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Big Idea Famine

Parse the title either way—I believe that 30 years from now people will look back at the beginning of our century and wonder what we were doing and thinking about big, hard, long-term problems, particularly those of basic research.

Published onFeb 02, 2018
Big Idea Famine

Parse the title either way—I believe that 30 years from now people will look back at the beginning of our century and wonder what we were doing and thinking about big, hard, long-term problems, particularly those of basic research. They will read books and articles written by us in which we congratulate ourselves about being innovative. The self-portraits we paint today show a disruptive and creative society, characterized by entrepreneurship, start-ups and big company research advertised as moonshots. Our great-grandchildren are certain to read about our accomplishments, all the companies started, and all the money made. At the same time, they will experience the unfortunate knock-on effects of an historical (by then) famine of big thinking.

Here’s what I mean with the help of three examples, which I beg you to read both literally and metaphorically:

First, which successful company has benefited the most from basic science and technology, yet given the least back to it? The answer: Apple. It is so extreme, that the runners-up are not even close. Apple funds internal research galore, then locks it up, reportedly refusing to allow its own scientists to attend public and open research conferences. It does make some software open (sort of), but funds no accessible research to speak of that would help further the kind of basic computer science upon which others can build. You might think that such behavior is natural; how could Apple—or any company for that matter—be competitive otherwise? And yet there is a long history of precompetitive basic science that, for example, came from the likes of Bell Labs (like semi-conductors), later IBM, and more recently Microsoft. You cannot keep skimming the cream off the top, without doing some basic, open research that is widely shared. Open and shared are the key words.

Second, think of all of the start-ups today that focus on thoughtless ways to do our laundry, deliver food or entertain ourselves with another app. Even new technologies, real discoveries, and inventions in science and engineering are often trivialized by the start-up process in order to meet the expectations of investors. Start-ups in general are the victims of focus: the new F-word. For example, a start-up using gene replication to make real sirloin steaks without cattle and very little water was guided into making leather to avoid problems posed by the FDA. This may sound practical, but it isn’t bold. In the end, it may work in terms of creating return on investment, being cash-flow positive or making wealth for a few. But it is not a world-changing advancement to help the hungry or, for that matter, vegetarians. 

Third is government. It’s very hard to pass a smell test when the whole room stinks, as it currently does under the Trump administration. But hold your nose and imagine a class of problems that will take 10 years of hard work to address, will have many blind alleys, and will see no economic return for a very long time. Not only are these problems characterized by large time horizons and high risk, but we also know that their solutions can only be achieved by sharing, by working together, by pooling insights and by standing on each other’s shoulders. Government labs served some of these purposes before they were closed down, as did universities before their faculty became distracted by creating start-ups and IP. Large scale government and inter-government funding is key, yet is plummeting.

I’m sure we can all find many counter-examples, but the three above all have something in common: greed. Summarized in four words, capitalism is not democracy. In the United States, we live in a dog-eat-dog society that emphasizes short-term competition over long-term collaboration. We think in terms of winning, not in terms of what might be beneficial for society. Kids aspire to be Mark Zuckerberg, not Alan Turing.

Disinterest in social welfare did not happen overnight. It has been the background music to American economic prosperity since World War II—especially during Republican administrations. You might argue: “But look, it works; we are arguably the largest economy.” However, who are the richest, most socially conscious, and most productive people in the world? No matter what list you look at, the top five are always social democracies, like Denmark and Sweden, which Americans often derogatorily called welfare states. These societies have a group mindset that puts us before me. They do not consider citizens to be customers.

When I started One Laptop per Child everybody—and I mean everybody—advised me to make it a for-profit organization so that I could incentivize people to join, as if the only incentive was money. Instead, the reverse happened: it was a non-profit, and those who joined passed an implicit character test because their aim was a larger good than lining their own pockets.

Likewise, 25 years before OLPC, the MIT Media Lab was built on the idea of doing things because you could, which often resulted in solutions looking for problems. Said differently, the Lab did what market forces did not. Today nearly 800 people work openly and with impunity on things considered impossible, unnecessary, silly or all of the above. When asked why, the answer is “Because.” So we might conclude that these reasons are themselves a form of short-sightedness.  

Maybe our great-grandchildren, assuming they are around, will be here because of world collaboration on the environment, peace and global prosperity. Therefore being socially minded might be more natural to them. If this is the case, I believe it should extend more generally to science and technology in order to compensate for the famine we are inadvertently creating today.


Idea I am getting from this article is, the incentive need not be monetary, it can be something else.

People who join to make the world better for the future, think in terms of giving back. While people who join to make profit think in using the humans rather than helping them.

Today, MIT Labs is Democratising capitalism through Technology that helped it till date. How is that possible? Because some people thought Money, is a medium to make the world happier. It is a glucose for the masses to feel energetic rather than alcohol that is used to get drunk.

Tristan Louis:

One of the biggest innovations of the 21st century is a legal one: the public benefit corporation (PBC for short), which allows for such test to be embedded in the foundational documents (the charter and bylaws) of a corporation. As such, it does create a test that balances financial reward with social responsibility.

Tristan Louis:

This is probably the largest single threat as some of the biggest concepts are never easy to commercialize at first. This is where the role of government is key as it allows pure research to happen and create benefits for all mankind. The undermining of government funded research over the last 40+ years is probably one of the biggest loss we will have to worry about in the future. As I look at this screen, I am amazed by the amount of government funded work that allowed for us to converse (from the US government funding of the Internet, to the European government funding of Tim Berners-Lee’s work to bring us the web, to the international community of research that brought us computers and modern communication protocols and technologies…)

Daniel Messing:

The paragraph beginning “Disinterest in social welfare did not happen overnight.“ is not accurate. It reveals a common misconception about the Nordic countries. See, e.g., And the idea that greed is a post-WWII phenomenon in the US is simply silly. It also contradicts the “First” argument, which lists the contributions of Bell Labs, etc. in contrast to Apple. Co-operation is obviously important, but greed is a fact that cannot be eliminated simply by condemning it. Who were the people who kept Shannon on the payroll at Bell Labs despite his not producing work that was of immediate value to the lab? Are there not people like that around today?

Mathai Fenn:

Not everything is bad. I am a fan of Open Source Software and now Hardware, thanks to Rohit Fenn and his passion for open source projects. Here is one of the projects he is working on.

Corey Acri:

This is one of the greatest threats to our future. We need to have more innovation that has social impact from both a cultural and economic prospective. Many of these sentiments are aptly discussed in Tim O’Reilly’s WTF. There is a need to think big but also think big to yield greatest societal impact. Unfortunately, only a handful of the best investors are looking for this result. The rest are looking for high returns.

Sumit Kumar Singhal:

I feel, like for most things in life, balance and optimization of multiple ideas and ideologies is key. Too much of one side - capitalism or socialism would lead to such famine.

‘Social Entrepreneurship’ is one answer that i have seen in US which is bridging some gap for this famine. One example is ‘’ that is working at the grassroots level to bring big and positive changes to the overall K-12 education system ensuring each kid reaches their maximum potential in life.

As an extension i think ideas like MIT Media lab should be brought into our High Schools and kids should be encouraged to work on their ‘big ideas’ as early as possible.

The aim / objective of any K-12 school system should be to continuously and actively ‘HELP’each student discover their core passion by providing several project based discovery paths while they are in elementary & middle school and help them narrow down to 2 paths when they enter as freshmen in high school and finally to one CORE area in their Junior year where each student would work with a group of like-minded classmates / partners to complete a commercially viable (real-world) solution to a ‘Big Idea’. This project success should serve as the High school Diploma for them. The school system should ensure full process support to kids via resources & mentor-ship during this process.

I think changes in our K-12 education system at such grassroots level are needed to deal with this famine we face today.