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Solve Complex Societal and Governmental Problems

Grand Challenges

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Solve Complex Societal and Governmental Problems

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Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: A grand challenge is an ambitious yet achievable goal that solves key problems on a large scale, usually capturing the public's imagination.

It issues a call to action, creating a sense of urgency and possibility that engages the many stakeholders needed to speed up new ways of thinking about the problem and progress towards solving that problem. A pioneering vision, large-scale collaborative effort, and an ambitious, but concrete, target are the defining hallmarks of grand challenges:

  • Grand vision: The power of a grand challenge comes from a narrative that shifts the collective conversation. Bold language - like making solar energy as cheap as coal, understanding the human brain, or answering the biggest questions in cancer – changes the question from "Why would we do that?" to "Why aren't we doing that?"
  • All hands-on deck: Grand challenges galvanize public excitement and draw in new communities of solvers. A coordinated, all-hands-on-deck approach engages other agencies, foundations, research universities, companies, and citizens. The idea of everyone as an asteroid hunter was a powerful way to involve the public in National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) work. Framing the call as "We can't do this alone; we need you," drew in motivated citizens interested in participating in scientific research (also known as citizen scientists)and experts.
  • Ambitious yet achievable target: A grand challenge inspires people to come up with new approaches because they know what you are trying to accomplish. NASA's challenge was to "land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth." The grand vision to "sequence and map all of the genes" guided the Human Genome Project. These targets let the community of solvers ask "what if," removing boundaries to innovative solutions.


Many agencies use grand challenges:

  • The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)'s Cyber Grand Challenge Final Event brought together top security researchers and hackers to identify cybersecurity flaws.
  • The Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative seeks to make solar energy cost competitive with coal by the end of the decade, and NASA's Asteroid Grand Challenge aims to find and address all asteroid threats to human populations.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Grand Challenges for Development address infant and maternal mortality, health supply chains, clean energy for agriculture, water for agriculture, access to off-grid energy, and early grade literacy. They are fighting Ebola, Zika, and future threats.
  • The Audacious Goals Initiative at National Institute of Health's National Eye Institute aims to restore eye vision.

See other federal grand challenges at


How might we create grand challenges?

You can use many frameworks:

  • get an all-in commitment from an agency (like NASA's space program);
  • engage matching funds from the private sector;
  • announces your commitment framework, and then create space for others to support it;
  • commit with external partnerships, but not fund any of the solutions.

Base your agency's commitment, the ways they will support the grand challenge, on many reasons including how they can, in a federal context, engage with other organizations–formally or informally–and which approach is most appropriate for the challenge goal:

  • How much control do you want to maintain?
  • Do you want to issue this into the world, and let a 501c3 or organizations take it forward?
  • Do you want to formally partner with other organizations to help run this?
  • Are you contracting with them, or partnering?

At its most basic level, a grand challenge program has three phases:

Phase 1: Problem Definition Phase

Invest time and resources in the problem definition process. Be open-minded to defining and redefining goals. Be prepared to refine your target based on feedback. Define the problem with expert stakeholder input and meaningful engagement by citizen solvers. They help identify the barriers to problem solving, and assess the landscape to understand what sort of call to action is needed. It takes the right problem, right partners, and right activities to catalyze action and create an opportunity to solve problems.

Phase 2: Program Development Phase

Grand challenge programs have these ingredients:

  • High-level support and receptiveness to new approaches give grand challenge teams permission to reimagine how they see the problem and who can help solve problems.
  • The right team of creative thinkers from within the agency who can see beyond what will happen next year, and look at longer time horizons.
  • A set timeframe, typically 5 to 10 years, but up to 20 years, with clear measurable targets and easy-to-track milestones.
  • Goals broken into parts so that experts and citizen solvers can contribute in different ways.
  • Multi-year planning that aligns with budget cycles, including a plan for implementation, and long-term plans for integrating outcomes from the challenge.

Phase 3: Program Implementation Phase

Like other programs, during implementation you will continually refine to keep pace with new learning, changes in technology, and other factors. In a challenge, focus an engagement strategy on the community of solvers. Use events to encourage progress towards the goal, to find what next steps might be, hear about needs, or share accomplishments. You are building a community based on partnership and engagement from every level, from deep technical experts to motivated citizens. If you want to broaden the community base of problem-solvers, you must have a constant drumbeat of activities and communication.

Actions and Considerations

You have a lot of flexibility in how you set up a grand challenge. Develop one that works best for your agency by using choices about funding levels, the structure of your program, and dividing roles and responsibilities. Below are a few things to consider while working on grand challenges:

  • Identify who should be engaged in the early stages of defining the problem.
  • Find out how you can use appropriated funds.
  • Select a framework to match your agency's commitment.
  • Get leadership support and build your agency's team.
  • Set goals and targets that balance ambition and feasibility.
  • Prepare multi-year budgets and plans for program development and implementation.
  • Develop targeted messages for each within the community of solvers.


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