February 8, 2022

Sustainability Series 5: Integrative Problem Solving

Integrative problem solving is the third pillar of sustainability, an exciting new approach to finding solutions to today’s systems-level challenges!

What is Integrative Problem Solving?

Integrative problem solving is moving beyond making decisions by picking the least bad option. Instead of seeing a choice between two courses of action, someone using integrative problem solving would take the best elements from each path and combine them to create a solution that is greater than the sum of its component parts. Another way to think about integrative problem solving is the old adage, “kill two birds with one stone.” If there are two problems ahead of you, integrative problem solving would have you find a solution that can address them synergistically, with better results than tackling them in separate silos. This “two birds one stone” application of integrative problem solving is especially effective in sustainable policy contexts where multiple spheres of sustainability can be simultaneously improved. Some great examples of this come from land management policy.

Integrative solutions to land management

Drawdown, an organization that works on policies to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gasses, notes “There is significant overlap in the solutions that stop land-based sources of greenhouse emissions and those that support land-based carbon sinks. Their unique power is doing both at the same time. All of them are critical to coming back into balance with the planet’s living systems.” Drawdown’s land management policy suggestions include restoration of abandoned farmland in developing nations, sustainable intensification for smallholder farmers, tree intercropping, and silvopasture. These solutions are integrative because they all address multiple spheres of sustainability: they provide food and income to impoverished peoples in developing nations, they address income disparity, they improve environmental outcomes as well as production rates for crops, and they respect cultural norms around land tenure and management. Integrative solutions such as these are incredibly exciting, and I hope to see more application of integrative problem solving in land management both domestically and abroad.

American family farmers have increasingly struggled to turn a profit over the past decade. The decline in agricultural profitability coupled with many farmers’ deep cultural and heritage ties to their occupation and land has created a mental health crisis in America’s midwest. Farmer suicides, once a topic of great concern in India, are now a growing problem in the heartland. Agriculture is also one of the leading causes of environmental degradation and carbon emissions. In an effort to protect the environment, policies have been implemented that put limits on agricultural activities or impose new requirements on farmers. While these policies address the environmental sphere of sustainability, they fail to consider the social consequences that could occur due to increased stress and anxiety for farmers. A better solution is an integrative solution, like that offered by Nori carbon marketplace. Nori provides a way for farmers to make money from their land and protect the environment. Farmers can list their property on the carbon marketplace and get paid to engage in land management that sequesters carbon such as low or no-till agriculture, letting fields remain fallow, or planting cover crops. This addresses the environmental, economic, and social spheres of sustainability. Another example of this kind of integrative solution is farmers being paid to host wind turbines or solar farms on their agricultural fields.

Integrative problem solving at CIRT

The need for integrative problem solving in academia has been an emerging theme and topic of discussion over the past decade. In an effort to encourage interdisciplinary research and solutions, many universities have begun integrative research programs where academics from the natural and life sciences are matched with those from humanities and social sciences. At the University of Georgia, the Integrative Conservation Conference (ICC) is an annual event that began in 2018 and promotes integrative problem solving for conservation issues. CIRT Recycling Information and Data Manager Grace Anne was able to attend ICC in 2020, and it gave her the tools and inspiration to use methodology from the humanities in her work as an ecologist. Grace Anne was especially interested in how traditional community knowledge has been passed over by researchers for decades, but is emerging now as a source of important historical baseline data. After attending ICC 2020 she adjusted her own thesis project to include community interviews and data collection, so that results were centered in local knowledge and were culturally relevant. The 2022 ICC Conference at UGA was themed Decolonizing Conservation Research and Practice, with the understanding that “addressing socioenvironmental crises in an uncertain future will require ongoing dialog within transparent, equitable partnerships.” As part of CIRT’s continuing education program, we provide support for our employees to attend conferences such as ICC. Doing so helps us to grow sustainably and continue to incorporate the best available methodologies into our platform and strategy. We look forward to taking lessons from ICC 2022 and applying them to our circularity context, creating a more equitable product for all people.