Bill Gates spends a lot of time trying to advance innovation that improves people’s lives in the same way that fertilizer did. A full 40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia. Another example: Polio cases are down more than 99 percent in the past 25 years, not because the disease is going away on its own but because Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk invented polio vaccines and the world rolled out a massive effort to deliver them
Thanks to inventions like these, life has steadily gotten better. It can be easy to conclude otherwise—as I write this essay, more than 100,000 people have died in a civil war in Syria, and big problems like climate change are bearing down on us with no simple solution in sight. But if you take the long view, by almost any measure of progress we are living in history’s greatest era. Wars are becoming less frequent. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past century. More children than ever are going to primary school. The world is better than it has ever been.
The World Development Report from the World Bank that spelled out in detail the problems with childhood diseases.
Capitalism alone can’t address the needs of the very poor. This means market-driven innovation can actually widen the gap between rich and poor. I saw firsthand just how wide that gap was when I visited a slum in Durban, South Africa, in 2009. Seeing the open-pit latrine there was a humbling reminder of just how much I take modern plumbing for granted. Meanwhile, 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to proper sanitation, a problem that contributes to the deaths of 1.5 million children a year.
Governments don’t do enough to drive innovation either. Although aid from the rich world saves a lot of lives, governments habitually underinvest in research and development, especially for the poor. For one thing, they’re averse to risk, given the eagerness of political opponents to exploit failures, so they have a hard time giving money to a bunch of innovators with the knowledge that many of them will fail.
One way you can find that leverage point is to look for a problem that markets and governments aren’t paying much attention to. That’s what Melinda and I did when we saw how little notice global health got in the mid-1990s. Children were dying of measles for lack of a vaccine that cost less than 25 cents, which meant there was a big opportunity to save a lot of lives relatively cheaply. The same was true of malaria. When we made our first big grant for malaria research, it nearly doubled the amount of money spent on the disease worldwide—not because our grant was so big, but because malaria research was so underfunded.
But you don’t necessarily need to find a problem that’s been missed. You can also discover a strategy that has been overlooked. Take our foundation’s work in education. Government spends huge sums on schools. The state of California alone budgets roughly $68 billion annually for K-12, more than 100 times what our foundation spends in the entire United States. How could we have an impact on an area where the government spends so much?
We looked for a new approach. To me one of the great tragedies of our education system is that teachers get so little help identifying and learning from those who are most effective. As we talked with instructors about what they needed, it became clear that a smart application of technology could make a big difference. Teachers should be able to watch videos of the best educators in action. And if they want, they should be able to record themselves in the classroom and then review the video with a coach. This was an approach that others had missed. So now we’re working with teachers and several school districts around the country to set up systems that give teachers the feedback and support they deserve.
The goal in much of what we do is to provide seed funding for various ideas. Some will fail. We fill a function that government cannot—making a lot of risky bets with the expectation that at least a few of them will succeed. At that point, governments and other backers can help scale up the successful ones, a much more comfortable role for them.
We work to draw in not just governments but also businesses, because that’s where most innovation comes from. I’ve heard some people describe the economy of the future as “post-corporatist and post-capitalist”—one in which large corporations crumble and all innovation happens from the bottom up. What nonsense. People who say things like that never have a convincing explanation for who will make drugs or low-cost carbon-free energy. Catalytic philanthropy doesn’t replace businesses. It helps more of their innovations benefit the poor.
Look at what happened to agriculture in the 20th century. For decades, scientists worked to develop hardier crops. But those advances mostly benefited the rich world, leaving the poor behind. Then in the middle of the century, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations stepped in. They funded Norman Borlaug’s research on new strains of high-yielding wheat, which sparked the Green Revolution. (As Borlaug said, fertilizer was the fuel that powered the forward thrust of the Green Revolution, but these new crops were the catalysts that sparked it.) No private company had any interest in funding Borlaug. There was no profit in it. But today all the people who have escaped poverty represent a huge market opportunity—and now companies are flocking to serve them.
Or take a more recent example: the advent of Big Data. It’s indisputable that the availability of massive amounts of information will revolutionize US health care, manufacturing, retail, and more. But it can also benefit the poorest 2 billion. Right now researchers are using satellite images to study soil health and help poor farmers plan their harvests more efficiently. We need a lot more of this kind of innovation. Otherwise, Big Data will be a big wasted opportunity to reduce inequity.
Rich-world governments need to maintain or even increase foreign aid, which has saved millions of lives and helped many more people lift themselves out of poverty. It helps when policymakers hear from voters, especially in tough economic times, when they’re looking for ways to cut budgets. I hope people let their representatives know that aid works and that they care about saving lives. Bono’s group ONE.org is a great channel for getting your voice heard.
Companies—especially those in the technology sector—can dedicate a percentage of their top innovators’ time to issues that could help people who’ve been left out of the global economy or deprived of opportunity here in the US. If you write great code or are an expert in genomics or know how to develop new seeds, I’d encourage you to learn more about the problems of the poorest and see how you can help.
At heart I’m an optimist. Technology is helping us overcome our biggest challenges. Just as important, it’s also bringing the world closer together. Today we can sit at our desks and see people thousands of miles away in real time. I think this helps explain the growing interest young people today have in global health and poverty. It’s getting harder and harder for those of us in the rich world to ignore poverty and suffering, even if it’s happening half a planet away.
Technology is unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings. In the end, that combination—the advances of science together with our emerging global conscience—may be the most powerful tool we have for improving the world.
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Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.