“I’ve just heard about a great new ______ that will solve the ______ problem!”
And so goes the optimistic, well-intentioned refrain. The blanks can be straws or a well or a hospital on a boat or a cheap rugged laptop or or or….it doesn’t matter, because the trope is the same: there’s a thing that someone has invented (usually in the West) and it will finally solve such-and-such problem for good. (And, implied, it will be quick and easy!)
I’m torn about how to react to this. There’s a version of this story that I find hugely energizing, and another that feels like a modern, techno-optimistic belittling of a faraway problem, one that creates a caricature of the problem and of the people living with it…and this is never a good thing.
On the plus side, I deeply, emphatically believe that one of the biggest opportunities in the world is to get our best and brightest minds focusing on solving the most important problems of our generation. I don’t need a toothbrush that might deliver caffeine, or “mega” and “mini” sized M&Ms (thanks Tim), or a razor with 22 blades.
But just because we (sometimes) turn our attention to the big problems in the world doesn’t mean we will flip a switch and easily solve them. That great idea may be great, but after it’s made into a great product, that product will still have to be manufactured, it will have to get through customs, it will have to survive contact with customers and distribution and dealer margins and fraud and theft and warranties and repairs…usually all of this far away from reliable sources of power, good roads, good anything that makes things easier to pull off. That’s a long-term play.
The notion that any big, thorny problem will “just” be solved by a better gizmo not only runs the risk of pouring resources into the wrong initiatives, it also belittles the problem and, in so doing, belittles the people who are struggling to live without access to safe water, to affordable, reliable power, or to decent, affordable schools.
Yes, we are desperate for breakthroughs, the kinds that leverage technology platforms to deliver better information and banking services, or ones that capitalize on and accelerate declining cost curves for solar to engineer all sorts of products in new and better ways – ways that cut the costs by 100-fold while not sacrificing quality.
But achieving these sorts of breakthroughs gets us to the starting line, not to the finish line, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either naïve or is angling for a fast buck.
Getting whatever that miraculous invention is to a few billion people is always going to be a long road, one with twists and turns and endless surprising pitfalls along the way. Navigating this road will take grit and determination and perseverance beyond the capacity of most people. Indeed, this is the “sacred trust” of leadership that Chinua Achebe speaks about so eloquently, it’s what we must look for in all leaders who are making real change in the world.
The problems they are working on are not insurmountable. Not by a long shot. But there are also no quick fixes.
Indeed, everyone I know who is changing the world is in the long-haul business.