Monday, May 13, 2013

Can technology save us all?

It seems that everyday I hear about a new technology that is going to save the world. Whether it's a new clean tech solution to help us meet our energy needs or materials that can "think" and adapt to their surroundings, there are incredible minds inventing incredible technologies that will no doubt change the world. So, can these technologies save us all from the monumental challenges we face?

No.

Well really the answer is more nuanced, and perhaps if I slightly rephrase my question we can begin to delve into why.

Can technology, alone, save us all?

I recently traveled to Cambridge and Boston (MA) with my friend and colleague, Ben, and among other things, attended the MIT Sustainability Summit hosted by the Sloan School and held at the Media Lab. The Media Lab is arguably, the "Mecca" of innovation and technology and represents the East Coast academic hub of the maker movement. Think, 3D printing, 4D printing, and cars that drive themselves, for a start. Along with an admirable speaker lineup, the venue was one of the main attractions for attending. The conference was impressive, as was the venue. With views of the Boston skyline, surrounded by innovative design, and among passionate intelligent people, it was hard not to be inspired.

Stark white, modern, and thoughtfully designed, the interior of the Media Lab welcomed close to 300 people convening to talk about innovative solutions and sustainable business applications that address the world's most wicked problems. Just two days prior, Ben and I were welcomed into a much more humble space that is aiming to do a very similar thing. 

Industrial, gritty, and built with purpose, Greentown Labs is a 17,500 square foot incubator space with the mission of providing space for clean tech entrepreneurs to "get dirty, bend metal, and make noise." Located in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood in Boston, Greentown Labs is home to 26 clean tech start-ups, many of which have come out of MIT and other local institutions. From high altitude, helium filled, portable wind turbines to dirt batteries, this space serves as home to many companies that will surely make in impact. Again, it was hard not to be inspired.

What these experiences, these spaces (along with the "Sustainability Unconference" at the Cambridge Innovation Center we stumbled upon) each demonstrate, are the power of collaboration and deep human desire for community. The outcomes, the tangible products of these spaces are technologies that we may all use someday,  technologies that may change or even help to save the world. Not always apparent and somewhat intangible are the sparks of collaboration and the inspiration and support of a community built on purpose.

It is because of the inherent power of collaboration and our deep desire for community that the technology, alone, cannot save us. Technology helps us meet surface level needs, very real needs that allow us to thrive while collaboration and community help us meet our deeper level needs, those that allows us to be inspired and imagine and those that hold us accountable drive us to make ourselves and the world a better place.

Can technology save us all? No.

Can technology imagined and inspired by a supportive community and made possible and durable through collaboration save us all? I hope so, because really, what are we trying to save if not the communities we are a part of and the world that supports us and allows us to thrive?

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