Elon Musk is on a mission. A mission to wake up the world and make things happen. “Technology does not automatically improve. The world does not just improve. It only improves if a lot of people work hard to make it better.” Musk reminds us that the ancient Egyptians built pyramids and the Romans the aqueducts, but much of Egypt and Europe have since forgotten these feats—they’ve lost traction on how to keep improving and how to make the world better.
Musk also points out that while America sent a man to the moon in 1969, our space-faring escapades have slowed to all but a halt. “A space-faring civilization is not inevitable. We’ve turned negative on the trend.” It is a wakeup call that the future doesn’t simply “happen” and that we have the power to design, create, and impact what lies ahead.
While there has been a lot of innovation in recent years—some good, some bad, and some utterly irrelevant—a lot of recent innovation hasn’t moved forward with a grander design of what we want to have in the future. Remember the release of the Yo app in 2014? The application’s only function was to send friends the word “yo,” and yet it became an instant trend, reaching number three in the iOS App Store. Yes, Mr. Musk, we’ve lost traction on what it means to make the world better.
Build to last
Granted, it’s no small feat to innovate, create, and implement with humanity’s overall progress in mind, but Martin Wezowski, head designer at SAP (not to be confused with Mike Wazowski, Monster’s, Inc.), points out that, “If we aren’t careful with what we build with technology, we might stumble into a future we didn’t mean to create.” Just imagine a world of Yo apps.
Changes are happening, yes, but it’s time to map the changes that humanity is collectively creating. Every invention contributes to our future and it’s people like Musk and Wezowski that remind us to inspire a future we all want to live in. Musk doesn’t think smart people are risking enough. “We have too many smart people studying to be accountants and lawyers”. This is also true with innovation: If we have all these bright minds working on problems like seamless grocery delivery or how to relieve restlessness at work (fidget spinners at your service), then we’re not thinking big enough.
If we have all these bright minds working on problems like seamless grocery delivery or how to relieve restlessness at work (fidget spinners at your service), then we’re not thinking big enough.
As Wezowski alluded to, the future isn’t made up of discrete moments of change—it’s a flow of contributions, an unending series of short-term projects. The real difficulty lies in mapping those contributions and asking yourself where you can play a significant positive role in technology and the future and the work you are in.
How to inspire a future we all want to live in
Create and surround yourself in a humanistic design culture
Don’t just consume, create
Human-centered design starts with people and ends with solutions for their needs. Humanistic design teaches and inspires creativity, empathy, and learnability, and it fosters an environment in which we are all more mindful about what we create. One way to foster a humanistic design culture? Focus on empathy. Rachel Ginsberg emphasizes that “Empathy allows us to build better products and better experiences, better organizations, and better families. Better everything—a better society.”
One of Musk’s side hobbies (outside of SpaceX and Tesla) is to reduce traffic with underground car tunnels. When asked why he’s boring underground versus trying to build flying cars, he reminded us it’s not exactly “anxiety-reducing” to have a car flying above your head when you’re wondering if the driver serviced their hubcap, or you’re being buffeted by wind and assaulted by whirring noises. Musk is constantly thinking about the effects on humans in his designs, and it’s a culture we should all practice more.
It’s our world and we’re not “just” living in it. We’re creating it, even by creating nothing. It’s easy to sit back and consume when there’s so much culture to consume—it’s much harder to push back and give back. But you can contribute by making a conscious effort to be authentic and to create with more purpose and empathy. Ask yourself where and how you can actively and positively contribute in your community, and how you can make an impact. The shape of the future isn’t in the sole hands of mysterious creatives. We should create to last, and create with humans in mind, because as designer Stellan Christiansen put it, “We will spend the rest of our life in the future.”
Following a pre-planned career path with almost guaranteed security and success is easier than forging a new path. Try to see yourself as a “big thinker” and think a little broader, a little bigger, a little more long-term, and forge a new course even if it seems scary. A few ways you can practice thinking big? Ask yourself:
How could this potential solution change the world?
How could this idea revolutionize my industry?
How could the answer to this problem solve a global issue?
Big ideas come from a humanistic design culture and a mindset to keep learning. Besides, if one of Musk’s small hobbies is to build an underground transportation system for our entire civilization, we can at least use that as a reminder to think on a larger scale.
Let's focus on creating for the long-term and creating with humans in mind. Let's start to think bigger and create a series of changes that inspire a future we all want to live in.
Amanda Roosa is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. When she's not petting other people's dogs, she's exploring where technology and humanity converge. Find her on Twitter: @mandyroosa.