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  • Writer's pictureRamsey Cook

Problem Solving and Open Communication: Sustainable Design for Sustainable Communities

Sustainability has many definitions. The primary definition that I learned in my undergraduate education is that sustainability means meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs; this definition is reflected in the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economy, and society; people, planet, and profit.

Solutions are only sustainable if they, at best, improve one or more of those three pillars of sustainability and, at least, do not harm one of them. In a world full of problems to solve - the impending climate crisis, backsliding on crucial women’s rights, poverty, hunger, overconsumption - we need sustainable solutions more than ever. Unfortunately, humans often go about finding those sustainable solutions in all the wrong ways.

In my first year at Georgia Tech, I joined the Grand Challenges Living Learning Community, a program that does everything it can to train students out of ill-advised solution-finding habits. We worked in teams, identified a problem that we hoped to solve, and went on a year-long, problem solving journey to find the solution with the best social, ecological, and economic fit. The foundational concept of this program is simple: understand the problem before you think about the solution.

Later on in my college career, I worked with the Grand Challenges program again as a team facilitator and guided several teams through their own problem discovery journey. I found that my teams made the same mistakes I did in my freshman year, the most common of which was taking a very obvious observation about a problem and creating a solution from that observation.

Essentially, when we problem solve, whether subconsciously or consciously, we are matching gaps with insights. For example, take the problem space of aging: a gap may be that elderly people are failing to take their medicine at the right time. An insight may be that seniors have a large number of prescriptions to manage. Put these together, and we get the traditional solution: a pill organizer. There are other insights we could draw upon like specific neuropathies making it difficult to open pill bottles, loss of cognitive function with aging, or embarrassment over taking prescriptions in public. Each insight combines with a unique gap to create a new solution. The key to successful problem solving is pairing the right insights and gaps. Oftentimes, successful solutions incorporate many insights into one solution direction. This is why having a wide and deep understanding of the problem space in which we are working is so crucial.

Most commonly, we skip these steps. Instead, we take the first insight combination that pops into our head and we run with it without regard for the social, ecological, and economic context in which the solution would exist. In other words, we jump into a solution design before we understand the problem. There are many historical examples of this: one that we explored in Grand Challenges is the PlayPump. Designed by a South African entrepreneur, Kevin Field, the PlayPump attempts to solve issues of water access by pumping well water with energy from children playing. A schematic is shown in Figure 1. Children play on a merry go-round and turn a wheel which pumps water up to a reservoir. People in need of water no longer have to use a hand pump because gravity transports water from the reservoir to the spigot.

Graphic with icons (labeled #1) representing children stand near a merry-go-round. An arrow indicates that the merry-go-round is rotating. Below a strip of brown ground, the water table is depicted as a blue wave (labeled #3). A pipe (labeled #2) is shown with arrows indicating that water is being drawn from the water table. The pipe extends to the right and up to the top of a water tower (labeled #4). A pipe extends down from the top of the water tower and right to the spigot with another icon of a woman (labeled #5). Energy flows from the merry-go-round are indicated in green and labeled at the base of the water tower as #6. A dotted line outlines the top of the water tower and is labeled #7..
Figure 1. Schematic of the PlayPump

The PlayPump got major funding, including investment from the Bush family and a total of $10 million from the United States government. In the early 2010s, PlayPump was installed in about 10 different African countries, but use quickly stagnated for a number of reasons.

Maintenance, meant to be paid for by advertisements on top of the water tanks (number 7 in Figure 1), could not be performed because very few marketers wanted to invest in billboards in such remote locations. Thus, PlayPumps began to break without funding for repairs. The water pump merry-go-rounds were harder to rotate than expected; kids did not want to play on them, and women harvesting water found the system more difficult to use than pre-existing hand pumps (women in Mozambique interviewed by the Public Broadcasting Service say they were not consulted about the installation of the PlayPumps). In essence, the solution did not fit the existing customs and environmental constraints present in rural Africa.

Too often, those of us with power design novel, unique solutions without asking our users what they want, especially when our users are people who have been labeled as uncivilized or inferior to Western civilization. We waste time and resources, which grow increasingly valuable as we approach the climate thresholds for a livable planet, when designing solutions that our target user will never employ simply because we did not sit down and talk to them. No one knows the social, environmental, and economic context of a given problem better than those experiencing the problem; perhaps the best way to find unique gaps and insights is to engage them in conversation on such matters.

Of course, such engagement must remain constant. Sustainable design does not stop after the first interview; rather, it is iterative and requires constant communication with experts and stakeholders in the problem space. The first design should never be the final design (indeed, the first Dyson vacuum was considered complete only after 5,127 prototypes!).

As the United Nations (UN) works towards a sustainable world under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework, it, too, is working through an iterative design process. At the time of this publication, the UN had completed 3,196 events, 1,322 publications, and 6,178 actions related to the SDGs. Events and publications serve as knowledge sharing, helping the rest of us better understand the effects of climate change on our planet and its people. Actions are the products of this knowledge sharing - with a deeper understanding of the problem, we can provide better solutions. Each is an iteration of the last.

The United Nations feels far away for most of us perhaps because we observe problems in our own communities without frameworks to define them. We likely have a more intimate understanding of the social, economic, and environmental factors that influence these problems. More than that, we may know people who experience them. That is to say, we have all the crucial tools to problem-solve locally.

I just graduated from college, and, as I move away from my position as a writer for the Sustainable Age Student Journal, I’m thinking about what is next in my efforts to promote sustainable practices. How can I impact the climate crisis moving forward? I look at Atlanta: a growing city with increasing economic inequality and a pattern of racial discrimination that has yet to be corrected. A pattern that manifests in an unequal distribution of storm, sewer and water infrastructure, that results in poorer, Black neighborhoods being hotter than others as temperatures rise globally. The IPCC claims that those most vulnerable to climate change will bear the greatest burden of it. That much is apparent in my home of Atlanta.

I have insights as well. Impervious surfaces lead to lower quality water with more harmful flow patterns through storm and sewer infrastructure. There is considerable unity and momentum towards a more sustainable future across the city. Trees are multifaceted in their benefits; the city takes pride in its tree cover.

Green, leafy branch extending from the right in the foreground. Gray sky with tall, pencil-shaped skyscraper in the background
Hophornbeam tree on Georgia Tech’s campus with the iconic Bank of America Tower in the background.

When I take on my new role in Atlanta as a water resources engineer, I will continue to draw on my insights even as I learn more about my community through volunteer work. When I am presented with a problem that needs solving, I will turn to my observations, talk to the people being affected, and ask them what they need. Beyond that, I will do everything in my power to understand what already exists and how my solution might integrate into the current framework.

This mindset will act as an accelerant towards sustainable cities and communities. If we want to help, all we have to do is to begin by asking those impacted what they need.

Works Cited

“The 17 Goals | Sustainable Development.” United Nations, United Nations,

Costello, Amy. “Frontline/World | Southern Africa: Troubled Water | Synopsis and Video.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service,

“Design Process.” James Dyson,

“How Atlanta Became the Capital of Income Inequality.” 90.1 FM WABE, 31 Oct. 2018,

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