The rise of (societal) resilience tech

If you follow millennials on Twitter (and god help you), then you know that Anne Helen Petersen’s piece this past weekend “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” struck a deep chord for many.

It’s longform and detailed, but Petersen’s primary thesis is that my generation has been dumped into one of the worst moments for economic and social mobility in recent memory (global financial crisis, etc.), which has led us to massively over-optimize our lives to try to extract any value we can. Baby boomers could work at a big company for thirty years at 40-50 hours a week with stable and increasing pay (with pensions!), while millennials have to simultaneously hold down four gigs and make their Instagrams and LinkedIns look great lest they fail to land their next gig, all while operating under the pressure of horrific levels of student loans.

Nod or shake your head, but I also think Petersen is getting at a much tougher challenge for society, one that I think will be one of the richest areas for investment in the coming years for founders and venture capitalists.

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That thesis is around wellness and resilience, but not just of the health/physical variety. It also encompasses the reliability of our products, the level of income we receive each week, whether a storm might knock out our power, and how we read the news. Modern life is complicated and also chaotic, jumping from crisis to crisis we can barely understand. The question then becomes whether there are solutions that can absorb some of that complexity and chaos to simplify and satisfy our lives.

This week, rivers of glistening ink flowed over Lambda School, a Y Combinator alum that is using income share agreements to fund tuition at its schools. ISAs as a financial model are reasonably simple: if you go to a school, you agree to repay that school a fixed percentage of your income over a set period of time (let’s say purely for ease 10% of income for 10 years). Lambda School argues that this provides incentive alignment, because the school wants its graduates to be as successful as possible, while the Twitterati snarks that the startup has invented “taxes.”

First, fuck the snarkers who don’t spend any time learning about new, innovative models for offering services.

That aside, Lambda School is really offering a pathway to a more resilient life. If the economy collapses, student debt today still has to be paid on a fixed schedule, regardless of employment opportunities. Yet Lambda’s take ebbs and flows with the changes in the macroeconomy, offering to absorb the complexity and chaos around us. Want to take a year away from a high-paying job to work at a non-profit? You can, and Lambda adjusts without you even having to make a phone call.

This resilience tech isn’t limited to just education — it touches pretty much every facet of innovation. Just take a look at some startups I have profiled in the past year. Gremlin is using “chaos engineering” to reduce downtime and increase software reliability for web applications. Even is building out a savings model so that anyone can plan for financial independence. Wild Type is manufacturing salmon that can provide more sustainability to our environment and absorb climate change shocks.

There has been an enormous academic debate for more than two decades about the meaning of GDP, and whether there are alternative models worth exploring like Gross National Happiness. There are deep intricacies in that debate, but I would offer you this conclusion: we can wait for top-down permission to make a more resilient society, or we can create bottoms-up solutions that take some of the complexity and chaos out of modern life today. In a world of constant change and disruption, it’s the startups that increase stability that will reap rewards this decade.

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What’s next & obsessions

After a bit of a hiatus from the holidays and avoiding CES, I am back. Arman and I are still exploring our obsessions from last year, including 5G deployments, China tech geopolitics, next-gen semiconductors, and GPS.

But the new direction we are going to spend some cycles on is this resiliency theme described above. How do we innovate for climate change? How do we handle the increasing complexity of modern life, whether it is educational/informational, financial, or health? What does water security mean, and how is the world going to adapt and innovate to ensure ten billion people have access to safe drinking water?

I love hearing from readers, so if you have thoughts, opinions, articles or books, share them with me:

Stray Thoughts (aka, what I am reading)

  • The Planet Remade – Oliver Morton takes an imaginative look at geoengineering and its potential to solve climate change. Recommended to me by futurist writer (and reader) Eliot Peper.I read the first two chapters last night, and I enjoyed Morton’s framework around innovation and climate change. He poses two key questions: 1) should we take serious action on climate change, and 2) do you believe that taking action is very hard? He posits that if you are in the “yes/yes” camp, then today’s solutions offer nothing that will slow let alone reverse the effects of climate change. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to start exploring alternatives — i.e. geoengineering. I found the framework and his explanations lucid and compelling, and I’m looking forward to sharing more notes in the coming days/weeks.
  • The melting pot of JavaScript – I found this essay by well-known JavaScript engineer Dan Abramov quite compelling. He argues that the messiness of JS is a feature and not a bug, representing the flourishing of human creativity rather than a militarized top-down “BDFL” model that you see in other languages. That leads to complexity and “fatigue,” but also to much more rapid innovation. He has some suggestions on how to ameliorate that complexity’s worst effects, including improving default configurations to reduce cognitive load on engineers. Sounds like resiliency if you ask me.
  • On a more personal front, I wrote a long list of my personal favorite reads and writes of 2018.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

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