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We Need 21st Century Solutions For 21st Century Problems

2016 September 28
by Greg Satell

Every age has its achievements. The fifties brought us the post-war boom and the rise in living standards that came with it. The sixties brought us moonshots and the seventies free love. We ended the Cold War in the eighties and embraced the Internet in the nineties. Every generation leaves something to build on.

The converse is also true and the sins of each generation are visited on the the next. Jim Crow and the Red Scare brought us race riots and Vietnam. Free love and experimentation helped lead to AIDS and cocaine epidemics.  Greater prosperity and industrialization have lifted entire populations, but are also warming the planet.

Our current age is unique in that many of our most profound problems arise from our past achievements. Rising longevity, prosperity, connectivity and automation are contributing to unsustainable healthcare costs, terrorism and income inequality. Every year, innovators from around the world gather at the BIF Summit suss out solutions to problems like these.

Our Demographic Dilemma

In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, economist Robert Gordon argues that aging is one of 6 headwinds that contribute to falling productivity. As baby boomers retire, worker to retiree ratios are falling drastically, while healthcare costs continue to rise. In many developed countries, wheelchairs and walkers outnumber baby carriages.

At BIF 2016, James Coughlin, Director at MIT AgeLab provided a more hopeful view. We’re not only getting older, we’re also healthy and productive longer. While it used to be normal to retire at 65, increasing numbers of us now expect to work well into our seventies and eighties. Growing old isn’t what it used to be.

Still, with new opportunities come new problems. Earlier generations were educated to work for thirty or forty years in stable industries. Now however, we can expect to work fifty or sixty years, spanning two or three careers. Many of the jobs that today’s graduates will have to perform don’t even exist yet.

Clearly, we need to reinvent education to adapt to these new realities. We can no longer expect four years of college — or even six or eight — to prepare us for an entire career. Learning needs to become a lifelong endeavor and academic institutions increasingly need to cater to those in their fifties as much as they do for those in their twenties.

Advancing Beyond Our Comprehension

Our newfound longevity didn’t happen by accident. Consider that until 1943, there was no effective treatment for bacterial infections. Even a scratch from a rose bush could become fatal. It is only in the past 20 or 30 years that we’ve come up with truly effective treatments for heart disease and common cancers.

We accomplished these things through exploration. It was through understanding basic physiology that we made progress against modern plagues. More recently, the Human Genome Project and the Cancer Genome Atlas have ushered in a new era of medicine. In much the same way, the Apollo program spurred advancements in information technology.

Yet today, we need to explore new horizons. It’s one thing to read a genome, but Andrew Hessel, a distinguished scientist at Autodesk, believes it is time we learned how to write one. We made it to the moon in 1969, but Dava Newman, Deputy Administrator at NASA, is working to get us to Mars by the 2030’s.

As they told their stories at BIF 2016, it was hard to not be consumed with wonder about the future. Twenty years ago, in 1996, few had mobile phones or an Internet connection. Terrorism was largely a secondary concern and millions died needlessly from once fatal diseases that are considered to be chronic conditions today.

What problems and opportunities will the next twenty bring?

Dealing With Unfinished Business

While problems related to greater longevity are relatively new, we still struggle with longstanding challenges that are still unresolved. Over-incarceration has given us an entire generation of ex-convicts who are ill equipped to function in society. Many who suffer from mental illness remain neglected and untreated. Wounded veterans return home with scars nobody can see.

There were many working to solve these types of problems as well. Kalimah Priforce is helping to close the diversity gap in technology by teaching underserved kids how to code at Qeyno Labs. Ross Szabo is working to take the stigma out of mental illness at the Human Power Project and Coss Marte is giving the former convicts a second chance at Conbody.

Some of the approaches were more unconventional. Darden Smith, for example, is helping alleviate post-traumatic stress through SongwritingWith:Soldiers, while Céline Schillinger is working to cure modern plagues like Denge through social innovation.

Unlike going to Mars or creating synthetic genomes, these types of problems have been around for a long time, which is why our most prosaic problems are often the ones that require the most innovative solutions. If they could have been resolved through conventional means, these issues would have been settled long ago.

It Takes A Village

We tend to think about problems logically. Entrepreneurs create prosperity, doctors cure disease and engineers develop new technologies. What we often miss is that no problem is an island. When healthcare costs spiral out of control, it’s much harder for entrepreneurs to start businesses, just as a neglected education system reduces our capacity to meet future challenges.

Compounding the complexity is that linkages tend to be dynamic and not static. Few foresaw the problems that longevity would cause, and we are unlikely to foresee the future challenges today’s advancements will create. In a generation, we may struggle with problems that astronauts face returning from Mars that are similar to what our war veterans face today.

The truth is that we not only need to think differently about the challenges we face today, we also need to prepare differently. As I note in my upcoming book, Mapping Innovation, the challenges we now face are far more complex and require larger, more interdisciplinary teams. To effectively solve problems today, we need computer scientists working with social scientists, community activists and designers, just to name a few.

BIF Founder Saul Kaplan probably said it best when at the start of BIF 2016 he said that it was “not just a conference, but a community.” It is no longer enough to simply think about problems and propose solutions. The challenges we face in the 21st century require that we collaborate around them.
– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Glen Milne permalink
    October 2, 2016

    Tyro here….I liked the above synopsis. What is ‘BIF” ?

  2. October 3, 2016

    The Business Innovation Factory Summit. More info in the link.

    – Greg

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