On Medium: Innovation Needs To Address Some Real, Not Imagined, Problems

Originally published on Medium here.

This morning when I went to the airport, the apps on my phone played a big part of the trip. I was able to check my flight status on one, Check traffic between my home and the airport on another. Respond to emails on another, share a photo from the airport on another and so on and so forth. If I wanted to broadcast my arrival at the airport I could do so through any number of tools/platforms.

And in the near future I’ll be able to do even more. My refrigerator is getting up there in years and in all likelihood when it comes time to buy a new one there will be options that will include the ability to tell how cold it is inside, show me how much mayonnaise I currently have (indeed it will likely be able to alert me when I need more) and provide a host of other data points. My toothbrush will one day be able to alert me, via an app, to early signs of gingivitis. And my thermostat will help me save power by telling me there’s no need to have the air conditioning on that high, jerk.

But also on the way to the airport this morning I was driven (I took a taxi, because come on) through lots of traffic, over bumpy roads that *weren’t* under construction and through plenty of *actual* construction to both address current road conditions and widen certain streets to allow for even more traffic, something that’s necessary because the current infrastructure was absolutely not built for the population volume that now resides in my area.

And therein lies the issue that I can’t get out of my head. All of this innovation is being poured into solving problems I didn’t know I had — I’ve previously been able to tell how much mayonnaise I had myself and, if I ran out, well then guess who’s going without for a couple days — while there seems to be little work being done to address the problems we all know we have.

I don’t need a smart toothbrush. Quite frankly that sounds terrible, like something that will overburden me with knowledge. If my smart toothbrush doesn’t tell me a cavity is developing I’m not going to assume everything is fine and no, I don’t have a cavity. I’m going to assume it’s not working correctly and I probably have a cavity and I’m going to lose all my teeth and everyone will make fun of me.

What I need — what we all need — is someone to come up with a better way to build a road. Concrete and asphalt, quite frankly, aren’t cutting it. Right now after so much cold and snow, driving in the Chicago area is one big game of deciding whether it’s better to drive through the three potholes up ahead or hope oncoming traffic is light enough you’re able to swerve into the other lane to avoid them. These potholes will be filled, the patch will settle to a point where the street still isn’t level and in five years the city will get around to redoing the whole section of street, inconveniencing everyone and starting the whole process over again.

But where’s the innovation on this front? Where’s the innovation on better mass transit solutions to avoid congestion so road expansion isn’t necessary? Where’s the startup incubator that specialized in finding solutions to lessen our reliance on gasoline, oil and coal?

These aren’t imagined problems and they’re certainly not ones that are going to be solved with an app. There has to be a better way to build a road, one that uses sustainable materials, allows for better water drainage, isn’t as susceptible to extreme temperatures and is all in all better for everyone involved. There has to be a better way to transport tens of thousands of people from their homes to their places of business, wherever they are. Something that reduces the number of cars on the road while providing an experience that doesn’t feel quite so dehumanizing as current mass transit systems seem to.

Over 50 years ago President Kennedy challenged the United States to go to the moon before the 1960s ended. And the best and brightest in the nation took the challenge and did it, despite all odds. It’s time for a new challenge. it’s time — past time, actually — for the smart people out there to stop looking for ways people can more efficiently order Chinese takeout anytime they want to anywhere they want and start focusing on building an infrastructure that’s usable, pleasurable and sustainable for the long haul. That’s the real need.

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