a call for big ideas

Illustration of a bridge

There’s a monumental mismatch: we’ve never had more money for innovation, we’ve never had more knowledge about technology, and we’ve never had more anticipation about the next big thing. Yet at the same time we’re failing to solve some of the most fundamental questions on the planet.

In other words, we’re most interested in the present, not interested in the past at all, and only slightly interested in the future. On a societal level, this means that both resources and attention have tended to go towards companies, and prolific individuals, that live up to the hype, rather than towards solving urgent problems.

All this effort has somehow made us believe that things are okay, that everything is in hand, and that the big companies and influential individuals out there playing idols of the public will magically solve all the problems for us.

We live in a time in which we congratulate ourselves about being innovative, while only posing as a disruptive and creative society. But we are at a rushing standstill. We emphasize short-term competition over long-term collaboration. We think in terms of winning for ourselves, not in terms of what might be beneficial for society. We simply don’t have time for “big ideas”.

And yet “big ideas” are exactly what we need in the face of complex, global problems like climate change, inequality, and overpopulation.

But it doesn’t have to be so gloomy. I believe that most of the good ideas we need already exist. But they are pieces of an unfinished puzzle. You might have one piece of the solution, and someone in Papua New Guinea has another piece.

In fact, the road to big inventions and innovations was never linear. Our history has always been connected between disciplines, locations, and time. Just think about Gutenberg being a goldsmith, Alexander Graham Bell being a teacher for deaf people, or the Wright brothers being bicycle mechanics. Everything is connected. But if the link has not been noticed, nobody knows it’s there.

If those ideas find each other in ten years, they’ll have an impact, and make a difference in our lives, but if we can help those ideas find each other this year, the impact will be so much more. And what if those ideas never find each other?

The main issue is that most big ideas come from the gaps, and bridges, between our individual boxes of thinking: you’re working on an idea inside your box, and you don’t know what ideas might exist inside another box, where other people are working on their own ideas. Some might have exactly the same idea, or a different take on your idea, or the missing puzzle piece you didn’t realize your idea needed.

But many of our great inventions and innovations came into being in pretty erratic ways. And today’s urgent global problems can’t be solved by good intentions, or by waiting for the right ideas or people to meet.

We need to develop a set of core principles, to help us connect people and knowledge, to collaborate and co-create the foundations of big ideas.

One such practice just might be Doug Engelbart’s model “The ABCs of Organizational Improvement,” which argues that we should not only manage core activities (also known as “A activities” or “business as usual”), or improvements to A activities (“B activities” or “Improving how we do A”), but go one step further, and improve how we improve (“C activities”). This kind of meta-thinking is the shift from an incremental to an exponential improvement. And this is the key to helping humanity to invent powerful ideas and get better at getting better.

When we get fluent in powerful ideas, they are like adding new brain tissue that nature didn’t give us. If you think about it, we’re no smarter than our ancestors, but humanity’s cumulative knowledge has allowed us to expand on the tools and inventions of the past. We live in a world full of technology our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, even though it was built on the backs of their small innovations.

We are bound to the world in which we are born. Our capabilities are limited by the choices of our ancestors. What we do today informs how our children will live, innovate, and build for future generations.

But if we have learned one thing by looking back, it is that the world isn’t zero-sum: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t have to be people versus people, or even people versus computers. Humanity is a group of individuals succeeding together, not despite their differences, but because of them.

Our future depends on us coming together to build those big ideas.

Want more ideas like this in your inbox?

My letters are about long-lasting, sustainable change that fundamentally amplifies our human capabilities and raises our collective intelligence through generations. Would love to have you on board.