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 22 2013: Seen a couple of TED talks lately that posit some ideas that may help. Also some of ideas of Eric Berne possibly relevant here. Big problems tend to be difficult to resolve because often 'enmeshed' factors at play. Resolve one issue and other issues more complex because of resolution of one factor. Nothing wrong with optimism as in 'yes, this is fixable' - possibly difficulty lays in thinking fixibility achievable over a particular time frame. Understand this might be better illustrated by eastern scientific paradigms than western scientific paradigms ( idea from TED talk about impact of linguistics on savings habits in local populations). Possibly mindset that all factors ultimately yield to some form of manipulation also causing complications (idea from TED debate about global impact of cloud seeding to produce rain). Possibly something about the quality of the answers to the 'big problems' means lack of exploration into all experimental results (think the term is positive bias). Possibly also the mindset that the answers may be found by an individual or even a small team from a particular branch of expertise, which is where TED is so valuable as it increases access by non-specialists who might be see something else that is relevant. To illustrate 'Malaria' simple, relatively low-tech solution a bulky object (artificial cow) to draw away some of the pests - see University of Greenwich, U.K, website as not sure which academic journal to quote. Somehow technology 'doing' the saving rather than the use of technology and human ingenuity possibly part of the block to rate of progression. Hope vocabulary sufficient to be understood. Bet others can supply named sources. Still also like the idea of the 'golden circle' from another TED talk which I understood to say think about process not outcome and get a better result as less rigidity in expectations.
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        Feb 24 2013: Thank you, yes fog (feel like female version of Homer SImpson sometimes).

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