We live in a world of modest changes. Politicians make tweaks to the tax code and refinements to policy. Infrastructure gets patched, successful movies get prequels (and sequels and threequels), and “new and improved” products are usually just more of the same.
For this story, we set aside the idea of incremental
improvements and asked eight members of our faculty to think big.
If they had unlimited time, money and persuasion techniques, what
audacious idea from their fields would they want to implement
You might find their bold visions—offering free college classes for prisoners, developing a national call system to fight hackers, requiring everyone to have real conversations with people whose beliefs make their blood boil—amazing or absurd. But either way, we hope their ideas make you think.
Require everyone—particularly political leaders—to have real encounters with people very different from them.
If I had a magic wand, I would make sure that all of us have
meaningful contact with 10 people who have realities that are much
different from ours.
We tend to live in very segmented societies, where we have
minimal contact with anyone who is significantly different from us.
This allows suspicion and fear to breed, because we lose sight of
our common humanity. Difference becomes value-laden—not the
difference between blue and green, but differences that lead us to
say that some people are less than others. And that can lead to so
many forms of injustice. The crippling effects of racism, for
example, affect both the targets of racism and racists.
So I would like to set up encounters with people of different
classes, races, sexualities, immigration statuses, abilities and
spiritualities. What if all of our policymakers had meaningful
encounters with refugees and really understood, on a face-to-face
basis, what their reality looks like when they have watched family
members get killed? Would they think differently? If
we—people of comfortable means—spent time with the
poorest of the poor, would we be able to turn a blind eye when we
walk down the street and someone asks us for money? Would these
kinds of experiences make us more able to make decisions based on
compassion rather than fear?
I think this big idea would help bridge the gap between
“us” and “them,” and bring about really
powerful changes in the world.
Offer robust education opportunities to all inmates.
Incarceration in America is at unprecedented levels. For
example, the United States has about 5 percent of the world’s
population, but 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. One
study by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found that of
those who are incarcerated and lack a college education, 60 percent
will return to prison at some point after they’re released.
Those are discouraging numbers, emblematic of a broken
But one thing that does seem to make a difference is education.
If I could, I would make college courses available to any prisoner
with a clean disciplinary record and a high school diploma. In this
way I would create incentives for prisoners to follow the rules,
and provide an invaluable opportunity to incarcerated men and women
on the basis of merit.
I’ve worked with many incarcerated people, and I find that
those who are taking college classes see their horizon expand
beyond the end of their cell block. It gives them a way of
experiencing life beyond their present circumstances.
It also gives them an opportunity, once they’re released,
to take advantage of work opportunities that may not have been
available to them before. Studies have found that this kind of
education can reduce recidivism by more than 40 percent.
Better educational opportunities don’t just benefit
prisoners; they’re a huge cost savings, too. For example, the
organization I work with, the Correctional Association of New York,
estimates that every dollar that’s invested in prison
education returns two dollars back to taxpayers, because
they’re not paying for solitary confinement, medical care,
prisoner transport and all sorts of other expenses. That’s
why this is an idea that would benefit all of us.
Develop a nationwide 911-type system for reporting online breaches.
Right now, the single biggest threat to cybersecurity and
national security is “spear phishing”—a targeted
email scam that appears to be from an individual or business that
you know, but is actually from a hacker.
The scale and scope of these problems is enormous, and likely to
get bigger over time. So much of our data is stored
online—our business data, our health information, our
financial information. We need to stop this. If we don’t, all
of our information could get released, and we could suffer
consequences for the rest of our lives.
So how do you stop it? If you get something suspicious at your
work email account or your home account, who do you contact? You
probably don’t know. That’s why my big idea is a
simple, nationwide 911-type system for reporting online
For example, we know that less than 30 percent of people fall
for these phishing attacks—but that’s enough to make
the breach spread. So I’d like to see a system where those 70
percent who recognize an attack have an easy way to report it and
get feedback. The person would report it and receive a call within
24 hours from this organization to explain what it’s doing to
But it’s not just that we need to have a way to report
these breaches—we also need to create a culture of reporting.
In many cases, it takes more than a year for an organization to
discover a breach because no one is reporting it. A culture of
reporting, and a system that allows us to take action on these
reports, could shorten this cycle and make a big difference.
Cultivate a worldwide hand-washing habit.
There’s plenty of evidence that good hand hygiene
substantially reduces the incidence of preventable illnesses
including diarrhea, respiratory infections and influenza.
Most people know that they should wash their hands—even my
kids know—but they don’t do it. Sure, we might do it
when we’re being watched, but we need to wash even when
others aren’t around. That means after using the bathroom,
changing a diaper, sneezing into your hands or touching an animal,
and before and after preparing food.
One of the most effective ways to think about change like
this—not just one person at a time, but as a society—is
by changing social norms.
For example, my kids saw a DVD at school that says everyone
should wear seat belts, and they came home and asked me if I wear
my seat belt. That’s become an expectation now—a social
norm. We need to create these types of effective campaigns in
schools for hand-washing.
That’s on the positive side. We can also seek to change
the social norms for people who don’t wash their hands. For
example, with smoking, we pushed smokers outside of restaurants and
bars and office buildings. Non-smokers walking by judged their
smoking peers negatively. When people don’t wash their hands
and the rest of us think “eww,” that will go a long way
toward changing the social norms.
These are just a couple ways we can create social expectations
that drive people into behaviors that benefit the public
Integrate technology with natural systems in cities and
One of my big ideas would be to actually realize some of the
projects that my architecture graduate students are already
developing. These are amazing projects that integrate natural and
human-made systems to make cities and towns more sustainable.
For example, one student is working on developing roof tiles
that incorporate hydrogels. Hydrogels are substances that can
absorb water, expanding up to ten times their size during heavy
rains, and then slowly disperse the water over time. If you were to
develop roofing that incorporated this system, you could alleviate
some of the stress on existing runoff systems in the towns along
rivers. It would be a line of defense against extreme weather
conditions, including flooding, that may be more common as a result
of climate change.
Another example is using technology to help improve biodiversity
through sound. We know that many animals—frogs, foxes,
rabbits and snakes, to name a few—are attracted to or
repelled by specific sounds. So to shape the biodiversity of a
certain region, students have developed instruments that look like
reeds you might see by the seaside. When they’re blown by the
wind, they create certain pitches and frequencies that can help
strengthen that region’s biodiversity.
It would be fantastic to be able to start funding these kinds of
projects, which could dramatically change the way our environment
is shaped in the future.
Give all children a development account for their future.
We know that economic inequality is a problem, and it continues
to get worse. One reason is that parents in lower- or even
middle-income families don’t have the economic resources they
need for their children to prepare for their future. For example,
kids from poor families have trouble starting new businesses, even
if they have a great idea. They simply don’t have the startup
funds. Many kids would benefit from college educations, but we all
know how expensive they are.
I propose that every child be given an account at birth—at
the same time that they get a Social Security number—that
they can use to invest in their future. They would start with some
amount of money, maybe enough for a year of community college, and
then they, their family members and their friends could add to it
over time. I would pair that account with strong financial
The key isn’t just that people have money that they can use when they’re young adults—it’s also that they and their parents can dream about the future in a different way. Maybe they decide to get a car so they can get to a job, or use it as part of a down payment on a house.
It’s important to give them a lot of flexibility, because
we just don’t know how society will change over the course of
18 years, or what will be most important. We need to give them the
power to make, and learn from, their own decisions.
Use the law’s idea of “fiduciary principles” to revitalize trust.
Democracy is based on principles of trust and trustworthiness
that are deeply embedded in the American legal tradition. These
principles, which lawyers call “fiduciary principles,”
should be revitalized and applied to address public concerns about
governmental and legislative ethics.
To be clear, a fiduciary is someone who acts on behalf of
someone else without looking for personal gain. In other words,
it’s someone who can be absolutely trusted. This idea is very
common for lawyers and financial advisers.
But it’s not simply a mindset: There are ways to use the
law to approach these issues of trust.
For example, we need to focus not just on actual corruption in
politics, but also the appearance of corruption. In many cases,
simply the appearance of corruption, even if none exists, can make
So, for instance, instead of trying to root out the corruption
that might occur when large donors try to influence politics, we
should understand that the very idea of private funding of
elections reeks of conflict of interest. We should use the law to
find ways to avoid these unmanageable conflicts of interest
entirely. That is part of what it means to be trustworthy.
The fact is, we all delegate decision-making to others in one
way or another. But it requires that we work to build trust, both
politically and legally.
Reframe the threat as a grand opportunity.
Climate change is one of the greatest moral challenges of our
age. There’s no way around that. But sometimes monumental
challenges can bring about monumental change—they can
motivate us to think differently, and to work together to think
more carefully about the costs of our actions.
First, we may be inspired to communicate more effectively. In
the recent Paris climate talks, for example, at a key moment when
the talks were on the edge of breaking down, climate negotiators
took a page from the traditional “indaba” process,
wherein each party voices its opinion and is required to provide
solutions drawing all toward a common ground. The effectiveness of
this method in the face of a problem on the scale of climate change
provides promise for a new era of communication.
Second, we may start thinking of ourselves as a global
community, and rethink how we understand vulnerable populations.
They’re not “vulnerable people from country X”;
they’re vulnerable human beings. That’s a morally
important shift. Because we can recognize and respond to problems
worldwide in a way that was unimaginable 200 years ago, we can also
begin to think of ourselves as a global community.
Finally, climate change gives us an opportunity to take full
stock of the costs of our actions. Once we see our problems as
global problems, then it is much harder to justify ignoring the
economic, environmental or social costs of our
actions—whether in terms of energy use or resource extraction
or manufacturing—when those costs are borne by someone else.
It’s not easy to make these kinds of measurements, but it is
vitally important to acknowledge what we’re actually
spending, and what we’re kicking down the road for future
generations or other populations to pay for.
Climate change is a huge, multifaceted problem, but it’s
also an opportunity to fix grave injustices, to fix the
relationships among humans, and to fix the relationship between
humans and the world itself.
Erin Peterson lives in Minneapolis. She writes for colleges and universities across the country.