You can hardly go a week without reading about huge dollars being thrown at a hot tech firm. To pick just one piece of low-hanging fruit, how about the $60 million recently bequeathed upon Snapchat -- makers of an app you use to take pictures that disappear after a few seconds. Huge dollar amounts -- and brainpower -- are concentrated in Silicon Valley, where such pressing problems being solved include how to get a cab ride more quickly and how to avoid missing package deliveries. Sure, it’s easy to make jokes -- in fact, there is a site devoted to just that, lampooning the seemingly superficial “problems” that seem to be the focus of Silicon Valley resources.
A recent essay by C.Z. Nnaemeka in the MIT Entrepreneurship Review has sparked a revisited debate about the roles and responsibilities of technology companies armed with lots of resources and brilliant minds. In short, Nnaemeka’s essay, titled “The Unexotic Underclass,” argues that there is a significant class of people with “unexotic” problems, which do not attract attention from either the trend-hungry startups trying to create the next Draw Something nor the global do-gooders who focus on hugely complex structural problems like clean power and nutrition in developing nations.
To some, Nnaemeka’s arguments and his supporters are at best well-intentioned but naïve, because it is only natural that tech startups would target markets where the money is -- and often that means the disposable income owned by the very same people who make up most of the tech startups. But there seems to be a growing sense that maybe Silicon Valley has lurched too far toward the navel-gazing privileged class. Can’t they do more? Should they?
For anyone in the enterprise, the questions are not only timely but seminal to any business. What are you in business to do? To generate profit. To create wealth. What else?
Despite the increasingly tongue-in-cheek use of the phrase “first world problems” to describe luxury issues, an important point to the “unexotic underclass” thesis is that actually many of the problems that need addressing are right here in the first world. For example, access to job training and healthcare, two pillars for a successful life that are within relatively easy reach for the privileged, is scarce and difficult to navigate for those with limited resources or in less connected locations.
What strikes me as especially interesting is that Silicon Valley and “unexotic” problems may not be as far apart as it seems. If you look at the situation from the point of view of how much cash investors throw at the next custom pizza app versus rural childcare, yes, they seem worlds apart. But underneath, there is a common engineering problem. A lot of tech startups are essentially addressing resource utilization inefficiency. Or to put it in a slightly more politically inflammatory way -- resource distribution inequality.
Media darling companies like Airbnb and Uber are speaking to the same problem that makes server virtualization so successful -- putting idle resources to use. The same principle also describes many “unexotic” problems. Resources like skills training and childcare do exist, and people who need access to them certainly exist, but the old methods of discovery and implementation are very inefficient. Silicon Valley has proven ingenious at building efficient discovery and implementation services -- it’s just that so many companies are targeting non-essential services.
In reality, there actually are tech enterprises addressing the “unexotic” but without the headline-grabbing panache of Snapchat. And some of these organizations are probably represented one way or another right here among E2 readers. It would be great to hear about some of the “unexotic” problems that your businesses might be involved in tackling.