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: ll.
    What has happened in America, or to America, can be symbolized by the recent history of General Motors. It too was once a family. When GM needed to "modernize" on order to keep pace in technology, it entered into a join venture with Toyota to build Saturn cars in the way cars were built in Japan, robotically.

    "The choice of the Fremont plant and its workers was unusual. At the time of its closure, the Fremont employees were "considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States", according to the United Auto Workers. Employees drank alcohol on the job, were frequently absent (enough so that the production line couldn't be started), and even committed petty acts of sabotage such as putting "Coke bottles inside the door panels, so they'd rattle and annoy the customer." In spite of the history and reputation, when New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) reopened the factory for production in 1984, most of the troublesome GM workforce was rehired, with some sent to Japan to learn the Toyota Production System. Workers who made the transition identified the emphasis on quality and teamwork by Toyota management as what motivated a change in work ethic."

    One worker summed it up this way, " "You felt more loyal because you were really part of it all." GM had expected this emphasis on quality and teamwork to spread throughout the company. It wanted to remake GM in Saturn's mold, but the opposite happened. Ultimately, this once great symbol of America industry fell to its corporate knees to beg for a government bail out.
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      Feb 14 2013: Actually it was about how they organized the workers not the technology, they built Corollas at the Fremont plant. I mention this not as a dis but to point out that it was an amazing story and in this light has even more to do with your post. Which is good.

      I agree that we are lacking in a purpose that is inclusive of the individual. The individual gets crushed from a centralized government which is at the core of why TPS works (Toyota Production System).

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