Big Problems, anti-problems and big problems - the need for Social Innovation

C Z Nnaemeka in MIT Entrepreneurship Review.

Image courtesy: Portland Mike Image courtesy: Portland Mike

On one side stand those who believe that entrepreneurs have stopped chasing and solving Big Problems — capital B, capital P: clean energy, poverty, famine, climate change, you name it.  I needn’t replay their song here; they’ve argued their cases far more eloquently elsewhere.  In short, they contend that too many brains and dollars have be

en shoveled into resolving what I call anti-problems’ —  interests usually centered about food or fashion or social’or gaming.  Something an anti-problem company  might develop is an app  that provides  restaurant recommendations based on your blood type, a picture of your childhood pet, the music preferences of your 3 best friends, and the barometric pressure of the nearest city beginning with the letter Q.  (That such an app does not yet exist is reminder still of how impoverished a state American scientific education has descended.  Weep not! We redouble our calls for more STEM funding.)


On the other other side, a side that receives scant attention, scanter investment, is where big problems — little b, little p — reside.  Here, you’ll find a group I’ll refer to as the unexotic underclass.  It’s rather quiet in these parts, except during campaign season when the politicians stop by to scrape anecdotes off the skin of someone else’s suffering.  Let’s see who’s here.

That’s a great way to talk about the challenges facing the world. The examples in the article are single mothers and veterans in the US or the poor coming from Romania into other countries in Europe. In the context of Australia we can see something very similar.

Lets take the example of child protection. A big problem - with a little b, little p. Number of children in care are increasing exponentially mainly because they cannot be unified with their parent(s). Aboriginal children are having the highest ratio per thousand in the country. The cost for governments are increasing at an unaffordable rate. 440% in residential care in the last decade in South Australia. Similar scale in the rest of the country. There are many underlying problems that are responsible for this.

Take another case of recent migrants into Australia. Not refugees and boat people. Skilled migrants like dentists, engineers, business graduates; some educated in Australia and some in other countries. Are they in the jobs that they can contribute to most? Are they using their skills in the best way? What is stopping them?

What about the people who are ageing? The baby boomers do not want to live in aged care villages. How can we enable them to thrive and live in the community that they want to live in. What are the opportunities?

Disability markets are changing. Unique problems and unique solutions are required. Technology may or may not be the best way forward.

Problems = Markets

Now, why the heck should any one care? Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be.  Especially a young entrepreneur-to-be whose trajectory of nonstop success has placed him or her leagues above the unexotic underclass.  You should care because the unexotic underclass can help address one of the biggest inefficiencies plaguing  the startup scene right now: the flood of  (ostensibly) smart, ambitious young people desperate to be entrepreneurs; and the embarrassingly idea-starved landscape where too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas, because they have none of their own (or, because  they suspect no one will invest in what they really want to do).  The unexotic underclass has big problems, maybe not the Big Problems — capital B, capital P — that get discussed’ at Davos.  But they have problems nonetheless, and where there are problems, there are markets.

What can happen?

A Ron Conway, a Fred Wilson-type at the venture level to say, Kiddies, basta with this bull*%!..  This year we’re only investing in companies targeting the unexotic underclass.”

A Paul Graham and his Y Combinator at the incubator level, to devote one season to the underclass, be it veterans, single moms or overworked young doctors, Native Americans, the list is long:  “Help these entrepreneurs build something that will help you.”

The head of an MIT or an HBS or a Stanford Law at the academic level, to tell the entire incoming class: You are lucky to be some of the best engineering and business and law students, not just in the country, but in the world.  And as an end-of-year project, you are going to use that talent to develop products, policy and programs to help lift the underclass.”

We need a whole section of people thinking differently: universities, entrepreneurs, investors, incubators and the entire marketplace. This is Social Innovation and why we need it in a country as rich and developed as Australia.


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