‘Wicked problems require complex solutions’

Debra Lam, Founding Executive Director of the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation, believes that public-private partnerships are the glue that can bind global initiatives to grassroots realities.

A few weeks ago, NASA officially declared July 2023 as the hottest month on record since the late 19th century. This summer’s stifling heat left tens of millions of people in the U.S. alone under heat warnings and accounted for thousands of heat-related illnesses and fatalities. And while local communities bear the brunt of these extreme weather events, they typically remain absent from broader solution-driven discussions, especially those with the fewest resources. As a result, by the time these solutions trickle down to the local level, they fail to provide the right resources for the people who need them most.

In the rush to address global sustainability challenges, public-private partnerships (PPPs) have become an avenue to bring diverse stakeholders together. They present a compelling proposition: by marrying the abilities, influence, resources, and innovation of citizens, nonprofit organisations, foundations, universities, small businesses, corporations and governments, they are better equipped, together, to bridge the existing disconnect between global strategies and local realities.

Take the southeastern U.S., for instance. I serve as the Founding Executive Director for the Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (Partnership), which aims at providing a multistakeholder approach to complex solutions at the local level. Based in Georgia, the Partnership is a mission-driven collective that forges alliances between the public and private sectors, as well as the general public, civil society, educational institutions and more. Our annual Community Research Grant Program stands as the epitome of our dual approach to climate resilience and economic empowerment. This year, we supported projects focused on cleantech to pave the way for a brighter future throughout Georgia and beyond

This year’s winning projects in cities large and small will benefit from research capabilities, including multi-disciplinary research teams, program management tools, funding and strategic partnership opportunities.

In total, the projects represented four communities, four states, seven institutions of higher education, three nonprofits, one private sector organization and the public at large.

Take the project in Brunswick, Georgia: this project aims to improve water quality, address environmental disparities and contribute to long-term sustainable solutions for Glynn County with a people-first approach. Local citizens directly impacted by poor water quality will be trained to test their water and share the results with the broader community to ensure a holistic grassroots solution. Through an additional grant from the Georgia Foundation for Public Education, the local school district will also be involved in translating the work into education and curriculum development.

One of the project partners, Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker, remarked that the “opportunity builds local capacity and empowers traditionally underserved Black and Brown neighborhoods so that families can improve their quality of life.”

We’re also championing other environmental-centric projects after careful exchanges with the impacted communities. For example, The city of Savannah, Chatham Emergency Management Agency, as well as scientists and engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have teamed up for the Smart Sea Level Sensors initiative. The goal is to develop a network for measuring sea level flood risk in order to inform government officials and other key stakeholders — including the recipient communities — in real time during natural disasters and storms. The pilot network helps to improve flood warnings, emergency response action plans, and flood predictions for future flood events, as well as serves as the basis for additional sea management tool development, environmental monitoring platform development and data sharing. Residents have adopted the sensors and a high school STEM class has now learned to put together the sensor.

Other cities are also rising to the occasion. San Francisco’s Waterfront Resilience Program, spanning a 7.5-mile stretch, takes a collaborative approach to improve response efforts as a result of earthquakes, floodings, rising sea levels and shoreline erosion. The project is a combined effort involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Port of San Francisco and critically, the local community. Through the Waterfront Assets Mapping Exercise, residents are able to make their voices heard on what a resilient, sustainable, equitable waterfront means to them. The Port is also working to create opportunities for San Francisco’s historically underserved communities in neighborhoods along the Embarcadero Seawall to engage in decision-making and benefit through job opportunities and post-construction conditions.

An ocean away, Scotland’s Stirling Council has prioritized community engagement at the heart of its Climate and Nature Emergency strategy. Instead of merely presenting residents with an extensive report, the Council opted for a participatory approach. Through polls, surveys and brainstorming sessions, the Council, the wider public sector, local businesses, and residents came together to plan the best course of action in addressing the climate crisis.

Each one of these examples includes a range of actors working in concert for a collective objective. In essence, the future of our planet depends on a multi-pronged approach. It starts with the problem, and is informed by research, data, technology, and other tools. Communities get critical access to R&D and innovations that they might not have, and the research becomes better with community engagement. Such experiences and outcomes can then be shared with other communities that could model the project or look to integrate and scale the work. While global strategies and high-level discussions are essential, it’s the integration of local experiences, the combined strength of public-private collaborations and the collective will of communities worldwide that will allow us to build urban resilience against more frequent and severe weather and climate impacts.

Regardless of where we work, the organisations we represent — irrelevant of sector, size or geography — all have a role to play in addressing sustainability challenges. And as residents, we too can and must contribute. Only with this multi-prong approach can we ensure that solution-making decisions take into account our individual and collective experiences. Wicked problems require complex solutions. We have a collective responsibility to act. After all, lives are at stake. Let’s lead by example and become change makers inside and outside of the workplace, right here in our beloved communities.

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