We recognize there are enough problems to threaten humanity’s extinction unless we act. And, that we’re looking at solutions without thinking enough about how we think and act1.  

When we also diminish the frequency of asking ‘why’ and amplify the capacity for asking ‘how’ our society gets stuck on solutions. The foundation of learning in the first two decades becomes honed to wanting answers2. Then hammered by the politics of money, the focus turns to ‘what it will cost?’ and ‘who will pay?’. Only, rarely asking ‘why is a solution important?’ or the unicorn question, ‘can we think about it differently?’ 

The Two Questions 

In this article, I want to suggest that moving forward can start with as little as two questions to provoke a deep and meaningful conversation, that often provokes deeper insights into why an issue is important, what is involved and how to progress. 

I’ve found when being presented with a solution – or worse, told to implement one without reason – it’s useful to ask two questions: 

  • Question 1: if {x} is a solution, what is the problem? 
  • Question 2: if {y} is a problem (or set of problems), why is it a problem?  

    Note use of the indefinite article in Q2, because we are engaging in a conversation to find what is the real problem. There’s a systems adage that says, “the first definition of a problem is always wrong.” 

What then to make of the Hawking Challenge? 

In my first article in the series This Century, I referred to Professor Stephen Hawking’s hypothesis that humanity has 100 years in which to leave Earth and colonize another planet in our galaxy. 

Some are already looking at solutions to this challenge. But, let us now run our two questions (for they never belonged to me), with Professor Hawking’s proposition.  

Question 1: Asking what 

The question: If {colonizing another planet} is the solution, what’s the problem?  

An answer: There’s a long form answer, but let’s just take a taster that goes something like this: Continuing to live on Earth as we currently do is unsustainable to human life. The population is expanding too quickly for the resources available. Economics prevails as the dominant consideration not social responsibility or ecological impact. Greed and self-interest lessen the value of competition. Businesses consolidate into huge corporations and concentrate markets to the point where oligarchies form. Their biggest innovations are how to leverage the tax loopholes around the world. They deliver huge profits without much care for the people they serve or the environment they destroy. We will reach a tipping point in global warming where we will not be able to predict the future course, putting human survival at extreme risk. 

The full scope of these problems is best described in the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda3 which is “a blueprint for shared prosperity in a sustainable world—a world where all people can live productive, vibrant and peaceful lives on a healthy planet.”  

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals contain a total of 167 targets to shape global action.  The set of problems and targets in this agenda is huge.  

Let’s move from asking ‘what’ to asking ‘why’. 

Question 2: Asking why 

The question: If {the set of issues in the UN 2030 Agenda} cover the problem space, why is that {set of issues} a problem?  

An answer: Crucially, the 167 targets are not prioritised. Every single one is fighting for attention and the lack of prioritisation lets political leaders off the hook.  

There is no pressing need for any politician or decision maker to change the ways in which they think and actAnd, that’s the root of the problem. There’s plenty of room in the structure of the problem for complacency to be credited as progress. 

Hawking can’t see these leaders changing in time to address this huge set of social and ecological problems in the next 100 years. After all, the eminent physicist who spent his life extending our knowledge of the universe, can see the systemic failure of the planet and the loss of the human species on this Earth. He’s earned more of our trust than most politicians.  

He suggests our only hope is to for some of us to escape. Another moon-shot, to another planet. We love a real challenge. So, let’s regress to the solution space for a moment and imagine chasing Hawking’s proposition. 

The next “Moon Shot”  

Now start by asking what would we do?  

We would need to find another planet, knowing Alpha Centauri is the next closest star in our galaxy at 4 light years away (details to follow, but don’t worry). We would need to design, build and implement a way to get there, keeping people alive on the journey. Get enough people there with enough materials to construct a planetary version of Christmas Island (an Australian offshore immigration detention facility) for the community will need to stay close and work together. They’ll need to work quickly, too, as the next ship load of immigrants will already be on their way. And, they’ll do all this in a way that sustains life long enough for clever humans to learn what to do, and how to grow and leverage the resources of this new satellite in our Galaxy – hopefully while implementing, not repeating, all the lessons learned from the last time humans inhabited a planet.  

What’s the chance of our achieving all that by 2120? The technical reality is huge and complex. 

But wait: our challenge gets harder  

I’ll wager, though, the technical stuff will prove to be the easy bit over the long term. In any project, the team working on the project is more complex that the project.  

Let’s ask ourselves what operating system we would employ? Would we ever imagine the planetary inhabitants setting up a capitalist system because they’ve brought with them a belief that competition is the ‘best’ way of serving the interest of the consumers? Or, would we have a tight set of rules for sustainability, codes of behaviours that are at once rigidly enforced to assure a culture of collaboration. What if there’s someone – not me of course, but someone else – who doesn’t abide by the codes of conduct? What do we do on another planet in the Galaxy where a person acts to create a tragedy of the commons, where everyone might perish.   

Might we also imagine a new capital crime for not collaborating and not accepting responsibility for the actions of an individual on the collective. Imagine a poster around the planet: “collaborate or we all die”. There is no choice.  

Survival depends on absolute adherence to the code, first do no harm.  

Now let’s ask why we wouldn’t just do that on Earth?  

Back here on Earth 

Now that’s not new in the medical fraternity. It is their code. Yet, for all the 40 years I’ve spent working in and with big organisations, the notion of ‘first do no harm’ has not been my experience.  

When I was a strategy consultant with a global strategy firm, we were opening a new office in Australia. I went to the Managing Partner at the time to discuss some people development issues. We discussed nothing. I heard just this:  

“Richard, we don’t do people development. We get them in. We burn them out.” 

Imagine now, in the light of this article, if we were to take that CEO attitude up a level:  

“People, we don’t do sustainable development. We find a planet. We burn it out.”  

Looking around Brazil and Indonesia and other parts of the world (including Australia), the attitude prevails. It’s time to change. It’s time to address the real problem.  

The bottom-line 

Asking why helps us to realise that Hawking is not really challenging us to find another planet and inhabit it. As an eminent physicist, he knows the real constraints involved. He’s challenging us to change the way we think and act on the planet we already inhabit.  

Collaborate or die!  

Maybe we should we strike for a new capital crime for killing the planet? 

This is a deliberately provocative question.  
People and the planet are dying because they have no voice.

Why change our thinking? Because there’s hope… 

Three inspiring women are setting a wonderful example. They lead three nations joined in the “well-being network” – Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand.  

Now, imagine a world where there are more nations in a “well-being network” than out of it, where the health of the nation is not judged on dry economic measures of GDP alone.  

I encourage you to spend 10 minutes listening to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland who spoke recently at TEDx Edinburgh. She reaches back to Adam Smith’s work to remind us that the wealth of nations had well-being as a foundation, not just wealth.  

We would all do well to look at how we can enact that thinking into our own daily decisions.  Check it out: https://www.ted.com/…/nicola_sturgeon_why_governments_shoul… 

If we are so stuck with brains locked in “how” then there is nothing better than an example to follow. Right now, there is no better example than that set by these women. Leverage their thinking to change the way we think and act – not just as leaders, but as co-inhabitants of a closed-cycle system we know as Planet Earth.  

Call to action 

Try your own process of asking at least two questions when presented with, or directed to implement, a particular solution.  

  • Question 1: if {x} is a solution, what is the problem? 
    • Take time to explore the problem space as fully as possible. Maybe not as extensively as the UN SDGs with so many targets. 
  • Question 2: if {y} is the problem (or set of problems), why is it the problem? 
    • Take time to explore the context. Use the known spoken problems in Question 1 and explore further what really going on and why that is so. Do not be surprised if the reasons are driven by self-interest, greed or a desire to hide shame and vulnerability. 
    • Now use the deeper understandings to describe the context and problem space in ways that address the various world views and deep rationale. 

Do or do not, there is no try    

~ Yoda

  1. Richard Hodge, The Hawking Challenge, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/hawking-challenge-richard-hodge/  
  2. Richard Hodge, Why Changes Our Thinking, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-changes-our-thinking-richard-hodge/  
  3. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030 Agenda for Sustainable Development web.pdf