When Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, it was more than an epic Cold War milestone boasting America’s “better rockets.” The billion-dollar mission signified our nation’s potential – and choice – to tackle big challenges through technology. In fact, as innovation expert Jason Pontin reminds us, it was just one major technological triumph among several others that characterized the 20th century: The assembly line, airplanes, penicillin, and polio and tuberculosis vaccines. But what real progress has technology made since Apollo’s giant leap for mankind? Not much.
Technology has not yet fulfilled its promise for solving today’s toughest problems – ending famine, or providing clean energy for the 11 billion who will inhabit the planet by 2100, or curing cancer. Can it? Pontin, an influential journalist and editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, posed this loaded question in his recent and popular TED talk. And he’s optimistic and resolute in his answer: Yes it can, and it must.
The caveats Pontin presents are considerable, however. For truly transformative innovation – rather than incremental ideas like Facebook and Reddit – to surface and thrive, we must first believe in the power of technology to make it happen. If political leaders and the public care to solve a problem, if we fully understand the problem (and it really is a technological problem), and institutions collaborate to support and invest in its solution, he argues, technology will help provide the answer.
“We don’t lack for challenges,” said Pontin. By analyzing the factors that keep technology from realizing its full potential, he believes it will change our lives – not just spur our social media prowess – for the better.