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  • Jil Haferkamp

Seeing the Opportunity – When Problems become Solutions

Who does not know those days when you feel overwhelmed by problems in your everyday life? In addition to our personal problems, the number of our major social problems seems to be increasing all the time. The news about poverty, refugees who had to leave their country for various reasons, sleeping politicians while climate change is happening, plastic pollution in the oceans, and the pandemic which widely impacts our social life. From air pollution to unemployment, a lexicon with our societal problems could easily be filled. Being overwhelmed and looking away are almost preprogrammed.

Breaking down the big problems into many smaller ones is always a good first step. But beyond that, we should think about a paradigm shift, whether a problem is really a problem.

As stated in the Cambridge Dictionary, a problem is "something that causes difficulty or that is hard to deal with" [1]. According to our current view, this definition describes the previously mentioned examples well. Nevertheless, we should ask ourselves whether these "problems" are rather a starting point for an opportunity or solution to have a positive impact on other people’s lives, our own, or in society. Instead of always seeing problems, a day full of opportunities would affect our mood and vibes more positively.

With 265,800 patent applications worldwide in 2019, more innovations have been registered than ever before [2]. Innovations in an economic context are new, advanced solutions to an underlying problem [3]. By this definition, our social problems would offer a huge scope for innovation.

If we look at the most innovative companies in the world, we can see that their innovations often only satisfy our artificially created needs. This is not wrong, but we need to look at the purpose and ultimate goals of the organization: Does the organization exists to maximize profits, in other words, to primarily increase shareholder value. Or does the organization’s purpose serve society by creating a bright and fair future for everyone? Even if many exist for the first reason and in some cases rather cause the problems, they offer great potential to lead the way as solution-shaper for a future worth living. These companies often possess comprehensive expertise and competencies in developing innovations as well as in their fast realization. The competencies described above are key resources to tackle many societal challenges and, therefore, should not remain unused.

At first, this seems very abstract and may even sound utopian. Maybe, because in the past we did not think of the concepts of business and the greater good together. We still cannot imagine the merge of the two pictures. Above all, the question arises, how a company can make a profit with innovations that tackle social challenges. Various companies, with their social business models, are already showing how this can look like:

For example, the company Discovering Hands [4] trains visually impaired women to become professional medical tacticians (MTU). Visually impaired women are better able to palpate breast cancer than normal people because of their highly developed tactile sense. This way, women who are often dependent on governmental support due to their impairment become valuable experts and save thousands of lives. Notpla [5] sees the worldwide plastic problem as an opportunity for using fast-growing seaweeds to produce compostable plastic alternatives and to replace any plastic packaging. And Africa Greentec [6] does not consider rural African villages an underdeveloped area, but rather a place where solar containers can collect many hours of sunlight and where people are willing to pay a fair price for electricity. Some other benefits include cleaner water, a light at night for the children to study, access to the internet, and cooler and longer storage for foods.

These companies show that problems are really just opportunities and, above all, space for innovation. But this paradigm shift does not only benefit businesses, we can also, make use of it personally and integrate it into our daily thinking. As soon as we catch ourselves complaining or pondering about “problems” again, let’s remind our mind that this is not a problem, but rather an opportunity or a space for innovation. Adopting this mindset allows us to be more positive and it creates room for creativity and the spirit of change at the same time. With so many social problems, um ... opportunities - who would not like to use them for innovation and a contribution to a better future for all?

[2] This corresponds to a growth of +5.2% over the previous year of 2018, and making it the tenth year of consecutive growth. [Last access: 05.11.2020]

[4] [Last access: 05.11.2020]

[5] [Last access: 05.11.2020] [6] [Last access: 05.11.2020]


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