The difference between cultural, political and technological solutions
I like to divide solutions to public problems into three classes: The cultural solution, the political solution and the technological solution.
Let’s say that we are worried about people getting killed in car accidents by drivers looking at their phones. The cultural angle of attack would be to convince the public that texting and driving is a bad thing to do. The cultural solution relies on the individual to do the “right” thing. The solution is political when the government enforces a behaviour to solve the issue. In our example, this might be done by heavy fines. Third, there is the technological (or structural) solution. It fixes the problem by changing the world in a way that makes the problem disappear. The technological solution to people getting killed by distracted drivers are cheap, reliable self-driving cars.
I am not claiming that there is no overlap between these categories, nor that every approach matches at least one of them. But they are a good way to reason about approaches to fix a problem. For example, cultural solutions relying on the individual are often ineffective, especially if there is a strong incentive for the individual to do the “wrong” thing. Cultural approaches of attacking a problem are often proposed by those who do not want to see the problem fixed or who do not want to pay the price for fixing it. Even the heaviest emitters of carbon dioxide will happily agree that people should try to reduce their carbon footprint.
Political solutions are more effective, but they come at the price of restricting individual freedom, directly or indirectly. They are also unpopular, because they tend come with an individual cost. This is especially problematic if the benefit is reaped also by those who do not follow the restriction (tragedy of the commons). Consider climate change treaties: Reducing the carbon emissions of an economy comes with a significant cost. At the same time, the benefit is shared with those who break the agreement.
The biggest problem with technological solutions is that they are so hard to find. They require scientific and technological progress, but also business initiative. The great thing about them is that they are sustainable. They move the world into a new Nash equilibrium where the problem does not occur. They also offer each of us a chance to fix the problem by moving technology forward or finding the right business model. Once renewable energies and and energy storage become cost-competitive with coal-fired power plants, they will form a technological solution to the climate change problem.
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