Global issues require global solutions. These issues include hunger and climate change – the key problems with the world today addressed by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Implementing solutions at scale, however, can seem like a nearly insurmountable challenge. Open innovation and collaboration across borders are both key. When global leaders in the public and private sectors act more openly, they not only seize huge economic opportunities but can also help society at large.

Roadblocks to face, solutions to embrace

When it comes to solving major societal issues through innovation, new business models or global agreements, many experts agree the problem is not technical; it’s political and cultural.

Just look at the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The main hurdles to the agreement, as well as the main challenges and victories in the years since, are primarily political and cultural. After all, solutions such as renewable energy and other environmentally friendly innovations are already available and continue to advance rapidly. Still, the world is not on track to limit the temperature rise to 2°C. Those countries and regions with global leaders who have decided to act quickly, share ideas and seek counsel across borders – not to mention business opportunities – are the ones who have managed to reduce or slow rates of greenhouse gas emissions. The Carbon Pricing in the Americas initiative, struck between governments from Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Mexico and the US states of California and Washington, is also a promising sign. Clearly, cross-cultural collaboration is key when it comes to progress. Equally clear is that we need more of it to solve the major issues of our time.

As the Latin America president of DSM, a global science company active in health, nutrition and materials, I believe this is especially important in Central and South America, where we suffer from issues such as persistent poverty and environmental degradation, and where some of the world’s largest economies, including Mexico and Brazil, are being outdone by much smaller economies like Malta when it comes to innovation. In the Global Innovation Index 2017, a ranking of 130 countries across the world, Mexico ranked 58th, while Brazil was 69th and Argentina 76th, despite all having abundant talent and no shortage of good ideas.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests the roadblocks that prevent cross-cultural collaboration and open innovation among various parties around the world are having multiple gatekeepers, skepticism regarding anything “not invented here” and turf wars. Getting around these obstacles requires us to cultivate and sustain an atmosphere of flexibility and trust as well, as layered networks that reduce silos.

From science to full-scale solution

Working across borders can lead to better innovation and business outcomes that benefit society. Take, for example, a new lithium extraction and processing technology that is succeeding in Latin America with a bit of global support. Lithium battery technology powers everything from phones and laptops to electric cars. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile deliver about 80% of the world’s lithium. Its extraction is, however, a painstakingly slow process that wastes millions of gallons of water and releases chemicals into the soil and atmosphere.

Ernesto Calvo, a professor of molecular electrochemistry in Argentina, thought there could be a better way. Together with a small team of researchers, he developed a new, solar-powered lithium extraction process that takes hours instead of months, doesn’t compromise water resources and is chemical and waste-free.

Painstakingly slow … a brine pool at a traditional lithium plant in Chile.
Painstakingly slow … a brine pool at a traditional lithium plant in Chile.
Image: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado

His idea could have stopped there. Normally, he says, he would be content to publish a traditional scientific paper and receive feedback from peers. Instead, he entered the project in the global Bright Minds Challenge, led by a coalition of like-minded partners across continents, industries, incubators, institutes, organizations and companies like DSM, designed to accelerate the transition to renewable energy. Professor Calvo won in 2017. Today, his team is set to move from the lab to commercial production, and is on the verge of having a viable business with support from the partners.

Another example, half way around the world, is in Kigali, Rwanda. There, a new for-profit public-private partnership called Africa Improved Foods is bringing better nutrition to the region. Nearly 40% of children in Rwanda are stunted, a medical condition that can occur when they grow up malnourished. It can affect brain development and even cause death. The problem isn’t unique to Rwanda: about 25% children worldwide face the same issue. In recent years, local stakeholders, including the country’s government, sought to address regional malnutrition together with experts and leaders from the public and private sectors in Brazil, the UK, the Netherlands and more. Today, a new Africa Improved Foods factory run by local employees produces fortified porridge and other products that deliver the right level of nutrition to the people who need it most: local children and mothers. Ingredients are sourced from more than 9,000 smallholder farmers in the region, many of whom are women, which provides steady income. Now the partners are looking to expand to other areas on the continent.

We don’t have to accept problems – we can work together to solve them

The complexity of the global issues is far too big for any party to tackle alone. These large-scale problems require new kinds of partnership, cross-border collaboration and open innovation among the public and private sectors, NGOs, academia and other stakeholders. Yes, there are roadblocks. It can be a bumpy ride and may not be for the faint of heart; but it is absolutely necessary if we want to scale up solutions with real impact. In fact, it’s easier than ever to share ideas and work together with people around the world. Professor Ernesto Calvo is proof that dreams do come true and that working together works.