As our society grapples with multiple systemic crises, including COVID-19, climate change, and racial injustice, an opportunity for multi-solving emerges. Multi-solving—working across sectors to address multiple challenges with one policy or investment—accomplishes more the same budget and aligns constituencies for greater impact. We live in an increasingly complex, interconnected world that demands collaboration and innovation–no one is healthy until everyone is healthy.
While the concept of collaboration is far from new, the term “multisolving” was first coined by Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, the Co-Director of Climate Interactive, after engagement in the United Nations climate talks. The narrow focus of climate talks on greenhouse gas pollutants limited countries from making meaningful pledges to reduce their climate pollution. To convey the urgency of climate change, Dr. Sawin advocated for multisolving by incorporating research on the mortality rates or economic loss of climate change. For example, burning less coal will save lives, create jobs, and promote biodiversity. Strengthening public transportation systems will increase physical activity, economic mobility, and improve air quality.
Multisolving calls academics, professionals, elected officials, community members, and the general public to step out of their silos of expertise and consider the impact and potential of cross-sector collaboration. Large solutions start small; the growth in impact and budget develop from meaningful partnership and relationship-building. The Stanford Social Innovation Review identified three key practices of multisolving:
- Welcoming transportation planners, health experts, city officials, children, economists, and graphic designers to the same table.
- Learning and documenting impact and benefits using meaningful metrics and tools to identify progress and areas for improvement.
- Storytelling to bring more partners and resources into the work.
Vital Conditions and Shared Stewardship: A Framework for Multisolving
Leveraging the vital conditions framework for achieving equitable community well-being can provide a foundation for multisolving. Vital conditions shape the exposures, choices, opportunities, and adversities that we each encounter throughout our lives. Ordinary people in every walk of life, alongside organizations in every sector, can move into meaningful roles as shared stewards of well-being and justice. Stewards are people and organizations who take responsibility for working with each other to create the conditions that everyone needs to thrive together, beginning with those who are struggling and suffering. Multisolving allows stewards to build capacity, energy, and power for shared action across people and institutions. It draws others into stewardship and helps them to deepen their practice so it becomes the de-facto method of working together.
Multisolving in Action
Using food as a multisolver, we can improve the educational and health outcomes of our children by creating school gardens and strengthening school nutrition policies. Multisolving with the vital condition of a thriving natural world, we can transition to a green economy and create job opportunities, improve multimodal transportation, protect communities of color from further environmental harm, and build disaster resiliency. From a humane housing perspective, we can provide monetary reparations to address historic redlining and equalize wealth distribution for communities of color, stimulate local economies, and reduce housing instability. To build belonging and civic muscle, we can utilize participatory budgeting and the idea of “placemaking” in city planning processes, eliminate discriminatory voting legislation and boost voter turnout, and integrate indigenous knowledge into land use and resource management. Multisolving incorporates a diverse array of perspectives, areas of expertise, and metrics to ensure that all people and places are thriving–no exceptions.
Multisolving already exists in countless communities across local and global scales. One of many cities leveraging green space to improve health and transportation, Portland, Oregon has over 1,200 miles of interconnected “greenways” throughout the metro region. Greenways solve for multiple needs by (1) providing land corridors that act as vegetated buffers to protect natural habitats, (2) helping people travel safely throughout the pandemic, (3) increasing physical activity, and (4) reducing emissions from transportation. Greenways leverage multi solving by involving urban planners, environmentalists, architects, transportation experts, and public health officials to create value and generate economic activity, protect from flood damage, improve physical activity and transportation, and connect communities.
Across the country, the Philadelphia nonprofit Roots to Reentry provides horticulture and landscaping training, professional and behavioral workshops, and job opportunities for inmates who tend to the garden. The produce is distributed to local food pantries, soup kitchens, and low-income residents along with the Health Promotion Council, an organization that holds nutrition education classes for vulnerable and at-risk populations. Tackling food insecurity and providing meaningful employment and connection for incarcerated individuals, the organization demonstrates the power of multisolving.
Multisolving helps leaders better leverage funding for economic recovery from COVID-19 and beyond, by simultaneously working toward climate protection, health, and equity. In order to prompt multi solving, policy makers should ask questions to stimulate discussion and collaboration:
- “Does this investment include racial, gender, and economic equity provisions for previously marginalized communities?”
- “Are job training, healthcare, and childcare provided with these new employment opportunities so that everyone may benefit?”
- “Does this project incorporate input from other sectors in its design and implementation? Do we have effective communication strategies and metrics for accountability?”
- “Have we addressed historic legacies of exclusion? Have we considered possible negative or positive implications for other sectors or communities?”
Multisolving means partnership of nonprofits, public and private organizations, and community members to solve problems that impact multiple sectors and communities. This is easier said than done, but all coalitions begin with 1) strong leadership from stakeholders, 2) help from a facilitator who can guide conversations 3) extensive research about issues, areas of overlap, and potential solutions, and 4) deep community engagement. The process of multisolving builds community trust, strengthens democracy by sharing decision-making power, and creates a system of accountability. It requires stewards to pool resources and knowledge, which can spark innovation and unlock new opportunities and networks. In a world of complex problems, multisolving offers a simple solution to create a future where all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.