, sector, or stage of development—tend to commit to three principles:

  1. Everyone matters; everyone is needed. In an interconnected world, no one is healthy until everyone is healthy. No one is free until everyone is free. This insistence that healthy systems serve everyone they touch is one of the most daring and counter-cultural aspects to multisolving. It goes deeper than looking for “co-benefits” to “win” on a central issue—say getting more votes for clean energy by making the case for jobs. Multisolvers insist that the well-being of workers is central and so is the protection of the global climate. Tackling problems together requires that we join perspectives, experiences, knowledge, and expertise. Experts and citizens, health workers and energy wonks, elected officials and advocacy leaders all hold a piece of the needed solutions.
  2. We can succeed by addressing tough problems in an integrated fashion. Multisolvers dare to imagine that problems might be easier to solve together rather than one by one. While it’s natural to want to break problems down into smaller units, the genius of multisolving is to see how certain interventions solve several problems at once. Japanese innovators responded to the energy crisis after the Fukushima disaster with a vision of lush, vegetative curtains saving energy by cooling factory buildings while also providing fresh food to company cafeterias. Their dream included energy, healthy food, economics, and beauty.

  3. Large solutions start small; growth results from learning and connecting. The projects we studied grew in impact, budget, and partnerships via idiosyncratic pathways that depended on relationships, chance connections, and moments of inspiration. But underneath these unpredictable processes, each project had an underlying commitment to experimentation, learning, and documentation of impacts. These measured impacts, woven into stories of possibility, were often the ingredient that drew new partners, sectors, and resources to the work.

Three practices

Growing out of these three principles, we saw multisolvers employing similar practices, often cycling through them in rounds of iteration and growth that extend over periods of months or years.

  1. Welcoming. In the attempt to solve tough problems, the odds are high that—no matter how smart you are or how hard you try—you won't make progress working on your own or even by working with people who think the way you do. We observed transportation planners inviting health experts onto their teams, city planners asking children to co-design safe routes to school, and energy-efficiency experts consulting with those who work in the buildings they upgrade.

    If you are embarking on a project that will require partners across sectors, you should expect that, years into your project, you will be working with people and sectors you may not have imagined initially. Multisolving leaders welcome new partners and ideas, while still holding strong to the core vision of the project, providing guidance that carries forward through growth and change.

  2. Learning and documenting. Multisolving projects invest in learning, and they act on what they learn, sometimes by changing direction. Whatever the modality of measuring results, multisolving projects document their impact and measure a wide array of benefits. For example, the walk-to-school program mentioned earlier measured the number of children walking to school, trips to school by car, amount of traffic congestion, money spent on transport per family, and children's health and well-being.

  3. Storytelling. Telling a story of what is possible and what is already being achieved brings more partners and resources to multisolving efforts, especially when the stories incorporate data about diverse benefits of the project. Take Warm Up New Zealand, a project that provided energy-efficiency upgrades to the homes of residents at risk for illness made worse by cold, drafty housing. The project started with a focus on energy and jobs, but a team of academic researchers documented its public health benefits, enticing health departments and physicians to join the collaborative.

These three practices form a natural flow through which projects cycle in multiple rounds.

Starting with a cluster of tough problems, and steered by the three principles listed above, multisolving projects grow in wisdom, impact, resources, and breadth of partnership via an iterative process that is constantly welcoming new partners, learning and documenting results, and building a narrative of what is possible. (Image by Elizabeth Sawin)

None of these multisolving principles or tools, on their own, are revolutionary. They need no new apps or state-of-the-art techniques to work. What makes multisolving unique is that it weaves together these principles and practices in a way that builds over time to create big results.

One final ingredient for multisolving may be the most important of all: courage. It takes courage, especially in cultures that tend to value the strong, expert leader and the quick fix, to use this approach. Multisolving means starting with a tough problem and taking on other problems right at the start; saying that the rights of marginalized groups matter for their own sake, not just as part of a strategy to some other end; stepping down from the status of expert and relying on the knowledge of others; and daring to believe that people can and will work together to heal our communities and Earth.

The good news emerging from our research is that the tangled nature of the challenges we face seems to be calling forth this kind of courage just when we need it most. Where stubborn problems resist simple, symptomatic solutions, people are finding ways to join hearts and minds into a different way of working together, forging lasting connections and making new solutions possible.