Collaboration, trust and urgency – the three things we need to tackle global challenges

Effective collaboration is key to tackling the ‘grand challenges’ we face before time runs out. According to Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology at Leeds and Chatham House Research Director on the topic of Emerging Risks, shifting our thinking to a systems approach is critical for our success.

Climate change, food security, social stability, economic development — these are existential issues for the planet and finding solutions to them is ever more urgent. While it may seem obvious that no one sector can solve these challenges alone — whether academia, governments, civil society or industry — the move towards practical and effective collaboration is, says Professor Benton, far too slow.

The way we collaborate now isn’t working

As former Champion for the UK’s Global Food Security Programme — which brought together the Research Councils, executive agencies and Government departments to support research — it’s not surprising that Professor Benton chooses the interplay between food production and climate change to illustrate his point:

“The standard rhetoric is that, as the world’s population grows, we need more land to produce more food, and that might require more water than is possible to imagine. But in terms of climate change, we also need to use land to grow fuel crops and then capture the CO2 when these crops are burned, to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. At the same time, we’re losing land through sea level rise and increasing urbanisation.”

“Our typical sector-based response to these challenges creates incompatible demands — the drive for more food challenges action on climate and vice versa. What tends to happen is that each side pushes their own ‘solution’, creating paralysis. But doing nothing is still doing the wrong thing — because we have so little time left to act.”