Are we not solving big problems?

Mars (Source: NASA)

Mars (Source: NASA)

Lately, some influential technologists have been lamenting that we are not solving big problems.  A recent issue of MIT Technology Review carried an image of a disappointed Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 astronaut, with the cover line: “You Promised Me Mars Colonies. Instead, I Got Facebook.”  Aldrin advocates exploring and settling new worlds, such as Mars, to ensure the survival of humankind.  The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking agrees.  So does space entrepreneur Elon Musk who has commercialized launch services into Earth orbit.  His colleague Peter Thiel runs a venture capital firm that aims to tackle big problems and he provides fellowships to bright students to work on big problems instead of attending college.  States Thiel, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”  He brushes aside Apple as just a design innovator and the iPhone for its lack of breakthrough technology compared to the Apollo space program.  He finds the internet “a net plus, but not a big one.”  But as an early investor in Facebook, he carefully points out that the company is “on balance positive.”  The lead article in the above-mentioned magazine is titled ‘Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems”.

Are we really not solving big problems?  Or worse, that we cannot?  Neither is true.

People Are Solving Big Problems But We May Not See It

Whatever the technological merits of Apple’s products, the company has transformed the computer, tablet, music, and phone businesses through its alluring products.  Owners of the hundreds of millions of Apple products sold over the years may not see the company or its products as marginal.  Facebook has enabled us to interact socially and engage with organizations in new ways.  Its billion users must be deriving something they value.  Twitter may have seemed pointless in its early stages but it has found unexpected and valuable uses (e.g., to communicate in natural disasters, attacks, and riots; to find news and information).  Do they not reflect the solving of big problems?  And how many of the countless individuals and organizations that use the internet would rate it as trivial and be willing to return to ways of life before it?  How high would populating other planets be on your list of big problems worth undertaking today?  Could the survival of humankind be assured differently? 

Muhammad Yunus (Source: Yunus Centre)

Muhammad Yunus (Source: Yunus Centre)

Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder & CEO, Acumen Fund (Source: TED)

Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder & CEO, Acumen Fund (Source: TED)

There are others tackling big problems.  The Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’s development of micro-finance has improved the lives of tens of millions of the very poor in multiple countries.  The Gates Foundation’s work on poverty, health, and education has similarly benefited innumerable people across many countries.  The foundation and other organizations are now working to eradicate polio, just as smallpox was more than 3 decades ago.  A massive effort, begun by 189 countries in 2000, targeted 8 major global problems (called the Millennium Development Goals).  It has saved and bettered hundreds of millions of lives by reducing infant mortality, maternal mortality, poverty, hunger, and the incidence of diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS.  It has increased access to primary education and created opportunities for women.  Investments by the Acumen Fund have helped launched numerous small businesses in the field of health, energy, agriculture, water, housing, and education.  There are others but most such work falls in the shadows of high technology. 

We cannot solve problems that we do not see.  Often, technology is an essential part of the overall solution but it may be neither awe inspiring nor at the leading edge (e.g., M-Pesa in Kenya).  But when technology is used as the only lens with which to view the world, it misses vast tracts of it.  Can we view big problems differently so we recognize the work yet to be done while valuing the progress made?

What Is a Big Problem?

People hold different implicit definitions of the term big problems (or issues or challenges), which is counter-productive to solving them.  To develop a common understanding, I propose a simple definition of problem and a simple way to characterize a big problem.

A problem can be defined as the gap between the current state of a situation and its desired state.  Bridging that gap is solving the problem.

In the case of big problems: 

1.  The desirability gap is wide

The gap between the world as it is and what we believe it should be is wide.  Examples of how some big problem solvers have articulated the far, desired state:

President John F. Kennedy speaking at the joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961 (Source: JFK Library)

President John F. Kennedy speaking at the joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961 (Source: JFK Library)

  • The eight ambitious Millennium Development Goals that are to be accomplished by 2015
  • President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 vision to “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” [1]
  • Google’s desire to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
  • Efforts by a group of organizations to eradicate polio by 2018
  • Orville Wright’s 1917 observation, “My main interest is in the aeroplane as a real promoter of civilization… We shall have an entirely new form of transportation, which will serve many ends and contribute in many ways to the welfare and happiness of mankind.” [2]

For rhetorical reasons these public statements do not specify the current state.  In the actual doing of the work, considerable effort goes in to understanding it to determine the starting point of initiatives and appropriateness of solutions.

2. Bridging the gap is difficult

The reason why the Apollo program still grips our imagination is that Kennedy’s goal seemed impossibly difficult, yet it was achieved in a little less than his 10-year time frame.  Attaining the Millennium Development Goals, eradicating polio, finding economically viable sources of alternate energy, developing a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, are all very difficult tasks and the reason why they are viewed as big problems. 

Going from the current to the desired state is difficult for many reasons – rarely is it one.  It could stem from an inadequate understanding of the problem, state of science and technology, lack of funds, unattractive economics of the endeavor, disagreements among people differently affected, societal mores and cultural practices that hinder solution adoption, inadequate managerial and organizational capabilities, and so on.  There is risk, uncertainty, ambiguity, insufficient information, incomplete knowledge.  Big problems are typically multifaceted, complex, and systemic.

3.  The problem affects many people

While it is intuitive enough to see that big problems are those that affect many, it is left to our judgment to decide what is many.  Is it hundreds, thousands, millions?  People differ in their views.  And views vary by context.  I may view a million kids lacking laptops as a less pressing problem than half that number lacking essential vaccinations and sufficient nutrition. 

Differing views about what is many are especially likely when considering the economics of solving the problem.  Decades ago, pharmaceutical companies chose not to work on treatments for certain diseases because they affected only a few thousand people (they are called orphan diseases).  Discovering, developing, and commercializing treatments was financially not viable.  Pursuing treatments for diseases with hundreds of thousands or millions of patients was financially very attractive.  Orphan diseases remained neglected until regulatory and other changes altered the economics of targeting them.  Today, they are pursued actively by most pharmaceutical companies.  Meanwhile, research on new antibiotics that can benefit millions is lacking

The definition of problem and the three characteristics that distinguish big problems are simple and can be applied in a variety of settings by people of different professional backgrounds.  Applying them, however, requires thought and judgment.

Why We See Differently

Which problems we see as individuals, which ones we believe should be solved, and those that we choose to solve ourselves are all influenced by factors that act as lenses, sometimes subconsciously, and result in people drawing quite different conclusions. 

1.  Whose perspective?

Segway (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Segway (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is natural for problem solvers to take their own perspective in assessing the desirability gap.  On occasion, this view of how things should be may not be shared by the intended beneficiaries.  The incongruence can later result in the rejection of solutions.  Minus a thoughtful understanding of the beneficiaries’ perspectives, the wrong problem or one that does not exist can end up being tackled.  This risk is particularly high when problem solvers start with the premise that they already know the right solution.  Segway is an example.  It was claimed to transform transportation and society.  The millions who were supposed to adopt it responded with disinterest.

In any situation, the perspectives of both the solvers and beneficiaries are important.  The beneficiaries’ perspective shows the existence of a problem and the solvers’ perspective reflects their wish to solve it.  The two should intersect.  

2.  Values and interests

Our values play an important role in choosing the setting where we seek big problems worth our solving (e.g., in healthcare, transportation, energy, or education) and what we conceive of as the desired state (e.g., all citizens should be assured the best health care vs. all citizens should be assured basic health care vs. all citizens should buy for themselves the best health care they can afford).  Values also influence whether we consider a problem affecting a few hundred worth solving, that affecting thousands, or that affecting hundreds of thousands. 

For example, central to the work of the Gates Foundation is the Gates family’s belief that that all life has equal value; whether that life is in a low-income or high-income country.  Hence, the foundation is tackling major problems affecting populations (largely low income) that were previously neglected. 

Both our values and interests affect what we support as citizens.  My values may lead me to support the recently announced brain mapping project because it improves the chances of finding a treatment for dementia.  And my interest in astronomy may cause me to support NASA’s launching of the James Webb Space Telescope to further the exploration of the universe.

Herman Melville (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Herman Melville (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

1901 Wright glider, experiments at Kitty Hawk, North Caroline (Source: Library of Congress)

1901 Wright glider, experiments at Kitty Hawk, North Caroline (Source: Library of Congress)

Finally, our interest in a field, any field, may attract us to solve a problem in it because it is difficult.  In the great American novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote in 1851, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” [3]  And working in an entirely different field, aviation pioneer Orville Wright explained in a letter in 1900: “For some years I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man.  My disease has increased in severity and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money if not my life.” [4] 

3.  Expertise

Our expertise also acts as a lens by which we view the world, discover and define problems, and devise solutions.  While expertise is essential to solving big problems, it also has the potential to limit our view.  An economist runs the risk of seeing the world in purely economic terms, which is not wrong but may be incomplete, and can generate solutions that do not work because they are inconsistent with social mores and cultural practices.  Similarly, framing a big problem in purely technological terms misses other crucial aspects of a complex reality and can result in solutions that are unattractive or irrelevant from the beneficiary’s perspective (e.g., Segway). 

Interestingly, there are many instances of outsiders or newcomers to a field solving big problems in it.  Bill and Melinda Gates moved from a software company Microsoft to successfully taking on health, poverty, and education.  Neither Salman Khan, founder of the popular Khan Academy, nor Wendy Kopp, founder of the influential Teach for America, was an education expert when they developed their solutions.  Elon Musk began work on electric cars and space exploration after achieving success in internet-related businesses.  Steve Jobs entered a series of new businesses and transformed them.  Outsiders and newcomers fail, too.  The ones who succeed do not view problems from the singular perspective of their expertise.  They are problem driven rather than expertise led.  But their expertise helps them attack the problem in new ways and devise innovations that are part of a larger solution.

Difficult and important problems are solved best when solvers combine their expertise, values, and interests thoughtfully.  And recognize that their view of the world and expertise need to be complemented by those of others, and that their new idea or innovation is usually only a part of a larger solution to a complex problem.

Conclusion

Some of the technology-dominated views notwithstanding, there are many people and organizations working on big problems.  Most don’t get much media coverage.  Or their work falls in our blind-spot because we adopt a single lens with which to view the world.  However, there is no doubt that a lot more worthwhile work remains to be done.  Knowing what is a big problem and what affects our view of it is a start to attempt solving them. 

What big problems do you care about?  Who are the problem solvers whose work you like?  Comment below, if you like.  

 

References

[1]  “Urgent national needs” speech to a joint session of Congress, 25 May 1961, Presidential Files, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts.

[2]  Harper’s Magazine. “The safe and useful aeroplane: An interview with Orville Wright,” April 1917, pp. 609-619.

[3]  Melville, Herman (1851). “The Fossil Whale,” chapter 104, Moby Dick.  London, England: Richard Bently. 

[4]  First letter written by Orville Wright to Octave Chanute, May 13, 1900.  The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers, Octave Chanute Papers: Special Correspondence--Wright Brothers, 1900.  Library of Congress, Washington, DC

 

Copyright © 2013 Gaurab Bhardwaj