Published: March 31st 2020



Part 2: Engineering for the SDGs Toolkit - A Guide to Creative Problem Solving

Published: March 31st 2020

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


This Toolkit is designed as a guide for teams who are working to address the defining challenges of time, encapsulated in the SDGs. It can be applied to any discipline and across the full spectrum of challenges, from the most entrenched dilemmas to everyday problems.

You might be launching a new business, coordinating a research initiative or delivering a charitable programme. Whatever you’re doing, this Toolkit lays out an easy-to-follow three step process that facilitates deep understanding and framing of problems, helps provide fresh perspectives and enables creative solutions. 

We begin by Defining the Challenge, ensuring we have a deep understanding of the cause, consequence and context of the problem we are trying to solve. Next, we Identify Solutions, using a number of fun activities to help draw out creative ideas. And finally we Design Implementation, where we will sketch out the practical steps required to turn our ideas into reality and make them happen.

We’ve incorporated a variety of techniques and tools you can use to provide inspiration, ignite the imagination and lead to innovative ideas that are focused on your priorities, as well as those of your stakeholders.  

Also included are a number of ‘Top Tips’ to assist you in your creative problem solving. These range from ideas for fun activities to get the creative juices flowing to suggestions for getting the most out of your stakeholders.


Step 1: Define the Challenge

An important first step is to make sure you and the people you’re working with understand and clearly define the challenge you are trying to address - if you don’t, and stakeholders view the cause, consequence and context of the challenge differently, it will hamper discussion, impair creativity and make consensus-building more difficult.

During the RAEng x Bobab UnConference, we were lucky enough to benefit from the insights and expertise of a panel of speakers drawn from academia and business. They presented on a range of challenges and opportunities facing the global engineering community, helping participants to think differently about the challenges they were going to tackle. 

But don’t worry if you can’t rely on external experts - there is always a wealth of experience amongst teams, waiting to be tapped into and we can use the ‘How Might We’ technique to begin reframing our collective understanding of the challenge and how it can be addressed.

Objectives: Explore the challenge, incorporating as many perspectives as possible, and select your chosen HMW to take forward into the next session

Time Required: 30 - 60 mins

Equipment: Pens; Post-its; voting stickers

Materials: Impact / Delivery Matrix Template

Group Activity

Participants take it in turns to describe the challenge as they see it (max. 1 minute each). Handy prompts to get people thinking include the context of the challenge, as well as the causes and consequences.

As they listen, ask other participants to note down their HMWs on post-it notes aiming for at least three per participant. Make sure you provide some examples to help structure contributions.

After everyone has spoken, stick the HMWs on a wall and review as a team - this may involve asking the HMW owner for additional clarification, removing duplicates and grouping similar HMWs into relevant sub-themes.

Now it’s time to prioritise the HMW. Use the Impact x Delivery Matrix to help decide which HMWs can have the greatest impact in the shortest period of time.

Ask participants to vote for their favourite HMW - this will go on to form the focus of the second session 


Step 2: Identify Solutions

Now that we have a deeper understanding of the challenge and we have begun to shape our thinking about how we might address it with our selected HMW, it’s time to think creatively about potential solutions.

In this second session, we’ll be using the ‘Crazy Eight’ technique, which combines individual assignments and group work to quickly generate and critique lots of solutions, some of which will probably be ‘crazy’.

During this session it’s important to ensure that feedback remains positive. During the RAEng x Bobab UnConference, we employed the ‘Yes, and…’ technique to help keep things upbeat. In this instance, rather than participants saying why an idea or solution won’t work, they take it in turns to expand the line of thinking by saying ‘Yes, and…’ before adding their contribution. Encouraging people to be receptive to the ideas of others helps foster a sense of collaboration.

Objectives: Explore a wide variety of potential solutions, positively contributing to other people's ideas, before selecting the groups Most Viable Solution (MVS) to take forward to the final session.

Time Required: 30 - 60 mins

Equipment: Pens; voting stickers

Materials: Crazy Eight Template; MVS Template

Group Activity

Set a timer and ask participants to think of eight different solutions in eight minutes - after each minute ask participants to move onto their next idea.

When everyone has generated their eight potential solutions, ask participants to present (1 minute max.) their top idea to the group, employing the ‘Yes, and…’ technique as a quick and easy way to encourage the free sharing of ideas. Each participant should make at least once ‘Yes, and…’ contribution to everyone else’s idea.

Once everyone has presented, ask participants to spend five minutes working individually to refine their top idea based on the feedback and suggestions from the other members of the group.

Participants will then take it in turns to present (1 minute max.) their refined idea to the group for a final time.

Participants then vote for their favourite idea which will become the MVS and the focus for the third and final workshop - be sure to highlight the criteria around which people should cast their votes - for example, is cost efficiency the most important factor, or is it potential impact of the idea? Perhaps speed is paramount, in which case is it more important that an idea can be rolled out quickly?


Step 3: Design Implementation

Ok, so we’ve explored the challenge and we’ve identified and refined our potential solution. Now it’s time to think practically about how we are going to actually deliver it and make it happen.

When running this session during the RAEng x Bobab Conference, we provided a series of structured questions to help participants think through what it would take to turn their idea into a reality. This included questions such as; ‘Will we need experts?’; ‘Do we need case studies?’; and ‘Do we need buy-in from other stakeholders?’

You can use these questions or devise your own depending on your circumstances. Either way, use the discussion the questions generate to identify the keys steps required to implement your solutions.

Objectives: Use structured questions to help the group think about practical requirements and identify the step-by-step implementation process

Time Required: 30 - 60 mins

Equipment: Pens; post-its

Materials: MVS Question Template; Implementation Template

Group Activity:

Start by reminding everyone of your MVS and how and why you reached it - regularly reiterating what you’ve already done together helps keep participants feeling positive. 

Walk the group through the structured questions you have identified to make sure everyone understands what they mean - ask participants to spend five minutes working individually to answer the questions, noting down their ideas on post-its. 

Now bring everyone back together and group the participants' answers under the respective questions.

Review and discuss the different answers as a group, looking out for similarities, themes and duplicates - during this discussion, it’s important to remember that we are working to articulate practical steps for implementation. Whilst reaching a consensus amongst the team is important, it should not be at the expense of the best outcomes so don’t try to please or accommodate everyone. 

Plot the step by step processes required to deliver your MVS. 


And that’s it - you’re done! We hope that you find this Toolkit useful in your creative problem solving.

We’d love to see examples of the projects and initiatives you develop using the Toolkit. You can easily upload your work on the Bobab platform here and share it with our global community of science, tech and business professionals.