Who will have the courage to build the future again?

This generation's best minds and our purveyors of capital are focused on the wrong things. If we change that, future generations could marvel at what we accomplish.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
running to the future
Image: iStockphoto/lzf

Changing the world comes cheap these days -- or, at least, our perception of what changes the world for the better does.

In tech, it's become such a cliché to talk about changing the world that it's virtually synonymous with launching a product.

That obscures something important. And we need to change it.

It leaves us in a place where we don't put enough value on the bold innovators -- the ones who aren't chasing a quick buck or just trying to get big fast, but have the vision to solve an important problem in a unique way.

As much as I love the technology industry's optimism and I appreciate the positive reinforcement it takes for entrepreneurs to scale the mountain of a product launch, it's time to change the dialogue.

We need to put emphasis back on big thinking, reward the people who build things that move society forward, and create value around real problem solving and long term thinking.

Right now, way too much of the energy in tech focuses around two things:

  1. Entertaining ourselves
  2. Making our lives more convenient

There are value in both of those things. Taking pleasure in well-earned leisure time is one of the most beautiful parts of being human. And making our lives more convenient and efficient can free up time to enjoy those leisure moments or to dive into more of the work that fulfills us in some cases or simply must be done in others.

The problem is that the tech industry has tipped the balance way too far in the direction of these two activities. Too many entrepreneurs chase quick-and-easy solutions that boil down to these two issues. And, for the past decade, too many venture capitalists have funded solution after solution in these two crowded spheres because they represent the best opportunities for quick ROI. Meanwhile, the media feeds the problem by overcovering these stories because they are easy to lace with hyperbole and simple to relate to a large audience.

But, these things should not be the center of our universe. As in every other moment in human history, we have big problems to solve right now. In the US alone, there's access to affordable health care, immigration, renewable energy, sustainable development, and jobs retraining for the 21st century.

If you doubt that technology and startups can make a difference in these areas, then look at the important work being done by companies like Oscar Health Insurance, Ushahidi, SolarCity, and Coursera. Imagine what they could do if they had the kind of investment being put into smartphone-triggered car rides, countless mobile messaging systems, and social media livestreaming.

And then think of all the other unique ways of tackling this generation's biggest problems that we might see if our best minds turned their attention in that direction and our purveyors of capital made them a priority.

At its essence, of course, technology is all about tools. From stone tools to the wheel to the printing press to the light bulb to the airplane to the internet, tools have shaped the human experience like nothing else in the history of the planet.

This generation of innovators inherit a legacy of tools that have given us suddenly-blooming renewable energy sources, almost infinite storage of information, low-cost displays to present that information in larger and clearer ways than ever, a global network of instant access to the world's knowledge, and powerful devices to manipulate it all from the palms of our hands.

Never has humanity had better tools available to solve problems, drive progress, unite communities, mobilize resources, and focus our energies.

What will we do now that all this has been placed at our disposal? Use them only for our own comfort and amusement? Again, there's nothing wrong with either of those things, but they aren't where we should be placing our society's highest value. They aren't where we should be investing so many of our resources and the brainpower of our best thinkers.

Entrepreneurs: Think bigger, go longer, and find the problems where you can use your talents to bring a unique solution to an important problem.

Bankers and venture capitalists: Let's earmark a larger portion of our resources to funding the things that will fuel progress and build a better society. Even if that means better educating and inviting the public to invest in progress and funds that support it, what's a more worthy investment of time and resources than that?

Media and its readers: Let's celebrate the people who work hard at hard things worth doing. Let's champion the innovators who are working to solve our most important problems, and not just the richest or the fastest or the most colorful.

Value is all about what someone is willing to pay for something. By the same token, doing good is good business, if that's what we value the most.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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