Feature

THE BIG IDEA

Story by Erin Peterson | Photographs by Douglas Levere

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 today?

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.

The Problems:

THE PROBLEM

The refugee crisis

THE BIG IDEA

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.

THE PROBLEM

Mass incarceration

THE BIG IDEA

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 system.

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.

THE PROBLEM

Cybersecurity

THE BIG IDEA

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 breaches.

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 resolve it.

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.

THE PROBLEM

The spread of infectious disease

THE BIG IDEA

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 good.

THE PROBLEM

Unsustainable growth

THE BIG IDEA

Integrate technology with natural systems in cities and towns.

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.

THE PROBLEM

Economic inequality

THE BIG IDEA

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 education.

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.

THE PROBLEM

America’s growing lack of faith in politicians and political institutions

THE BIG IDEA

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 people cynical.

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.

THE PROBLEM

Climate change

THE BIG IDEA

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.