TED Conversations

Jason Pontin

Editor in Chief/Publisher, MIT's Technology Review


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"Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?"

I'll be giving a TED U Talk in Longbeach at the end of the month. I'll be asking "Why Can't We Solve Big Problems?" I think that blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

I'd love to know what the TED Community thinks our difficulties are - or, even if the idea is true at all.

Here's a URL to the story I wrote in MIT Technology Review on the subject: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/429690/why-we-cant-solve-big-problems/


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  • Feb 14 2013: I think the question as is, might be a bit loaded.

    In the past hundred years, we've actually made a lot of progress solving many, many big problems, even in some of the listed problems.

    For example:
    - Much safer: water, food, housing, work environments, etc.
    - Countless medical advancements, leading to longer, healthier life spans,
    lower infant mortality, etc. How about polio or measles?.

    Your chances with cancer, malaria and old age maladies are a lot better now than they were even twenty years ago.

    Certainly, there are lots of problems still to be solved, but many have solutions that can only be approached asymptotically.

    Perhaps the question should be :
    "Why have many of our attempts at solving big problems failed to make real progress?"

    My experience in the aerospace industry, has led me to believe that the best, most creative, solutions come from small groups of competent, passionate people, with good leadership and a clear goal.

    It may seem counter-intuitive, but too much money and "big-ness" often just gets in the way of solving the real problem. Lean and passion-driven seems to beat big and money-driven every time.
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      Feb 14 2013: You said, "Lean and passion-driven seems to beat big and money-driven every time. "

      SO TRUE! But money sure has a louder voice and far more clout over the lean and passion driven.

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