Some people believe good ideas grow on trees. But they seem much more like fossil fuels to me — natural resources we often seize, tap and extract when we should nurture them. Today, we bring you 16 ideas worth cherishing, plus the promise of nurturing the future with the OZY Genius Awards, a scholarship of up to $10,000 for college students whose ideas could change the world for the better. What would it mean to eat as many meals as you like, torch the Mona Lisa, skip the first two years of college, and turn parking garages into grocery stores and barbershops into hospitals? Let me plant the seed.
Rage Against the Meal Machine. Big Food wants you to eat three meals a day. But there’s scant scientific evidence of the benefits of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. And, as Amanda Mull writes for The Atlantic, the pandemic has exposed how nebulous this widely accepted ritual of consumption is. While the first 34 years of Mull’s life were spent eating three meals at roughly the same time each day, she soon found herself settling into an at-home routine that included intermittent light snacking punctuated by one large meal — eaten whenever she chose. Others find that they’re eating more than three set meals, no longer confined to work schedules that limited their time in the kitchen. “Our old eating schedules are no more natural than sitting in a cubicle for 10 hours a day,” Mull writes, which means they can now reflect our changing circumstances.
Sniffing Out Cancer. So much of cancer survival relies on when it is detected. What if your smartphone could smell it? Plenty of tech products can already see, hear and sense our touch, but the most groundbreaking development may be the emergence of robotic noses — which could happen in the next five years, according to one MIT scientist and inventor. And while some may fear another voice in their lives telling them they really need to take a shower, the greater value could be in detecting diseases. Dogs, with their enhanced sense of smell, are able to sniff out everything from cancer to Parkinson’s and malaria, giving scientists a model for disease-detecting robotic noses.
In the Chair. Black Americans consistently face worse medical outcomes than whites in the face of a racist health care system, as OZY documented recently in a “Real Talk, Real Change” special edition of The Carlos Watson Show. But aside from government policy and a rethink of medical education, what if part of the solution was at the barbershop? Michael DeVore won an OZY Genius Award in 2017 as a student at Claflin University for his idea to create an app connecting college students with cheap haircuts. Today, his company, Live Chair, is jumping into health care — with barbers using time with Black customers to persuade them to get their blood pressure checked and other basic medical screening measures. It’s a simple step toward more preventive care for a population that badly needs it. Read more on OZY.
Delete the First Two Years of College. The loan crisis is real, yet the value of a college degree is quickly dwindling while burdening students with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. One solution? Eliminating the first two years of college, which, at many universities, is spent on general education courses before students are allowed to start taking classes in their specialization. You should be getting the general basics in high school, while the exorbitant cost of college would be better spent on direct professional or academic preparation rather than paying for remedial courses that studies suggest deliver little in terms of academic gains anyway. Still, it will be important to find extra support for the disproportionately minority students let down by the K-12 system.
TurboTax for Bankruptcy. Bankruptcy can be a maddeningly complex process, all but indecipherable to those who need it most to get out from the crushing burden of debt. Rohan Pavuluri’s solution: a free TurboTax-like service to navigate the legal hurdles and paperwork. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Pavuluri won an OZY Genius Award in 2018 for his big idea, and his organization, Upsolve, has since grown to become the largest bankruptcy nonprofit in America. He’s now hoping to expand it to serve the poor in all different areas of the law. Read more on OZY.
Buy the ‘Mona Lisa’ … Then Torch It. A blockchain company paid $95,000 for a signed 2009 Banksy original and then livestreamed setting it aflame on the Twitter account @BurntBanksy this month. The most stunning part? They actually made money on the deal before striking the match by converting the original into a digital “non-fungible token” (NFT), which they then sold for a cool $380,000 — a nearly 400-percent return on their red-hot investment. The Banksy piece was the perfect vehicle, given that it lampooned art auctions — featuring a Christie’s auctioneer saying, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” As the BurntBanksy collective explained, the elimination of the physical shifted its value to the digital. Which makes us wonder how high a token of the Mona Lisa, with an estimated worth of $54.5 billion, could go if the Louvre fixture just “happened” to catch fire. Read more about NFTs on OZY.
Follow the Catholic Church on Reparations? In 2016, reporter Rachel Swarns received a tip that Jesuit priests sold 272 people in 1838 to save Georgetown University … a historical fact that, while known to scholars, had received little attention. Swarns launched a New York Times investigation, and within three years, Georgetown announced plans to raise $400,000 annually to benefit the descendants of the enslaved people they sold while also offering them preferential admissions status. It is the first major university to offer reparations, and was a precursor to the Catholic Church’s largest effort to address its role in slavery: a plan announced last week by the Jesuit order to raise $100 million to support racial healing projects. “There’s a reckoning happening,” Swarns says, as Christian groups from Virginia to New York to Texas are following suit.
fixing broken politics
Replace National Identity With Local Identity. In recent decades, American politics and media — not to mention our food — have become increasingly nationalized, while technology allows us to bridge any distance and makes us more mobile than ever. It’s come at a cost for our sense of community, and it may take a new localism to tame America’s vicious political and cultural polarization. Think about it: The ties that bind you to root for the Atlanta Falcons or enjoy a local arts festival transcend political affiliation, and local governments tend to be much more pragmatic and less ideological than national ones … or at least they used to be. At a time when globalism is often seen as the ticket to open-mindedness, this approach flips conventional wisdom on its head.
Shake Up the House. What if you were represented by more than one U.S. House member? Not too long ago, this was fairly common: Multi-member districts were only outlawed in 1967, as they were often used to dilute Black political power. But a growing number of advocates and leaders believe bringing back multi-member districts, when coupled with ranked-choice voting, could help bring down the temperature in a House riven by extremes. How? If you can rank several candidates over a wider area, with, say, the top three finishers in a district going to Washington, it gives a wider array of candidates a chance and forces them to appeal to a broader coalition. It also would give an opening to some red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans to finally get representation.
The One-Term Presidency. In the U.S., presidencies have a tendency to become cults of personality. But what if we followed the example set south of the border? Mexico limits its presidents to one six-year term. Their policies might remain, but few remember much about Enrique Peña Nieto or Vicente Fox today. This rule could help American presidents avoid breaking the law in pursuit of re-election and sidestep the second-term scandal.
The Other Pay Gap. Should a doctor performing a surgery in Brownsville, Texas, receive significantly more compensation than a doctor performing the same surgery a mile away in Matamoros, Mexico? Given all the attention focused on the gender or racial pay gap, international pay equity deserves another look. Many international workers are paid less than Americans and those from other more affluent nations … even when working for the same companies in the same jobs. It’s time for economists to explore the nationality gap and devote more time to studying it, after adjusting for cost of living. As pandemic-fueled remote work goes global, it’s an increasingly urgent question.
Succession Plan. Business owners around the world struggle to find people to take over their profitable enterprises, and some even die without finding a suitable heir. Governments could create programs to pair proven entrepreneurs from disadvantaged communities with owners looking to exit — even if that means ignoring white business leaders for a while. It’s a different kind of wealth redistribution to communities of color, and it’s a model that has already seen success in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hand H.R. to the Robots. They already lift your boxes; why not have them carry your emotional burden? Artificial intelligence doesn’t have the greatest track record in avoiding discrimination, but if it’s not relied on to be the sole algorithmic arbiter behind decisions, AI can be useful in making it easier for people to report workplace harassment and discrimination. Companies are using chatbots like Spot and Callisto to get man-made influences out of the reporting process, while Botler AI is helping explain to people in the U.S. or Canada whether a crime has been committed against them. Corporations could find it easier to improve company culture as a result. Read more on OZY.
Pay Poor People, Save the Planet. An Indonesian direct-payment program to lift rural residents out of poverty had a delicious side effect — it reduced deforestation by 30 percent, say researchers who examined the impact of the program on about 7,500 forest villages from 2008 to 2012. That’s because villagers no longer felt a desperate need to increase their area of cultivation to reduce the risks of low crop yields. Could a universal basic income help elsewhere? In the United States, think tanks are begging policymakers to incorporate farmers and rural Americans in their climate-change-fighting endeavors, given the integral role they will play.
Robosynthesis? Step aside, artificial intelligence: Meet artificial photosynthesis. The process in which plants take sunlight and water and convert them into oxygen, fueling growth and reducing carbon dioxide, could soon be within reach for machines, too. Such work is being pioneered by Yale University and other institutions, funded in part by a recent $6.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. A recent major breakthrough was a tabletop device that could operate on sunlight alone for more than 3,000 hours without degradation, converting methane into benzene and reducing nitrogen into ammonia, an important element for fertilizer. Using light to fuel chemical processes could be crucial to pushing renewable energy forward.
Freshwater Jellyfish Factory, Parking Garage Groceries? The Museum of the Future in Dubai has gotten a little wild while imagining the future of cities. One idea: harnessing the natural desalinating energy of jellyfish to create a city-wide, saltwater-converting jelly that could ease water scarcity concerns, particularly in the parched Middle East. Another? Converting parking garages, which could soon become woefully outdated with the arrival of self-driving cars, into hubs for growing and delivering fresh food to locals with an Amazon-like ability to predict your preferences. Read more on OZY.
what’s your favorite idea?
Vote here and tell us which of these big ideas you are most excited about, as well as your even better ideas.