Why Can’t We Solve Big Problems?: My response to the TED Discussion

This post is my (first) comment in response to the TED.com discussion “Why Can’t We Solve Big Problems?  The Discussion was started by Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief & Publisher, MIT’s Technology Review. 
He says:  

“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 ask:

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 government, 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.  We’re now in a period of technological consolidation.  With hindsight, you wouldn’t want to fault the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Warren Buffett when they were amassing their huge fortunes, that are now being directed to the betterment of mankind.

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3 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Solve Big Problems?: My response to the TED Discussion

  1. Rolando Manso

    You’ve made an excellent point and I assume your mention of leadership indicates the need for a global paradigm shift to compensate for what technology cannot do alone.

  2. Ed Post author

    Actually, what I’m calling for is a better application of a multidisciplinary Systems Analysis (“Systems Thinking” or “Systems Engineering”) approach to dealing with “Big Problems”. This shouldn’t require a paradigm shift (except for those unfamiliar with the approach). Rather, it would be an application of well-known methodologies, extended to consideration of difficult to quantify factors such as leadership and “vision”. Experts in Operations Research, Systems Engineering, and Complex Systems should know how to deal with such problems, although not so complex or ‘messy’.

    My 2006 AIAA Conference slides and accompanying paper on “The Value Proposition for Space” ( on my website or at http://www.slideshare.net/edwardbrockower/) deals with a somewhat similar problem by expanding the methods of “Trade Studies” (aka “Decision Analysis”) to include consideration of “Vision”, Maslow’s Hierarchy, and multi-generational sustainability. This might be likened to an expanded application of “Soft Systems Thinking”.

  3. Ed Post author

    After reading through many of the latest well-reasoned comments in the TED discussion I added this comment on TED, just now:

    “Alexander The Great conquered the known world because his brilliance, vision, and passion enabled him to “cut the Gordian knot” rather than allowing an insoluble problem to foil his will. In my Feb. 23 comment I discussed the need for vision and “leadership”, here I’d like to suggest that “big problems” don’t always need to be “solved”… They just need to be broken through.”


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