The Next Moonshot ... Earth

By CHM Editorial | October 22, 2020

Can Innovative Tech Policies Help Solve Earth's Greatest Challenges?

Is the next moonshot—an ambitious endeavor to solve a great challenge—perhaps climate change, or safeguarding public health in the pandemic age? How can the first moonshot in 1969 that landed a man on the moon, and all we’ve learned since, help us apply what works and avoid what doesn’t to foster innovations that create a better future?

CHM was fortunate to host a discussion with four thought leaders in today’s critical issues surrounding the development, use, and misuse of technology. On October 7, 2020, Judy Estrin, CEO of JLABS; California Congressman Ro Khanna; Mariana Mazzucato, professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London; and Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America joined moderator Margaret O’Mara, professor of history at the University of Washington, in a virtual CHM Live event.

The breadth and depth of the panelists’ knowledge of tech policy inspired us to imagine how we could apply their insights to create a roadmap for what needs to happen to help our next moonshots succeed. Here are some ideas.

Invest in education to expand the talent pool for innovation

CEO of New America Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses the challenges of health inequity and climate change.

To be equipped to tackle moonshot challenges, Anne-Marie Slaughter says the US must do more than regulate tech companies and incentivize innovation—we need to expand our talent pool. Right now, a relatively small and undiverse segment of the population is responsible for most tech innovation. Though many more people have the potential to contribute, they don’t have the necessary skills or resources to do so.

The US government can help. By investing in early education to K-12 to college, students could receive sufficient training in science, technology and the humanities to support consistent innovation over time. Universal health insurance would also help level the playing field. Studies have shown that people need at least minimal security to take risks, such as founding a company. Yet many people must worry about losing their health insurance if they fail, a major deterrent to risk-taking. They lose the opportunity to become innovators, while the world loses out on the contributions they could have made.

Disrupt tech culture and think long term

As we tackle moonshots like climate change or public health, Judy Estrin says it’s critical to avoid the kind of thinking that got us into the problem in the first place. The “tech utopian mindset,” or the notion that technology is always good, can be dangerous. This belief influences not only engineers and technologists, but also others in the innovation ecosystem. It helps to involve academic and policy organizations who are independent from the tech utopian bias.

CEO of JLABS Judy Estrin says that to tackle moonshots, we need tech to contribute but not dominate.

The innovation ecosystem has also become too short-term and self-focused, fostering “innovation for innovation’s sake, without enough regard for the planet or humanity,” Estrin says. She believes that in the tech innovation ecosystem today, “There is a worship of dominance and disruption that is incentivizing problematic behaviors.” However, dominance is not necessary for worthwhile innovation, and disruption sometimes breaks things that can’t be fixed later, such as democracy and even people’s lives. Estrin thinks we can all use a little less disruption in the world, or at least disruption that is more careful and considerate.

Establish a mission orientation in the public and private sectors

Mariana Mazzucato believes that history has some answers. She notes that “the glorious decades” when the US put a man on the moon were a time when government took an active role promoting basic research and fostering the entire innovation chain, all the way through procurement policies and the diffusion of mass production into the suburbs. These investments of public dollars led to new technologies, some spun off from the space race, such as software and satellite communications. Margaret O’Mara’s history of Silicon Valley, The Code, details how this federal government funding seeded the roots for decades of tech innovation in the region. But, what people don’t realize, Mazzucato says, is that there were important conditions attached to public/private relationships from that era.

Economics professor Mariana Mazzucato explains that Bell Labs was established as a tradeoff for AT&T's monopoly status.

To help the next moonshot succeed, state organizations must (re)embrace an ambitious vision, focus on problems to solve—not just on sectors or particular technologies—and then enact smart policies to support them. And to receive public money, the private sector should also broaden its vision and aspire to solve big problems that will help everyone, not just their shareholders.

Regulate innovation to ensure it serves the public

Congressman Ro Khanna represents California’s 17th district, which includes parts of Silicon Valley. He believes that many people feel tech is providing them with more consumer options and information than they ever had access to before, but it’s also disempowering, with worries about job displacement and loss of control as parents and as citizens. Khanna thinks Congress must create accountability for the tech revolution that is affecting people’s lives, but he’s aware that some tech companies resist regulation by claiming that “out of touch” legislators “don’t understand” their technology. If tech is going to help solve moonshot challenges, people have to get involved and not accept the tech companies’ dominance without question. And the tech companies need to play fair with each other as well as the public.

Congressman Ro Khanna talks about the need for antitrust regulation but cautions that it will not guarantee equity in the innovation economy.

Silicon Valley has been an innovation powerhouse in part because of a culture that promotes the open sharing of information. While regulation can try to prevent damaging behaviors that limit competition or the free flow of information, moonshot challenges need fruitful collaboration between companies as well as between the public and private sectors. 

Climate change and health inequalities are extremely difficult challenges, even harder than a moonshot, because they involve not just technical problems but also social, economic, political and cultural considerations. Mariana Mazzucato perhaps speaks for all the panelists when she suggests that solutions must start with citizens and not be imposed top-down from governments. And those solutions have a greater chance of succeeding if they are framed by diverse scientists, engineers, and tech companies as well as problem-solvers from the arts and humanities. New commitments to new kinds of partnerships just might be what the next moonshot needs to have a shot.

Watch the Full Conversation

CHM Live | Election 2020: Critical Technology Policy Issues, October 7, 2020


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COVER IMAGE: Earthrise, NASA Apollo space mission, December 24, 1968.


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CHM Editorial consists of editors, curators, writers, educators, archivists, media producers, researchers, and web designers, looking to bring CHM audiences the best in technology and Museum news.

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