As a Washingtonian, I hear lots about solving problems—although we do not always seem to find solutions that work. Our problems seem so intractable, from climate change to feeding billions of people.
The solutions are not going to come from approaches that involve repeating some formula that has always worked in the past. Instead, like a beloved math professor who advised me to do just this, we are going to have to sit back and dream about it, envision things that challenge us, and try to imagine better strategies, ones that have not yet emerged in text books or treatises or laws or policy.
Last fall, I heard a talk by Google[x] Director Dr. Astro Teller. In case you’ve been living under my rock, Google[x] is the not-so-secret experimental element of Google, and the likely launch pad for projects such as the driverless car, Google Glass, Calico, and Project Loon.
“Teller noted that so many of us have that sense of exploration and imagination hammered out of us early, but that both are absolutely essential to change and innovation.”
I was taken by Astro’s comments on how we need to nurture imagination and creativity, and to be less cowed by habit or the rules or how others might react to our ideas. Teller noted that so many of us have that sense of exploration and imagination hammered out of us early, but that both are absolutely essential to change and innovation. In fact, Astro’s job title is Captain of Moonshots.
I was a month old when President Kennedy gave his 1962 moon speech:
“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.”
He addressed the wonky issues that went with that goal: the cost, the toil, the possibility of failure, the sacrifice. But he struck something in the collective imagination: How not? What child had not gazed at the Man on the Moon? Who had not seen its face? Who could not help but reach for the stars?
I was seven when Neil Armstrong delivered on Kennedy’s vision. It was past bedtime, and my grandmother woke me, and turned on the TV, saying, “You will remember this for the rest of your lives.”
Indeed, who could forget? And so lately, I’ve taken to wondering what a health moonshot would be. It is not something we can gaze up at, or to, for which we are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices and compromises it will require. It is not something some grandmother will turn on in the middle of the night, wake the sleeping household, and mark the moment.
Google thinks it is on to something with Calico, its project to fight aging and death. We humans have been at that one a long time: More power to Google if it can deliver beyond botox, but I’m a skeptic.
We have had other health moonshots, too: the War on Cancer, which has made such progress in understanding, preventing and treating the many manifestations of cancer, but has not vanquished or conquered it. Moonshots have almost entirely eradicated smallpox and polio. HIV, once so quickly lethal, has become a chronic condition. And lessons from battlefield medicine have translated into the civilian world, where we know so much more about rescuing people who have endured deadly assaults, enabling them to survive traumatic brain injuries, burns, amputations, and infection.
“But in a country and a world increasingly struggling with the physical, emotional, and fiscal burdens of chronic conditions, where would a moonshot aim?”
But in a country and a world increasingly struggling with the physical, emotional, and fiscal burdens of chronic conditions, where would a moonshot aim? Fighting childhood obesity, to be sure. Preventing heart disease and all of its complications. Such moonshots would have to encompass other, even more ambitious efforts that stretch our minds, resources, and imaginations: The challenge, for instance, of feeding the world, whose population will reach 9 billion in just a few decades. How on earth will we ensure food security: routine adequate, nutritious, and good food to people everywhere? That moonshot would face the tremendous challenges posed by the food and beverage industry, agricultural giants, and trade agreements, and other issues, including the effects of climate change on agriculture. But surely if we aimed a collective efforts there, we would reach a better place in which health is a by-product.
In my work, we try to find better ways to care for very old people, and so the moonshots are so modest in comparison: Ensure that old people and those who love them are not left to suffer from pain and cognitive loss; guarantee that family caregivers have community-workplace-financial supports that enable them to do what they must; guard against isolation, and its attendants, depression and despair; provide adequate food, safe homes, reliable transportation, and opportunities for meaning and engagement. Any one of these moonshots would be worth the effort—but would they capture the collective imagination and will it move people? Not likely. We are all so bound to who we are in the here and now, we simply cannot imagine that we are really on the verge of our own old age.
Perhaps we could take a moonshot based on health as a human right, a goal explicitly stated in the WHO Constitution: “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being…” Getting there would take great effort and will, but would surely achieve the sorts of world-changing effect Kennedy envisioned when he aimed to put a man on the moon. Getting there would demand so much more of each of us, on so many fronts: Food security, access to medical care and treatment, improved disease prevention, educational equity and access, and cleaner water and air.
That moonshot might turn our faces to the future, whose face we cannot see or even imagine, but which we know lies ahead. Along the way, our moonshots might include satellite launches, exploratory missions, wild forays in strange vehicles, and more. Maybe we could build on something like Astro Teller’s love of imagination and creativity, coupled with science and technology; we could launch dreams of our own, and marvel when they stay aloft. But first, as President Kennedy said: We must be bold.