For most of our previous century, the world needed one primary thing (or rather, many things that fell under the same subheading): Stuff. More stuff. Higher quality stuff. Cheaper stuff.
When a young child was born into the developed or developing world, he or she could dream of no brighter future than one which featured a central role in this assembly line of stuff. Working in a factory, managing a team of workers, or owning a business have all been perfectly aspirational life options, all forms of cranking out the raw materials and finished goods that the people of the world have craved and have been eager to pay for. For more than a century, more stuff and better stuff made life easier, safer, healthier, more convenient and longer for all of us. Stuff has paved the roads, streamlined medical care, made living spaces cleaner and more efficient, made food tastier and safer, and made entertainment more available and more entertaining.
On the hierarchy of ideas, from bad to great to brilliant, most of the profitable ones have involved “inventions” (new stuff) and better ways to use, make and distribute the stuff that exists already.
But it’s possible that we’re reaching “peak stuff”, and the best ideas that lie ahead will fall into a new set of categories: not stuff, but fixes. If you’re a child born into the world today, we may need something new from you—Not inventions and objects, but solutions. Specifically, solutions like these:
Identifying new sources of energy
Our primary energy drivers have so far relied on the same basic idea: we burn something (coal, oil, natural gas) and use the resulting heat to turn turbines and charge batteries. Wind and solar energy are stepping in to turn the same turbines and charge the same storage units, but new possibilities abound…if we can identify and harness them. They’re everywhere, from tides to geothermal heat to the pounding of thousands of feet down a sidewalk that captures that motion and uses it to charge fuel cells. If we can collect the clean and free-roaming energy all around us, we’ll all reap the benefits.
Making habitations cooler
Cities are essential to the support of human life. They’re the hubs of humanity as we know it—centers of art, commerce, culture, communication, and human vibrance. As the planet warms, cities are also poised to trap excess heat and become very difficult places to live. But what if we painted roads and buildings white? What if we designed streets so the wind could blow through a clean channel and carry excess heat away? What if we planted trees that shielded and protected the most densely populated areas? What else?
In our rush to make, transport, sell and use the stuff that defines modern life, we’ve polluted our oceans, waterways, soil and air far beyond the point of easy recovery. But this recovery isn’t optional; our future depends on it. How can we approach each of these areas of the world around us and form a plan to systematically extract the plastics, heavy metals, and chemical byproducts that reside there? We can do it—We just have to figure out how.
Developing new forms of economic stability
People don’t just need food and shelter to live a good life. They need paychecks. Or more generally, every person on earth has an inherent right to pursue some form of financial stability and independence. But as the population skyrockets, automation takes the place of manual jobs, farms consolidate, and more and more people migrate from place to place in search of better conditions, what will all of us do for a living? A universal basic income would be nice, but how will such a thing come to pass? We don’t know yet. But we’ll need to figure it out. The clock is ticking.
Will you be one of the great minds of our new era? Will you be one of the rare few who will generate the ideas and solve the problems that define our new century? Let’s get to work!