SAN FRANCISCO: Too big to fail is not exactly a term applied to democracies, but then the times are strange. Wrecked by endless years of recession and unemployment, people in the West are losing faith in their governments while in developing nations, people exhausted by political corruption, are wondering where their governments are.
Into this chasm of faith enter a raft of organisations that are testing unchartered waters: like solving grand world challenges, primarily by following the principles of entrepreneurship and innovation.
The most well known of these is the X Prize Foundation, which is famous for its million-dollar problems that encourage the common public to solve world problems in the least inexpensive and most effective and sustainable manner. One of these, The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge was a $1.4-million prize that came in the wake of the infamous BP oil spill that has horrifically damaged the Gulf of Mexico’s wildlife and marine habitats.
Similarly, other prizes are in the works that address issues like healthcare, energy and medical innovation, traditionally seen as being the worry of governments. For instance, maximum access to quality healthcare for the lowest price by building wireless and portable tricorders (tablet-like handheld devices, inspired from the Star Trek science fiction TV series, that can scan sensors, analyse and record data, etc.) and sensors and sensing technologies to diagnose health conditions.
“In the past, some of the biggest global issues could only be solved by governments,” says Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation. “But now, small teams can take up some of these tasks thanks to new technologies like AI, robotics, nanomaterials, digital manufacturing, cloud computing, and others.”
As individuals take matters into their own hands, prizes are quickly becoming a favourite option. Naveen Jain – a technology heavyweight and founder of Moon Express, a robotic moon mining startup – is in the process of setting up a unique prize for India that tackles both health-care issues and women’s empowerment. Called the Digital Doctor X Challenge, it aims to come up with an expert AI software on a tablet that’s simple enough for a village high school girl to operate within a month’s training. Armed with this and simple non-intrusive sensors, she could inexpensively diagnose commonly recurring regional sicknesses. Not only could this sustainable model somewhat solve the issue of rural access to basic healthcare, it could also elevate teenage village girls from being victims to becoming village doctors. In the long run, a possible and most welcome side-effect of such a prize could be potential falls in female infanticide, which plagues much of the country’s rural and urban areas.
Rock the Leviathan
Then there are other organisations like The Seasteading Institute that want to make changes in political systems altogether because they feel these might serve us far better than today’s governments. The idea is to enable self-sustaining and self-governing floating cities in international waters and hence beyond government jurisdictions – that allow people to peacefully test new ideas about governments, political systems, legal systems, etc. The best ideas could then be incorporated into thriving new “seasteads”, or floating cities.
“In Silicon Valley, if a university student has an idea for a new mobile phone, it can be prototyped, tested and put into practice. But currently, the process of doing so for university papers on political systems isn’t that simple. And it is this platform for experimentation that we want to provide,” says Patri Friedman, political activist, co-founder of The Seasteading Institute and grandson of the late Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman.” We want to see governments that are customer-focussed. They view their citizens as customers and that these customers/ people are getting good value for their money.” That means governments focussing on services that people need, such as transportation designed to have less traffic, specific building codes, and so on.
One of the ideas is what Friedman calls “Dynamic Democracy”. Instead of voting based on candidates from geographical districts, people can assign their votes – on a platform like Facebook – to anybody they choose based on the issues, like the environment.
Another is a spin-off in the works called Blueseed – a technology incubator that will be based on a ship about 12 nautical miles off the Californian coast, near Half Moon Bay. Immigration is a typical government issue. Many international entrepreneurs suffer an assortment of immigration headaches. By being located in international waters and a mere 45-minute ferry ride away from the magic of Silicon Valley, Blueseed could partially alleviate several of their immigration woes. For instance, as long as international entrepreneurs have entered the US on a valid visa, they can legally earn money aboard Blueseed, even if their visa (such as tourist or student visas) don’t let them do so.