A theme that repeatedly flashed through my mind all throughout 2017 is reminiscent of the idiom “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink it”. Over the years I have been obsessively studying the contemporary problems we face and drilling into them to understand their root causes. My hope was of pursuing products, services and ultimately businesses that provide solutions. The pattern that has emerged then and still now is that at the root of most all our problems is a systemically human flaw: our poor choices, their consequences and our legacy of unwillingness to make good decisions despite the abundance of evidence supporting them.
Somehow, I’ve always had the assumption that these flaws have only been expressed because of a lack of intelligent solutions (organizational, civil, technological, etc.) but the truth is that the true limitation is our unwillingness to act on since-available solutions because they require us to accept the common good before our own.
Of course, this discovery doesn’t sound like anything new; however arriving at it (repeatedly) while in search of sustainable marketplace opportunities has been frustrating. Pretty much every time I went down a path of trying to solve a major problem, what I found in the end was a statement of either “well if we just [blank]ed we wouldn’t have the problem to begin with” or “that solution wouldn’t work because it would require people to be logical or choose the right thing.”
I’ll give an excellent example: road traffic. Nearly all traffic can be substantially improved – if not eliminated altogether – simply if everyone were to drive at the same speed. (I am consciously avoiding a defense of this claim for the sake of focus. Even if this weren’t true, imagine it were for the sake of understanding my point.) To an alien, this solution would seem like an absolute win-win solution: there would be less accidents, everyone would get to their destination faster, far less fuel would be consumed (saving money, resources and reducing emissions) and it wouldn’t require a single infrastructure change (in theory, no cost to tax payers and it would be easy to implement everywhere instantly). There’s only one fatal flaw: everyone would have to participate and cooperate. To a logical alien (even one with free-will like our own), this failure just wouldn’t make sense. Everyone benefits as long as everyone participates – why wouldn’t everyone participate? But the reality is that people just won’t. Even if they are given all the facts, motivated and then eventually threatened and even disciplined. It still wouldn’t work – at least not enough.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example – its just an easy one to explain. Our civilizations are littered with the debris of brilliant and revolutionary ideas that lay wasted at the hands of disinterest and unwillingness.
After hitting this realization over and over, I came to accept and understand that fantastic, logical solutions had limited success unless they had the rare benefit of also being immediately self-serving. Or simply, there is no market for ideas that weren’t self-serving and immediately gratifying – even if those things save the world as we know it. (Of course if the world is perceived to be in true immediate peril, then suddenly the willingness does reluctantly and temporarily appear – such as in world wars.)
This is obviously a really discouraging conclusion, and it can be discussed much further on many levels. However given the starting point of my story, I’ll keep on topic with how our human proclivities can be considered when evaluating business/products and their market reception
It is particularly important for entrepreneurs to fully recognize because its very often that we think that we’re the first to address a market problem when no existing solutions are known or when others do not seem to have been successful. Our ego’s blind us and we run with the notion that our ideas are revolutionary and will be successful when others failed.
The singular takeaway from all this is that consumer products and services are rarely ever won on long-term, logical grounds – they are almost always won with emotion and an immediately perceived self-serving benefit. Which means that if a problem hasn’t been solved, there is a very good chance that its not because a technology solution does not exist but because the market rejected it. Understanding why the market rejected it is perhaps the beginning of figuring out how to formulate a business plan which the market accepts.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a formula for harnessing those factors to produce behavior change; however, the point of this thesis is to draw a distinction between the realms of possibility vs those of feasibility, especially with regards to what role technology plays in hope for a better world. My ultimate claim is that we almost always set our hopes on technological progress to be bringing us solutions to our modern problems, when the real issue is purely human in nature. I’d dare say that humanity needs more social entrepreneurs.