Photo: PexelsSexy won’t save the world Melanie Baker September 15, 2016 Columns, Featured, M-Theory, Startups Let us ponder the world pre-Industrial Revolution. Most of the populace, here or elsewhere, lives rurally. They farm or pursue small cottage industries, or both. If someone launches a new business, it’s something the community needs to live and work: blacksmithing, milling, coopering, etc. Quite possibly an expansion of an existing business due to community growth, perhaps an apprentice “graduating” and starting up their own shop. Your former master or other established community members might help stake the new enterprise for a share of the profits. People don’t have the time or resources to focus on solving a problem they can’t prove anyone actually has, or just doing something “cool.” In this world, unicorns only exist on tapestries. Why is this bygone era on my mind at all? No, they haven’t discovered more archaic remnants of settlement under King Street. I was reading about the Fierce Founders Bootcamp cohort. As I read the description of the business model and impetus behind the winner, Borealis Wind, I thought, “That solves a real problem.” Not that all the other companies involved in the Bootcamp don’t. But Borealis Wind’s product is a physical thing, solving a major operations and revenue-affecting issue in an industry I’d argue few of us know much about. Which, at the same time, is important to the growth of the renewable energy industry. So, important, yes, but not necessarily… sexy. At least not in the ways we’ve been trained to think. Which is worrisome. I think the soapy shimmer is off the latest bubble a bit; the unicorn horns are falling off the ponies and whatnot. But I think tech still has serious issues with what is considered sexy. Because sexy gets media coverage, and funding, and network backing. Sexy in tech still usually falls along recognizable lines that don’t need programs and bootcamps targeted at helping it succeed. The problem as I see it though, is that a lot of the issues we currently face, and that we’ll be facing in coming decades, are not sexy. They’re mea culpa, and they’re scary. A lot of it will involve fixing things we broke. This will require observation of real failures in long-established systems, grunt work, considerable creativity, serious engineering, and political wrangling. They don’t so much require slick PowerPoint decks. And like those pre-Industrial Revolution communities, without doing this work, the health and welfare of our communities (let alone growth) will be at risk. What will succeed petroleum-based industry? How will we fight disease in a completely globalized, post-antibiotic era? How are we going to deal with the continuing and escalating effects of climate change? How do we take good care of the elderly when subsequent generations have so many fewer people already squeezed between careers, families, etc.? To quote Fierce Founders winner Daniela Roeper: My end goal is to get renewable energy installed everywhere in the world. I want to take away those barriers that are preventing us, things like high cost and safety concerns, so there’s no reason not to install renewable energy sources. Climate change is a big concern of mine, we’re already locked in for two degrees of warming which is labelled unsafe, we’re going to run out of fossil fuels… It’s time for us to start thinking.” And yet, Jeffrey Hammerbacher’s comments continue to come to mind: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” Simplistic, perhaps, but having seen the flow of shiny, brilliant new hires arriving in Mountain View for Google orientation from the most prestigious universities around the continent, I’m not inclined to disagree with him, even five years after he said it. The good news is that I think all the efforts to get more girls and women into STEM fields are a big part of the answer. Sure, it means more skin (or brains) in the game overall. More education, experience, and creativity focused on figuring things out and fixing problems. More minds from different backgrounds following different paths through challenges. But I think one of the big selling features used to market STEM to girls has a vastly greater potential impact: the idea of helping people. As opposed to just… blowing stuff up or launching killer apps or making gazillions of dollars or whatever techies are supposed to get into these days. If you’ve read, seen, or been at all involved in female-focused STEM activities, you’ll likely be familiar with the idea of pitching technology and science as a way to solve real problems and help people as one of the strongest ways to make it appeal to girls. Not that boys are sociopaths; they’re just socialized differently, and can just be into science because… science. When it works it’s awesome. It’s how we get Google Science Fair projects about smart wound care, or girls in middle school creating an app to help Alzheimer’s patients. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a childhood friend of mine is a cancer researcher who happens to have a history of the disease in her family. As much as people enjoy playing Pokémon Go, our world doesn’t need that. What I’m hoping, actually, is that STEM’s future focus can take a page from those pre-Industrial Revolution communities. And… from romance novels. No, seriously. In the romance genre, what’s sexy is big and tough and assertive and hands-on. The kinds of ideas and solutions that our world needs will be, too, as will the people who make them happen. And those are just the kinds of sexy stories starring young women that I want to read about. Fierce Founders? Bring it. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.