Self-Selected Problem Solvers

Pick up any newspaper, or venture onto the Web, and you are reminded that the world is awash in problems — economic, financial, political, environmental.

Pick up any newspaper, or venture onto the Web, and you are reminded that the world is awash in problems — economic, financial, political, environmental. The list of items that need to be addressed is long. And if all we do is pay attention to the news, the blogs and our friends’ latest Twitter feeds, we might find ourselves in a pessimistic mood or looking for escape.

Yet, recently, I spent a day at a competition for entrepreneurs, many of them young, who are tackling the twin problems of energy use and climate change. The sessions I attended were part of a United States-based effort to harness the power of technology, business and, most of all, people to fix these problems. The competition will soon go global.

At the session I attended, more than 80 teams of entrepreneurs competed for monetary prizes and for help in commercializing their ideas. Teams of venture capitalists were in each room listening to pitches, along with business leaders, technologists and scientists. These “experts” offered help and access to their networks, and sometimes after hearing a pitch, they delivered bad news.

While everyone in attendance admitted the issues were big, amazingly, no one seemed daunted. In fact, the participants were enthusiastic about applying their intelligence and energy to solving such a big set of problems. Their approaches were varied.
For example, one group lugged in a highly machined prototype of what they said was a new type of exceptionally efficient motor capable of running on a variety of fuels, including natural gas, gasoline and various types of alcohol. (They were testing their motors on street sweepers.)

Another team, led by a young woman working on her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated an iPhone app that automatically analyzes your driving habits and routes, using GPS data, to help you optimize them for increased fuel efficiency. With that information, it then assesses if an all-electric or hybrid vehicle would work for you.
Yet another group, this one made up of Stanford University Ph.D. students, demonstrated a cheap electric-power system for delivery trucks. In addition to designing the technology, they showed how a company manufacturing the technology could profit.

And there was a team, this one made up of 20-somethings from Los Angeles, that showed a prototype of a cheap, efficient means of automatically keeping tires inflated to minimize rolling resistance. They showed estimates of how much fuel would be saved by their invention.
According to the venture capitalists in the room, few of these new ideas are likely to make money, and fewer still will become commercially successful. But they all agreed that some will probably make it. Which was why they went to the competition.

While so many of us complain about the world’s problems, there are people — many of them young — who have taken it upon themselves to solve these problems. Among this group, no one told them to manufacture a new motor or a new iPhone app or to find a new way to inflate tires. They chose to do these things themselves. Some “self-selected” because they wanted to become rich. But others, I suspect, did it because they want to make the world better.
As we view each day’s diet of bad news, it’s comforting to know there are people out there who have taken it upon themselves to address problems. But what’s even more comforting is to know that at any moment, any one of us can self-select to do our part. How else does anything new get done?

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