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A Learnings Report Back: Ten Principles of Multisolving



By: Stefan Hostetter & Mary Pickering

A truck idles in the streets of Vancouver. Its contents, destined for grocery stores in Calgary, have begun to rot. The driver, priced out of the city, doesn’t know where they’ll sleep tonight. The highway’s been washed out. Experts warn this will further increase food prices in the prairies. A shock that community leaders worry will mean even more shall go hungry. The engine grumbles, the muffler burps, and fumes from the exhaust float up to the atmosphere, seeding the beginnings of tomorrow’s storm. 

We know our challenges are connected. 

A deepening gap between rich and poor. Housing affordability. Indigenous reconciliation. Mass global migration and conflict. Embedded racism. Climate change. 

So why shouldn’t our solutions be connected as well? Over the past few years “multisolving” rose to the surface as a new way of approaching problem definition and program design in the climate change space. Just recently Elizabeth Sawin, who coined the term, launched the Multisolving Institute to support its growth, and ultimately, the idea is a simple one; one that has existed in different movements for quite some time. While there are compelling reasons to focus on one thing at a time, there’s a growing sense that many of the big, complex problems we face can’t be resolved without acknowledging their common roots and inter-connections. Multisolving is based on the idea that “siloed” thinking is part of the problem, and won’t achieve the transformative changes we need. Only by working to find systemic solutions that “floats more boats” will we access the innovation generated in working across diverse sectors, build the necessary constituencies of support to make tough political decisions that last more than one election cycle, and create truly equitable solutions. 


This sounds great, but for most of us, this idea is daunting. 

We don’t have the knowledge or skills to work across multiple complex fields; we have yet to discover what the interconnections are or how the pieces fit together; this work requires building trusting relationships with groups we don’t usually work with, a process that takes significant time and investment. In many spaces policy makers and bureaucrats are actively encouraged to silo their solutions to avoid stepping on toes, or delaying action. It all seems extremely time consuming at a moment when we feel we should be accelerating our efforts. How do we even begin? 

Enter the Multisolving Challenge Game. The idea was born via collaboration among The Atmospheric Fund, Low Carbon Cities Canada and the Centre For Social Innovation. The train of thought was if we could create a fun and gamified approach, then we could help people work together through this human-centred design challenge. And so that’s exactly what we tried. Over the last six months, we’ve engaged over 100 participants in the game, and surveyed them after about their insights on what they learned. Check out our findings compiled by our colleague Paluck Kohli, which includes ten insights on how to adopt a multisolving approach. 

Ten Multisolving Design Principles 

  1. Clearly identify co-benefits at the outset so they can be intentionally integrated into program design right from the start.
  2. Centre equity as a guiding principle by ensuring that any proposed programs support marginalized stakeholders 
  3. Carefully consider who the “stakeholders” are – including those who stand to benefit and those most impacted – and ensure their perspectives are applied to the problem definition and solutions development phase 
  4. Acknowledge the Problem-Situation Concept – ie that problems always relate to their specific situation and be defined differently depending on different points of view 
  5. Leverage the multisolving approach as a method for building new and different relationships and insights – and driving innovation 
  6. Identify constraints that will inform the design, and dare to imagine beyond what is currently considered feasible 
  7. Take time to engage diverse players and explore less familiar pathways’ 
  8. Fill gaps in expertise to ensure that good information is available regarding multiple solution areas 
  9. Understand that multisolving solutions require more time to set up at the outset – plan timelines and resourcing accordingly – this is the “going slow to go fast” concept 
  10. Create new narratives. Cultivate and pay attention to the story that is being told – the good, the bad and the ugly – and how it can be used to challenge assumptions and shift mindsets 

If you would like to learn more about what we’ve done and what we are hoping to do next, this can be found in our report back deck. We are currently working on a Phase 2 of the project, If you would like to join an emerging Multisolving Community of Practice, or if you would be interested in arranging a Multisolving Challenge game for your organization, please contact Stefan Hostettor ( to follow up.

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