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 18 2013: Lets rephrase the question to ask the much more empowering question how HOW CAN WE SOLVE BIG PROBLEMS? Then we may come up with the big solutions needed to do so.
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      Feb 18 2013: I agree Michelle, that focusing on what we CAN do is more energizing and empowering than focusing on what we cannot do....excellent point!!!
    • Feb 18 2013: i think you might be missing something here.

      it is important to keep a positive perspective, yes, but it is equally important to seek out and identify anything that might hinder us (the human race) from achieving progress.

      the fact of the matter is that we are capable of solving world hunger, equalizing global economy, and reversing environmental damage. however, these endeavors are not profitable to the entities that are capable of setting them into motion. if, by "Big Problems", we are referring to problems on a global scale, than i think the answer is capitalism. the world as a whole is obsessed with ownership, competition, money, profit, etc. and as a result, moralistic goals will always fall short of our need of luxury. we can solve the problems, but only by sacrificing capitalism.

      we all want to solve world hunger, but nobody is willing to question how it's possible in America to find braised Eel in countless restaurants that are thousands of miles away from the ocean, yet in Ethiopia it is almost impossible to eat enough to survive.
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        Feb 19 2013: William,
        I agree that it is "equally important to seek out and identify anything that might hinder....achieving progress".

        My interpretation of Michells's comment, and reinforcement of the idea is "FOCUS". Once we know what might be hindering progress, it may be good to focus our attention on solutions. Sometimes, it feels like we (humans) go round and round complaining and evaluating the challenges in our world, without genuinely seeking solutions. I agree with you that we (humans) are often obsessed with ownership, competition, money, profit, etc, and we are very good at theorizing!

        "One of the great difficulties in the new order of thought is that we are likely to indulge in too much theory and too little practice."
        (Ernest Holmes - "The Science of Mind")
        • Feb 19 2013: Ms. Steen,

          I truly agree with your statement, and believe that the development of effective courses of action is just as important as their implementation.

          the one thing i seem to observe, however, is that good ideas are not something we are in short supply of. everything is opensource, now. people are connected all across the world on a level that we've never seen. the progress of infrastructure in Africa is beginning to advance to the level of continent-wide casual internet access, which will make for a 20-30% increase in size to the global think tank.

          the problem that i see is that the decision of what the general effort of the human race will be is in the wrong hands. i think it's important for people to realize that there is something wrong with our governments, and that no matter what political stance you take, or activism you promote, no agenda is going to supersede that of the corporations, banks, etc. that own this planet, and that agenda seems to explicitly demonize individual aptitude, self reliance, peace, and pretty much anything that can fall under the broad definition of "a solution to a global problem."
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        Feb 23 2013: You make some good points William. Good ideas are not something we are in short supply of....people are connected throughout the world. WE are the governments...WE elect and appoint the leaders. When/if enough people take back their own power to think, feel, share ideas respectfully and genuinely work together, we may see some changes. Actually, I believe change is happening right now.

        Because of our advanced communication systems, (including TED), which facilitate more awareness, we are uncovering corruption in politics, corporations, religions, etc. Corruption and abuse of human rights thrives in isolation.

        What we focus on expends. I prefer to spend time and energy focusing on what we CAN do that will move us toward solving our global issues, rather than spending time and energy debating why we think we cannot Solve Big Problems.
    • Feb 19 2013: I agree with your idea to re-focus the question. I also believe that the term "solve" can also be misleading. As others have asserted once a "problem is solved" then another one will take its place. It is an unending cycle to continually "solve" problems. Rather taking steps in the name of progress and expanding knowledge have no definitive "end", so there is not the disappointment/frustration that can come with a solution-based strategy.
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        Feb 19 2013: Good point Jeff! I believe that as evolving humans, there may always be challenges, so if we know and understand this, we begin to look at the life experience in a different way? We can continually progress and expand with knowledge and technology without a definitive end result. I agree with you that this practice gives us (as individuals, AND as a global community) more freedom, time and energy to move forward and improve life circumstances, rather than spending time and energy with disappointment and frustration that can come with a solution-based strategy:>)

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