While many conference participants were talking about specific infrastructure and economic actions needed to address the problem — such as engineering challenges and the urgency of replacing the city’s water pipes — the Yale students were there to talk about systems thinking, an approach to problem-solving that explicitly examines interactions between various components of a system.
The group, which during the fall took the course “Science to Solutions” with Profs. Paul Anastas
and Julie Zimmerman
, made the case in a pair of presentations for how utilizing a more complex systems approach can solve society’s “wicked” problems — and might help prevent the next Flint.
During a recent discussion, three of those students — Santiago Zindel Mundet Cruz
, Rebecca Lehman
, and Alexandra Vecchio
— described how their visit deepened their understanding of the community’s fight and what it revealed about the challenge of battling future environmental and social challenges.
Your work on Flint grew out your experience in the course, “Science to Solutions,” last fall. How did that course prepare you for being on the ground in Flint?
The course was described as offering a framework for thinking about how to fix large problems. What attracted me to the class was the opportunity to learn how to address these larger problems. I spoke with some people who had taken the course the year before, when it addressed the New York sewage system, and it sounded really interesting; rather than just address something abstract and theoretical, there was more an actual framework and way of thinking.
I thought the framework for the class was very practical and applicable for problem solving in the real world. It allowed us to see what that looks like in terms of taking in multiple perspectives on any issue: looking at it as a technology piece, a science piece, a policy piece, environmental justice, communications and economics. So those were the lenses the class was crafted around. We looked at the Flint case and were able to hear from guest speakers on each one of those topic areas.
It was our job to take that information and then, in small groups, turn that into a white paper that examined drinking water infrastructure at large in the United States. But we also looked specifically at what occurred in Flint and what recommendations we would make moving forward to change that situation and how we could best solve it. For me, it was a great way to integrate all the pieces that have to be considered and then how do we solve these complex or, as we call them in class, “wicked” problems.
I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t know that much about Flint when I signed up for the class.