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Capital Ideas

The thoughts of Matt Olson, a systems thinker, hacker, and social entrepreneur, on retooling consumer culture

The Innovation Within

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I’ve been to a lot of technology networking events, so I thought I knew what to expect when I went to the Innovate North State Challenge on June 27th: Company A has a good idea but not the right team, Company B fails to differentiate itself in a crowded space, but Company C is disrupting a massive market, has defensible IP, and is poised for growth!

I could go that route, but I think I’d be doing you a disservice to not tell you instead about what happened later, at the Sierra Nevada bar, when, while enjoying an Ovila Abbey Saison (or three), I met a man that challenged my worldview in a profoundly depressing way.

I told him why I was there, and how the numerous technical glitches with the AV equipment drove me to drink, but that there was one company that resonated with me. When I told him it was a company that paired surplus farm produce that ordinarily would be composted with hungry individuals and hunger relief agencies, he said “well it’s not really wasted, it goes into the soil, right? And besides, nobody in America is really hungry. There are tons of social welfare programs and the poor people in this country are fat, not going hungry. Anybody who’s hungry in America wants to be hungry.”

I’ll let that sit with you for a second. While I have seen the propaganda that might lead someone to say something like that, it demonstrates a certain myopic ignorance and failure of social intelligence for a wealthy physician to claim that the working poor are not going hungry in this country. The facts show that over 50 million Americans, including almost 17 million children, do not have access to enough food.

While I could blame this one individual for his ignorance of the facts, these comments are merely the perfection of the capitalist libertarian ethic that is in ascendance in recent years. It is a view that holds that poverty is an indication of inferiority, that anyone who is poor is either unintelligent or lazy or both. That the poor are undeserving, that if they really wanted to improve their condition, there are plenty of opportunities and there are no obstacles to social mobility. The ruthless application of this logic leads us to believe that the rich are simply smarter, faster, better, and the poor are losers who are best served by a spotty patchwork of charity services, if at all.

For those of you that are not shocked and disgusted by this point of view, I have an alternative for you to consider. Perhaps your ego is inflated. Perhaps you are unaware of your privilege. Perhaps the only difference between you and the kid in Mississippi (or Chico for that matter) that doesn’t have enough to eat is a supportive family that told you over and over again that if you just work hard enough, one day you could be President, instead of telling you that you’ll never amount to anything, and dragged you down when you tried to break away.

I have an Innovation Challenge for you. Challenge yourself to break free from preconceived notions about your fellow humans. Ask more. Repeat less. The innovation we so deeply need in this country is within our own hearts.

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