Moonshots On Earth

Impossible Problems That Lead To A Fragile World

Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over — Hunter S Thompson

Very few people know the feeling, that caged animals broken free from their confinement feel, more than the people who have been confined indoors in a brutal winter. A bit like not knowing what misfortunes afflict many when you are confined to your daily life. The winter can be harsh but reality lasts longer and can be more brutal. Today’s heroes are looking skywards and inside the computer to create wondrous worlds. However, some of the unsung heroes tackling moonshots on earth are in need of support more than ever. This article looks at the real challenges affecting humanity ie inequity, poverty and illiteracy. It also provides two examples of people tackling the biggest moonshots on earth.

Moonshots

As per the Oxford English Dictionary, a moonshot is

In his book on Leonardo Da Vinci, Walter Isaacson describes him as a generally curious person which was also a reason behind his multifaceted success. DaVinci was a polymath. He would gaze at the blue sky and wonder why it was blue. Many people, today would tell such a person to just enjoy the view and forget questioning the color. An idiosyncratic genius, also called a madman, is generally ahead of his time. He or she is able to see things others can’t. Others, by extension, do not follow his ideas and mock him instead.

Consider a simple example of an economic moonshot. The global debt level is at a record high at a whopping $217 trillion which is 325% of global GDP. Anybody who looks at it is bound to question sustainability. Trying to rein in this debt is almost an impossible task.

Zerohedge

As famous investor Jim Rogers put it, a sovereign default on debt could come from the most unlikeliest country. For instance, during the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland defaulted first. However, such problems can be hidden from plain sight and can deceive the whole world.

I mentioned economic fragility as a moonshot because that’s how the global economy is today. Geopolitics and technology can trigger a widespread contagion. A contagion affects people who are the least inoculated ie the middle class and below.

Therefore, to my mind, organizations helping people stand on their own two feet are tackling some of the hardest moonshots on earth.

However, there are many other moonshots on earth. Below are two examples of individuals and organizations dealing head on with real life issues.

Balakrishna Doshi

On March 07, 2018, Balkrishna Doshi became the first Indian to win the Pritzker Prize For Architecture. He says:

(In India) we talk of housing, we talk of squatters, we talk of villages, we talk of towns — everybody talks, but who is going to really do something about it?” he asked. “I took the personal decision that I would work for the ‘other half’ — I’d work for them and try to empower them. (source: CNN)

Balakrishna makes a powerful statement. A lot of us just think and overthink moonshots but rarely have the courage to take them on. I am also to be blamed for the same malaise. A life lived selfishly without trying to do something meaningful that has an impact on the less fortunate.

Balakrishna’s firm VastuShilp architects designed low cost housing for 80,000 people through a project called “Aranya Low Cost Housing”

Source:architectmagazine.com

Doshi worked under renowned French architect Le Corbusier and was inspired by the work of Louis Kahn.

Architects like Doshi could have created masterpieces that allowed people to enjoy the spaces within. Instead, he chose to create an even grander masterpiece — housing that inspires people to live. A lot of the people inhabiting the low cost housing had little or no hope. Now, life within Aranya inspires them to dream.

One of the biggest issues in creating truly life changing art is that it requires exceptional talent to be rewarded early in ones career or it requires years of perseverance for the art to start paying off dividends. Sometimes, artists fail to monetize their work for a living and lead a life of destitution. Many would argue that basic needs should be met before one can appreciate art.

What use is art without food, clothing or shelter? That’s a tough question to answer. However, people like Balakrishna have provided shelter while preserving art. A truly remarkable feat indeed.

Dasra

Dasra is a not for profit in India. It’s founders Deval Sanghavi and Neera Nundy ditched a career in the US to start Dasra with the objective of helping the underprivileged in India. Of course, their background provided them with access to a worldwide network of colleagues. However, pursuing societal change is a noble goal indeed.

Established in 1999, Dasra’s goal was to act as an investment fund for incubating not for profits. It was the first private organization to have a tie up with USAID, a US government agency. Also unique to Dasra is the concept of Giving Circles. Each Circle has people committing atleast Rs. 1 million for 3 years. Each circle also supports a particular cause from sanitation to women’s welfare. Deval and Neera transformed the philanthropic landscape in India by connecting their network (givers) with the right causes.

Breaking Free From A Prison

Balakrishna, Deval and Neeru are tackling moonshots on earth. All three had a change of heart and utilized their talents to build things for others. There are countless such unsung heroes across the world from Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa. My question to all is this:

What is reality if not a figment of our perception. The truth is that there is no truth. The truth is a constantly evolving world that is shaped by humans. Nature offers a rule based system where seasons follow seasons and the sun follows the moon. Therefore change, does not end rather it, starts with the moonshots. Calling a moonshot a moonshot is the ultimate irony. Moonshot is past tense for the unreasonable men and women ahead of their time.

The real moonshots, that have actually become plutoshots because they keep moving further away, are the lessons that history has taught us but we haven’t learnt.

Creating a fairer society, reducing inequality and bringing basic needs of food, shelter and education to all. All of these missions require many of us to move out of our collective bubbles and gain a broader perspective. Granted, we have improved on many of these fronts and yet there are a significant number of people living without basic needs.

Source: The Economist

Also, on a different count ie unemployment, forces such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) are capable of exacerbating inequality. Thus, making living conditions harder in developed economies:

Obviously, it is much easier to move a lot of people by dangling the carrot of financial incentives than it is to motivate them towards altruism. The promise of Blockchain remains to unrealized for the vast majority whereas the early and wealthy entrants have profited from speculation.

The incentives in today’s world are skewed towards building more profit seeking enterprises. But, the question I keep asking myself is : once you have enough to lead a good life, why not do something about others who don’t? I don’t have a really good answer. A wise man once said, “judge a man by the size of his heart”. If that is true, I still have a lot of work to do.

Moonshots always make us look skyward but now, more than ever, it is time to look around and below us to search for the bigger challenges that very few are looking at. Before we colonize Mars, we have a chance to be more than just parasites on our own home planet.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba