Can Entrepreneurs, Stuck On An Island for a Few Days, Solve the World’s Biggest Problems?

At a small conference on a little island, some big thinkers propose ways to fix everything from energy to education.

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The rebel in me has always doubted the good intentions and raw ability of smart people to fix our biggest problems. After all, we’ve got a bunch of them and some, like poverty and filthy water for much of the world, have been with us for eons. Others, like global warming, have emerged despite warnings based on science and technology that would stop the problem in its tracks.

A bunch of heavyweight thinkers gathered on Nantucket Island this past weekend and confirmed the pickle we humans find ourselves in. Rebecca Costa, a socio-biologist who wrote The Watchman’s Battle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, argues that the fall of every civilization since the Mayans can be traced to periods of human inaction in the face of complexity. Which makes you think about our inability today to deal with complex issues like the global debt crisis, energy shortages, education deficiencies, and health plagues like obesity and Alzheimer’s. As a race, are we simply out of our league?

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In Costa’s view, the slow pace of human evolution has left us far behind advances in technology. We have reached our capacity for understanding what is happening around us and we are thus doomed liked the Mayans if we cannot learn to think differently.

Other heavyweights at the inaugural Nantucket Project, a TED-like conference with “Re-Think” as its theme, featured medical experts arguing that the health-care system actually causes poor health and design experts arguing that while our leading institutions may promote waste systems that are “less bad,” they rarely promote systems that rise to the level of actually being good. Progress seems thwarted at every turn. Why can’t we turn air pollution into solid matter and use it to build houses rather than simply pollute the air less? Now that’s a game changer.

Idea festivals are nothing new, and this one featured some of the usual suspects. But you still got a heightened feeling that, yes, maybe brilliant people can make a dent in the world’s problems – especially since some of the brilliance was coming from young people with a lot of energy and, because they have many more decades on the planet, a lot at stake. Ankur Jain, whom Inc. has called the best connected 21-year-old in the world, is pooling young talent and old money globally through his Kairos Society. Jacob Colker, who co-founded micro-volunteering website Sparked.com, is making it easy for busy people to make a difference in just a few minutes.

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There was also some bona fide news: Inventor Dean Kamen (Segway) revealed that his Slingshot water purifier is finally being deployed (with the help of Coca-Cola) to poor villages on a trial basis. His magical black box costs about $2,000 and can turn sludge into enough clean water to sustain 100 people. This is a real breakthrough. A billion people live with dirty water, which kills a child every eight seconds.

Of course, it’s taken Kamen more than a decade to find backing – a sobering dose of reality. In her book, Costa says Kamen’s black box will never be fully utilized unless someone figures out how to turn his innovation “into a financial boon.” More reality. But we really do have well-intentioned smart people finding solutions to the world’s problems. If we could just get out of our own way.

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