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The futurist: How to solve a billion-person problem

What would it look like?


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My friend, Peter Diamandis, likes to say, “The best way to become a billionaire is to solve a billion-person problem.”

When I first heard this phrase, I had difficulty imagining what a billion-person problem looked like.

A problem that affects a billion unique individuals is far different than one affecting a single person one billion times. Hmmm, one person loaded down with a billion problems? Sounds like most Mondays to me.

Putting that image aside, it’s hard to imagine getting rich from solving the plight of even a few massively problem-plagued individuals, but perhaps solving repeated problems happening to larger groups is not so farfetched.

Finding commonalities that create a billion-person community is also an interesting approach. As an example, somewhere between 10-15 percent of the world’s population is left-handed, upwards of a billion people. A recent study showed that left-handed people generally earn less money, so solving this obvious status impropriety may be a worthy cause.

It also occurred to me that solving a problem with a billion “occurrences” may work. What things happen over a billion times a year? This will include routine things like finding food to eat, water to drink, sleeping, talking to a friend, staying warm, staying cool, getting dressed, staying safe, and much more.

Framing the topic around time, such as saving a billion hours or minutes, may also work. To put this into perspective, a billion minutes equals 694,444 days or 1,902 years.

It was at this point that ideas began to take shape. Eliminating a billion starving moments, a billion moments of frustration, or a billion minutes of confusion started to make sense.

As we transition from national systems to global systems, will it be possible to create an additional billion units of fairness, compassion, empathy, freedom, or opportunity?

After thinking about this last question, it dawned on me how massively important every tiny system change will be when it happens on a global level. Here’s why this topic will play such a significant role in our global future.

14 “Billion-Person” Problems

Our systems determine our behavior and bad systems tend to drain the enthusiasm, capabilities, and the very lifeblood from our best and brightest. Here are a few obvious examples of our billion-person problems:

1.) Borders – Crossing borders is still a hassle, except for Europe where the EU has decided much of it was unnecessary. Between 2004 - 2007 the European Union (EU) added 10 poorer, ex-communist countries to its ranks. Since EU citizens have the right to move freely from one country to the next, the 100 million people living in Central and Eastern Europe states could have easily migrated to the richer countries.

Since average incomes in Sweden were more than eight times higher than those in Romania, it would have been easy to anticipate many making a permanent move. Yet only about four million Eastern Europeans have migrated since 2004, while many come and go. Rigid border crossing create friction and isolation, while open doors tend to be revolving ones.

Before the 1950s, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border was easy. Many Mexicans crossed to do seasonal work, but few settled. Most people preferred not to uproot their families. Today’s regimented scrutiny for anyone crossing borders has created an either-or situation, forcing those in dire straits to simply go underground. As a result, the practice of circumventing traditional border controls has become well defined and human trafficking, a huge business.

Solving the issues surrounding the massive, time-sucking border-crossing process is easily a billion-person opportunity.

2.) Roaming Charges – Anyone who accidentally switched on their data-roaming while in a foreign country knows the kind of expensive telecom landmine they’ve just unleashed.

While the European Commission planned to blaze a new trail and scrap the fees by the end of 2015, the effort was vetoed by EU countries themselves with a decision to leave mobile roaming charges in place until the end of 2018.

Even though there are tons of workarounds, using services like Skype, Tox, Slack, and Viber, there remains a billion-person opportunity inside this problem.

3.) Privacy – Two years have now passed since Edward Snowden broke ranks with the NSA’s spy culture, showing the world what kind of holes we have in our so-call private lives. At the same time, the number of bad actors intent on taking down entire countries is climbing and surveillance technologies are a hugely important tool for tracking down those with evil intent.

More security means less privacy, and more convenience means less security. Much like playing a constant rock-paper-scissors game, we are still a long ways from solving the privacy-security-convenience game. So where does that leave our privacy? If you have a solution for the privacy dilemma, you will be solving one of life’s great billion-person problems.

4.) Pollution – Anyone walking around big cities in China knows how important it is to have windy days. But wind is a poor solution to a pollution problem that could have been eliminated at the source. However factory pollution is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. There are now over 100,000 ships on the world’s oceans and the largest ones will emit as much as 5,000 tons of sulfur in a single year, roughly the equivalent of 50 million cars. This is far more than a billion-person problem, it’s an every-person problem.

5.) Access to Clean Water – Of all the water on planet earth, only 2 percent is actually fresh water. And because of all the difficulties accessing fresh water, only about 25 percent is accessible at any given time. This means the entire human race survives on 0.05 percent of all of the world’s water. Somewhere in the middle of all this unusable water is a billion-person opportunity.

6.) Person-to-Person Payments – Similar to handing someone a $20 bill, only in digital form, peer-to-peer payment systems are already beginning to spring to life. According to Forrester Research, this market will be worth about $4 billion by 2017 and grow exponentially from there.

7.) Paying Taxes – As a general statement, our existing tax systems are far too complicated and the time it takes to prepare and file taxes is a complex form of labor that virtually no one recoups.

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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