I used to be overwhelmed by crippling cynicism and fears that we were all doomed. Now, despite the crises we face, I believe we are living in the most exciting time in human history – and one full of opportunity to create sustainable abundance for all.
We share a collective pessimism for our future, and it’s no mystery where it comes from – we are surrounded by doom and gloom whenever we watch the news or ask what the future might be. Climate change is already beginning to ravish our coastlines and add power to already destructive storms. Sophisticated disinformation campaigns are manipulating societies to destabilize them to the point of collapse or even give up control to authoritarians. The war in Ukraine has created devastating human tragedies. Food shortages are leading to conflict and division in developing countries.
Now more than ever seems like an appropriate time to focus on what could go wrong, and asking instead what could go right seems like Pollyanna optimism.
I struggled with my own cynicism and defeatism growing up in a working-class family in Oregon. We had plenty of access to incredible natural beauty, hiking, camping, and enjoying a nice cool dip in a local river on hot summer days. But these joys seemed like increasingly privileged experiences that people in the future wouldn’t be able to share. Study after study showed that life would be getting worse for people as time progressed – climate change was advancing rapidly while emissions and pollution grew out of control, human-caused extinctions of species threatened to wipe out our fellow earthlings, and meanwhile the rich were getting richer while the poor became poorer and less empowered to do anything about it. The future seemed hopeless indeed.
But as I grew and experienced more in life I began to see things differently. I found a job in Japan after undergrad and saw incredibly clean, efficient cities full of citizens who expected nothing less. I traveled through China and saw new skylines and bullet train routes being built seemingly overnight, nearby ancient temples and compounds full of culture and history. Later I did an internship in South Africa, seeing the vast disparity of wealth, but also spending time in the townships and seeing incredible entrepreneurship and dynamism in communities that struggled with some of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. There were problems everywhere, but much of what I saw was progress towards solving those longstanding problems. I saw that people were being empowered with the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, and wanting to make a better life for not only themselves, but the planet we all share.
I moved to Silicon Valley to complete an MBA in sustainability, and shortly after joined a startup working at the forefront of smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT). While working on a project, I took the approach of assessing what resources we had, so we could figure out the most reasonable outcome we could expect to create. This was the first time I learned about Design Thinking, which flips this approach on its head. Instead of asking what we could create with what little resources we had, it asked us to first envision the ideal outcome without taking any technological or resource constraints into account – if you had a magic wand, imagine what the most desirable solution could be. Then, with a larger set of potential solutions that meet the needs of the people you’re designing for, whittle down those options to what’s technologically feasible, and viable from a business model perspective. This approach dramatically improved the solutions we came up with and energized the creativity of the teams.
There were so many times in life I had started with thinking about what resources I didn’t have available to me, or how much more difficult my path was than successful people I saw around me. But the design thinking approach asked me to hold off on those judgements, and instead articulate what the ideal outcome could be. I saw this approach used successfully time and time again, by everyone from corporate executives to startup founders, all from different backgrounds and cultures from all over the world. I began to wonder – could this approach be used not only for new products and services, but for our future?
When I looked around for inspiration of what the future might look like if we got it right, I saw few examples. Most were entertaining but dystopian stories of how we destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons, killer robots, AI, climate disasters, and disease. But very few were visionary positive versions of any kind of future we might actually want to live in. Star Trek is one of the most well known futuristic science fiction series that envisions a post-scarcity, space-facing scientific and technologically advanced society. From this vision many innovators created the technologies they saw, for example handheld communicators (cell phones), non-lethal phasers (electric tasers), tablet computers, touch-interface screens, replicators (3D printers), impulse space engines, and more. Trekonomics even asks how a society like Star Trek might actually be implemented and work in the future. Having an ideal vision has shown itself to galvanize people to figure out the “how” of building it.
This isn’t about Pollyanna optimism or simply hoping for the best. It’s about thinking through what you want the future to be, designing a vision of it, then building it. And the good news is, if we want to play a part in creating a sustainable, abundant, and equitable future, opportunity is all around us.
Climate tech startups raised $40 billion in venture capital (VC) in 2022. This was actually a 3% drop from 2021, but compare this to the 35% drop in total VC spend overall last year due to recession concerns and it’s easy to see where the future bets are being placed. Blackrock CEO Larry Fink recently said that the next 1,000 billion-dollar unicorns will be in climate tech. Billionaire and Shark Tank investor Chris Sacca called this opportunity “unfair” due to the combination of government regulations and financial support, generational consumer demand shifts towards sustainable and ethical products and services, and the immense amount of capital being directed towards innovations in this space.
There are also more tools available than ever to launch, fund, and operate a startup in climate tech, or get a job working at one. These tools and resources are not only more available globally, they’re more democratized as adoption of remote work has surged since the pandemic. Tools like Zoom, Asana, or Miro help us collaborate effectively, no matter where in the world we are. Crowdfunding is opening up billions of dollars in startup or project funding to founders who may have been overlooked by traditional VCs in the past. Equity crowdfunding on sites like Wefunder or StartEngine now allows everyday investors who aren’t millionaires to share in the potential rapid growth of startups creating the future. Now more than ever the future Einsteins, Elon Musks, and Maya Angelous in hidden corners of the globe have access to the world stage.
We can take inspiration from the fact that we are part of a long legacy of hard-working innovators and future-makers that led to the abundance and comfort that we now enjoy today. Merely 150 years ago, global child mortality was nearly 40%. Now it is declining below 4%. Advancements in medicine and health have cured or vaccinated us against many of the diseases that our forebearers suffered and died from. Literacy is nearly universal today, up from only 12% in 1820. Violent crime has plunged since the industrial revolution, and even since the 1990s, despite how much of it we see in the news.
It is an understatement to say we live in what our ancestors would consider to be a Utopia, and have a lot to be grateful for. We may have crises and challenges ahead of us, but we are much more empowered to solve them than ever before. There’s a lot of work to do to live up to the headway made by previous generations. Let’s make them proud by building an incredible future – we have the resources, knowledge, and tools to do so, if only we can imagine what could go right, and make it so.