Whose problem are you solving?
(our obsession with the lucky billion)
As I am flying from London to Asia, sleepless and squashed in my economy class seat, I have visions of the hustle and bustle below me. 1.1 billion Africans, trading spices, textiles or mobile phones on the markets of Ouagadougou, Nairobi and Lagos. 1.5 billion Chinese (and counting) across mainland China and South East Asia, cooking, shopping, building. 1 billion Indians, commuting, washing clothes, watching and making movies, stuck in traffic, visiting family, studying for exams. Everywhere I see lights and crowds and energy. Megacities exploding, chaos, traffic. I think about my little political entity called the European Union with its 500 million people, along with its ally, Land of Dreams America, (as my favourite university professor used to call it) and its 320 million people.
All the start-ups I read about, so called disruptive technologies, to make the lives of this tiny privileged even easier. Sure, in economic terms, this tiny white fraction if humanity is not so tiny. The economies comprising these 800 million human beings (10% of the world total) make up 50% of global GDP. If it’s money your after, sure, you better serve their “needs” and solve their “problems” (I am sorry, but which “problem” is pinterest solving, for example? Oh, I need to keep track of the different bedroom blinds I am considering for my new house). But disruptive innovation? You know what would be really disruptive? Here’s a list of real needs of real people across the globe. If it’s not one of these needs that you’re addressing, you’re probably far less disruptive than you think:
- provide sanitation and clean water to the 5bn without it today
- Provide education for the 120 million children out of school today (70% of which are girls)
- Save developing countries from the sure onslaught of health disaster by promoting their natural diets, by supporting breastfeeding and local fresh food instead of sweets and processed food. Number 1 disruption: help developing countries keep Nestle and Danone out
- Provide local help in disaster zones to prevent refugees risking their lives trying to enter fortress Europe
- Provide education about and access to reproductive medicine to help teenage girls decide when they want to start a family
- Support equal rights for all regardless of race, religion or gender
The list could go on. Please share your other ideas. And maybe you think it’s overambitious or unrealistic to focus on global problems or those in faraway countries when you could be serving needs closer to home. That’s a fair point. If we just focus on cities like London or New York, perhaps we could be radical and disruptive by:
- minimising the number of teenagers who end up stabbed or shot by their peers on a daily basis
- addressing fully preventable diseases such as diabetes, anorexia, obesity, tooth decay
- supporting young parents unable to cope with the responsibilities of parenthood to save the next generation
- reducing traffic and air pollution
So, my dear New York start-ups, do you still think you’re a disruptive innovator? Think again.