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Jason Pontin

Editor in Chief/Publisher, MIT's Technology Review

TEDCRED 100+

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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 23 2013: I. Who says we can't solve big problems? If I measured my child's height, and then measured it again a week later, my friends would laugh at me if I complained to them that my child wasn't growing. Who's to say what the appropriate time-constants for change are, in such a huge dynamical system as our World? About a hundred years ago (only a hundred years!) the son of a President of the United States died because his blister became infected, and there were no antibiotics. That our progress isn't shared by all is indeed a tragedy, but there've been many huge problems solved in the past 100 years.

    II. Who's to say that we can choose which problems are solved first, and legislate when they must be solved? That level of control over nature and mankind is indeed a very Western conceit. The "illusion of control" makes us impatient with all the small incremental steps we take as we slog through the swamp of reality, one step back for each one+ step forward. cf. The Tao Teh Ching

    III. Perhaps there are seeds of an answer in Pontin's MIT Technology Review article "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems"? I suggest looking at the 3 orthogonal dimensions: 1) Leadership, 2) Technology, and 3) Stakeholders. The Technology is probably almost there, no? The Stakeholders are extremely diverse, many perceiving that they're involved in zero-sum games, hence hindering cooperation. Finally, could it be that the Leadership is sorely lacking. A Leader (or Leaders) must have the charismatic power and legitimacy (of a JFK) to craft and impart a Vision that can mobilize the stakeholders' buy-in, and the economic and political power to galvanize the Technological machines of governments, education, and industry.

    "Without vision, the people perish" -- Proverbs

    From the above ruminations, I suggest that the issues are more a matter of Will, Leadership, and Sustainable Commitment to a Vision, rather than technology, education, or short-sighted venture capitalists.

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