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COURSE OFFERED | Public Problem Solving


Catalog Number: TCS-UY 2122

Course ID: 234169

Course Description


This transdisciplinary online class offers a systematic introduction to the problem-solving skills you will need to take a mission driven project from idea to implementation. By combining the teaching of quantitative and qualitative methods with participatory and equitable approaches that include the communities we aim to help in the problem-solving process, this course will enable you to become a more powerful agent of change with the ability to realize as well as design innovative and measurable solutions to contemporary problems.


Using real world examples, each week, we learn a new problem-solving method and the application of that method to real world challenges through a series of discussions with world leading change agents. This course is problem-led. Students will apply lessons learned to develop an original intervention designed to improve people’s lives to a problem in areas such as climate change, inequality, systemic racism and discrimination, unemployment, and pandemic response.


Course Objectives


The goals of the course are to:


  • Introduce you to leading social and public innovators who are passionate about real world change.

  • Give you methods and tools -- new ways of working -- to become a catalyst for change.

  • Introduce you to the latest tools and technologies for designing and implementing mission-driven projects

  • Ensure that you know how to use big data, collective intelligence and behavioral insights to solve problems more efficiently and effectively.

  • Ensure you have the ability to transparently and democratically, working with communities, not just for them.

  • Teach you to build powerful partnerships that yield high-quality results.

  • Help you learn to combine subject matter expertise and problem solving skills to address real world problems.

  • Introduce you to careers in the private sector, public sector and nonprofit sector where you can make a difference and earn a living.


Why This Course


This is a first of its kind course on problem-solving methods. It combines the teaching of quantitative and qualitative methods to enable students to become more effective leaders and professionals.


Science and technology have progressed exponentially, making it possible for humans to live longer, healthier, more creative lives. The explosion of Internet and mobile phone technologies have increased trade, literacy, and mobility. At the same time, life expectancy for the poor has not increased and is declining.  As science fiction writer William Gibson famously quipped, the future is here, but unevenly distributed. 


With urgent problems from inequality to climate change, we need to train more passionate and innovative people to learn how to leverage new technology, data and the collective wisdom in our communities to tackle public problems. Public problems are those compelling and important challenges where neither the problem is well-understood nor the solution agreed upon, yet we must devise and implement approaches, often from different disciplines, in an effort to improve people’s lives.


Problem solving has been identified as one of the most important skills a graduate of engineering and computer science as well as other professional schools needs to have in the 21st century. The primacy of technology in our daily lives combined with the urgent need to design and implement solutions to public problems require a new curriculum of public entrepreneurship.

Course Structure


Weekly instruction will comprise:

  • 1 synchronous online lecture on Wednesdays (small-group exercises, guest lectures or large-group discussions)

  • 1 asynchronous lecture divided into short modules to be done at your own pace

  • Self-assessment quiz for each module

  • 1-2 asynchronous guest interviews with leading public problem solvers 

  • Weekly reading assignment (all materials to be provided online)

  • Weekly discussion posting about the reading

  • At home practical exercise

Detailed Outline of the Course


Topic 1: Why Public Problems Cannot be Solved - Everyone has heard of entrepreneurship. We all know what it means to start and grow a business. But few of us have heard of public problem solving or public entrepreneurship and understand how we can go about improving the lives of others. What if we have a good idea for changing our own school or community, how do we set it in motion? What if we want to change the world, how do we get it done? And how do we measure our success? And what is the difference between public and private entrepreneurship or activism or social innovation? During the first week, we define public problem solving and set it in the context of problem-based learning. We discuss what are public problems and why they can never really be “solved.” We also situate the course against the current geopolitical background and explore the major public problems we are going to need to solve in the decade ahead.


Topic 2: Innovative Problem Solving Pathways - “Have you thought of a clever product to mitigate climate change?...Have you come up with a new kind of school, or new ideas for lowering the rate of urban shootings?,” writes Tina Rosenberg in the New York Times, “Thanks, but we have lots of those. Whatever problem possesses you, we already have plenty of ways to solve it...So don’t invent something new. If you want to make a contribution, choose one of those ideas — and spread it.”  In order to be able to implement a new idea, not just create it, we begin our program with an overview of the pathway from idea to implementation, previewing the steps we need to take along the way. This preview allows us to anticipate what we will need to do, working backwards from scale to ensure that we anticipate future milestones and deliverables. We compare this process to other project management methods and explore the differences.


Topic 3: Defining a public problem  - One cannot come up with workable solutions until one has defined, as concretely as possible and with the input of others, the problem to be solved. Problem definition is the process of narrowing a major issue down to a more readily definable and solvable smaller problem by hypothesizing why a problem is occurring and identifying its root causes. The process generally involves a multi-step process of defining and re-framing the problem to arrive at either a narrower or a new understanding of an actionable challenge. Problem definition skills include developing a hypothesis; defining and re-defining root causes and requires the capacity to listen to all people affected or involved in that particular area inside and outside the organization.


Topic 4 and 5: Defining problems with data - By making it possible to measure past successes, spot present disparities, and predict future performance, data is becoming a key tool for making decisions and tackling problems in every arena. Next we turn to identifying the data we need to understand the problem and develop some basic skills in data analysis needed to develop projects further. Data helps us both to define the problem and establish metrics and indicators of success. Data analytical thinking emphasizes the value of data to achieve improved outcomes and equities, reduced cost and increased efficiency in how public policies and services are created. Data analytical skills include formulating a hypothesis, identifying data to test an hypothesis, spotting patterns and predicting trends from data and sharing data responsibly.


Topic 6: Defining problems with human-centered design - You can solve problems faster and more effectively when you understand the environment, wants, and needs of those you are trying to help. Thus, we focus next on human-centered design (HCD). HCD is a structured set of methods and tools that can help us develop innovative solutions that truly respond to people’s needs by engaging the people you are trying to help. We will focus on those ethnographic practices that involve talking to and collaborating with (not simply observing) those affected by a policy or service to understand their needs, desires and experiences. We will discuss how to reach out to and engage diverse, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic populations as well as vulnerable populations, such as the homeless or mentally ill. For a design to be truly human-centered, it should engage and involve users from start to finish. Human-centered design involves skills such as interviewing, surveying and journey mapping and knowledge of how to conduct such research responsibly.


Topic 7: Writing the Letter - Effective problem solving requires developing the skills needed to learn rapidly from others, especially from experts with experience and expertise. Thus, we devote a week to learning the singularly important, yet rarely taught skill, of how to write a persuasive request for an expert interview, how to conduct the interview and how to identify whom to write to and when in the lifecycle of your project.


Topic 8: Fast Field Scanning - Bill Clinton famously said, “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.” Solid research is essential to the work of the public problem solver. Before championing an intervention, she needs to know whether it is likely to improve outcomes? Will the results be worth the investment it will take to bring about this change? What alternative solutions are out there? How does she know what the right – or at least likely – answers to these questions are? Thus, the public entrepreneur cannot afford to ignore any possible solution, whether the subject of a narrow randomized controlled trial or a broad scale pilot in the field but without formal evaluation. We learn how to get up to speed quickly both on academic research and on social innovation.


Topic 9: Expanding your solution toolkit - Reformers have traditionally resorted to tools including legislation, regulation, grants and subsidies, public interest litigation and and so on to solve public problems. In the digital age, however, we have new tools like websites, apps, datasets, social media campaigns, prize-backed challenges, market allocation mechanisms and more. In this session, we look at the interplay between policies, markets and technologies as mechanisms for social change and seek to expand your repertoire of new tools and methods for social change.


Topic 10: Developing solutions with open innovation - Open innovation describes the distributed process of working across organizational boundaries to accelerate innovation. Open innovation enhances both the effectiveness and legitimacy of problem solving. As we know from restaurant reviews on Yelp and medical discussions on WebMD and Patients Like Me or from reading entries on Wikipedia, productive knowledge is widely distributed. The value of more open innovation is that it leverages this collective intelligence that goes beyond preferences and opinions to accelerate the solving of public problems. Open innovation skills include the ability to define a clear and compelling goal, determine appropriate incentives, define the task for people to do and decide how to use their contributions to support future decision-making and actions. We learn key techniques including crowdsourcing, crowdlaw and social auditing. Specifically, we’re going to explore how to undertake such collaboration efficiently and effectively and by tapping into people’s expertise both to define the problem and to devise innovative solutions.


Topic 11: Powerful Partnerships - The magnitude and urgency of challenges such as racism and discrimination, climate change, social inequality, and technology-generated un(der)employment calls upon us to work together. With the right design, and far more effectively than if we acted separately, we can concentrate resources and energy to tackle our shared problems. A leading-edge example of partnership is the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH). This six-year program takes Year 9 students through to an associate degree by Year 14, to prepare them for a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field. There is no entrance exam and admission is by lottery to improve equity. P-Tech began as a partnership between the New York City Department of Education, the City University of New York (CUNY) and IBM. Working together, the partners launched the first school in Brooklyn in September 2011, graduating the first class in 2017. But partnerships can be difficult to govern and manage, especially when the interests of partners diverge.


Topic 12: Experiments for Change - We learn together the skills of knowing how and why to design an experiment, such as a randomized controlled trial, but also how to use more participatory and democratic techniques to measure the results and know how to scale the learnings. We will also address the innovation of behavioral insights, an inductive approach that combines insights from psychology, cognitive science, and social science with empirically-tested results to discover how humans actually make choices. Behavioral insights aim at improving the welfare of citizens and consumers through solutions  that are based on empirically-tested results, derived using sound experimental methods. 


Topic 13: Bullet Point Boot Camp - Writing the Killer Memo - In this session we cover strategies for persuasive memo writing in order to pitch your projects persuasively and review an array of tools and methods for becoming a more effective public problem solver and leader.


Topic 14: Persuasive Pitches - In our final session, we will deepen our discussion of visual, verbal and verbal communication skills to address how to persuade others to adopt our project. Whether it is a project participant, a funder, a boss or simply ourselves whom we need to convince, we investigate design strategies for creating persuasive media.


Topic 15: Leaders, Institutions and Social Change - Having explored the problem-solving skills of the individual public problem solver, we now turn our attention to how technology is generating a more adaptive, evidence-based and collaborative way of working, and enabling the emergence of a new class of organizations. It is self-evident that the exercise of innovation skills depends not only on the capabilities of individuals, but on the environment in which they work and, in this final week, we look at why some institutions are better than others at fostering more innovative, positive social change.

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