A Brighter Future
The real world
The challenges of this world can be daunting. Poverty. Homelessness. Conflict. Violence. Starvation. Suffering. Sadness. Greed. Fear. Meanwhile, technological progress has been propelling the world into an era of unimaginable possibilities and unprecedented prosperity. So why, in a world such as this, why are so many people left out? The injustices of this world can be daunting—and at least the daunted have the luxury of time to worry about them.
As a young person, I remember adults telling me—cautioning me—that they started out like me: optimistic, passionate, ready to change the world. But they became cynical as they grew older and began to see how the “real world” works. I remember thinking that would never happen to me. My outlook at the time seemed so certain. Outlook is reality.
Now, as the adults said, I’ve seen how the “real world” works. I’ve learned how it works by being around other adults who have learned—and settled into—how it works. But what if the adults are the ones who have it wrong? What if young people know something that we don’t? What if the “real world” is only real because it’s all around us, and because we’ve adapted our individual outlooks to the status quo, the norms of our respective professions, and the commonly agreed-upon limits of possibility? We do adapt to these things. We call it “gaining experience.” We do it so we can succeed in the “real world” in order to think highly of ourselves and find purpose in our lives. It’s just easier. But the “real world” is constructed, just as outlook defines reality for each of us. The “real world” can always be different.
Young people don’t live within the same constraints. And, in a world that we—adults—and our institutions and status quos are running into the ground... In a world where profits are prioritized over people and where climate change threatens the very existence of life as we know it… In this world, who is truly most capable of solving the world’s most pressing problems? Certainly not the people who are comfortable and successful in the world right now.
The Conrad Challenge
This is why it’s crucial to support initiatives like the Conrad Challenge, which teach young people by empowering them to design real solutions to real problems. Under this approach, students are given tools, resources, and mentors, but they call the shots. The goal is not to indoctrinate young people into the current ways of thinking, but to trust that, given the chance, they can do better.
This April, 38 finalist teams of students aged 13-18 traveled from all over the world to present their ideas at the Conrad Challenge Innovation Summit, held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. These students had been tasked with developing solutions to a diverse set of real-world problems, ranging from the urgent need to expand clean energy to the recent epidemic of teen vaping in American schools. One team (SAFE, New Hampshire, USA: Adyant Shankar, Jeffrey Lam, Joshua Gao, and Samuel Greenberg) invented a fire extinguisher that uses sound waves to extinguish flames. Another (Spicearettes, Colorado, USA: Tenzin Nangsal, Paris Kiehl, and Mana Setayesh) developed an employee-centered business model that will empower Indian women while manufacturing a culturally appropriate smoking cessation product. All of the prizes awarded will assist the students in actualizing and testing their ideas in the real world.
A brighter future
In a world that needs drastic and uncomfortable change, these are the kinds of initiatives we need. We need to move beyond calling for new solutions that fit neatly within our current structures and systems, and instead empower people who aren’t afraid to throw out what’s not working and start again. This means reaching young people and, beyond this, it means actively reaching young people in the most marginalized communities so that everyone—not just the affluent—can participate in defining our future.
A brighter future is going to come from people who can imagine a radically different reality. It’s going to come from people who are willing to challenge the status quo. It’s going to come from people who aren’t afraid to be in the minority and be vocal. After all, the people who have changed the world were each in the minority at one time. And, looking around at our world, it certainly appears that the adults in charge are far too comfortable in their own majorities—far too comfortable in their own constructed realities. In such a world, we need to have even more faith in our capable young people, encourage them to think differently, empower them to act, and actively place the future into their hands.