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.

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:

How can we do things differently?

For Professor Benton, real collaboration between all these parties should be focused on finding the sweet spots where most benefits can be gained. Because relationships between different stakeholders are increasingly complex and often involve conflicting goals, there is a great need for new thinking, systems approaches, new understanding of how to navigate trade-offs, and inspiration of how to change complex systems in ways that create net positive outcomes. This applies in the policy sphere, but also in the sphere of markets and more broadly for citizens too.

The Paris Agreement has prompted global action

But it’s no good academics coming up with bright ideas and then persuading someone to adopt them, says Professor Benton. This simply doesn’t work as the process is much too slow. Take up of new solutions can only be ensured where research is jointly designed and carried out with all the other players — be that governments, civil society, or industry.

Solutions must be co-created from the start

Over the last decade, there has been a huge step change in academia towards adopting both systems approaches and collaborative working between academic and decision-makers, Professor Benton admits, powered partly by the inclusion of impact metrics within the Research Excellence Framework. But his basic point still stands — the clock is ticking, so we need to be doing more of this, and faster.

Tim Benton is Professor of Population Ecology at the University of Leeds

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