Opinion

Rising Poverty Rates Demonstrates Failure of Innovation

By | Sep 19, 2011

I grew up in the Bay Area just outside of San Francisco, the modern bastion of technological innovation.

As the rest of the country struggles with joblessness and rising unemployment, Silicon Valley enjoys it’s second renesance in as many decades.

Marketing hype would have us believe we are in a great age of entrepreneurship. Teenagers are encouraged to create companies instead of attend college, and the idea of “personal branding” no longer carries the air of narcissism it once deserved.

If we are to really believe that we live in an era of rampant innovation, then why do we have so much poverty?

Big Questions, Small Answers

Entrepreneurs solve problems. And poverty is a big one. Yet the entrepreneurial focus of today is not on big problems.

Countless companies are developing frivolous applications to entertain me while I wait 87 seconds in line for a cup of coffee. There’s even more than a handful of companies working on ways to help me avoid the line all together, ordering coffee from my phone.

In short, if you have a trivial want (I won’t dare use the word “need”), there’s an app for that. Where’s the app for hunger, poverty, and homelessness?

Hunger, poverty, and homelessness are big problems, yet “apps” are meant to be small solutions. Modern innovation is focused on solving small wants, not big needs.

How many websites have you been to where the pitch starts something like “The easy way to…” blah, blah, blah? Easy problems enjoy easy solutions, but not so for hard problems.

Modern innovation is focused on triviality. Indeed, some argue that despite the pretense of entrepreneurship, we are entering the innovation dark ages.

Last week at a major technology conference, early Facebook investor and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel went so far as to describe the lack of focus on addressing big problems as “a disaster which people in Silicon Valley aren’t even talking about”.

If we are serious about solving big problems, we need big answers. Yet our obsession with simplicity has crippled our ability to think big. We dream about making it big by executing small ideas. Is this really thinking big? I don’t think so, and I’m guessing I can find 46.2 million people living in poverty who will agree.

Photo credit: Paul Hocksenar