Request for tech for good (2024): food insecurity and mental health

I'll try to keep this short. For years I've kept a long-running list of technology projects I want to work on eventually. I've realized I can't feasibly work on all of them, so I'll publish this list sporadically to find people working on them, meet them, and support them in any way I can. If you're working on the projects below, or know anyone who does, please ping me.

These are, in my opinion, great uses of technology for good today. They solve problems that I think are paramount in society or are about to be.

Some of these may be good candidates for coop or shared ownership structures, as opposed to entirely profit-driven. That's not to say there wouldn't be a way to align shareholder value with society's value, but when the two are at odds, I'd prioritize the advancement of society. A lot of these are infrastructural and even if looked at from a selfish perspective, their success would mean a net positive economic outcome for the related industries.

Food: Decentralized, automated hydroponics and spirulina production to fix food insecurity

Problem: In October 2023, the USDA published a report that states that in the US alone, "44.2 million people lived in households that had difficulty getting enough food to feed everyone in 2022". This includes approximately 13 million children.

This shouldn't be a problem today; there are no excuses. We have the technology and the resources to get that number to zero. My proposal would be an organization that develops 2 important aspects to fix this:

  1. The hardware and software necessary for an automated micro-farm that produces year-round vegetables suitable for hydroponics and fresh spirulina.
    1. This could include the software necessary to automate the distribution of these micro-farms and make them accessible to the community.
    2. To be determined whether they would be deployed directly in people's apartments or community zones. The goal here is to beat economies of scale with technology, but there's probably a local maximum of efficiency you can reach with per-home installations and it may not be enough to feed larger families. Community zones dedicated to this could be an interesting approach, provided there's engagement.
  2. R&D. Lots.
    1. Hydroponics has a big issue: while theoretically, we can use technology to produce food in a distributed way, we can't beat energy and mass conversion. It's still more expensive than a farm. Hydroponics today can't reliably, at scale, produce enough biomass and become a #1 choice for nutrition. Research and experimentation will have to be done to either genetically or naturally select species suitable for our nutrition needs and hydroponic environments.
    2. Logistics. A tight supply chain has to be created for this to work. Seeds and chemicals need to steadily reach households continuously, and last-mile delivery is still an unsolved problem in logistics worldwide.

The R&D itself could render meaningful discoveries and processes that, licensed to other companies, could fund this initiative by itself. I'd design this as a platform for anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, and special care should be taken to brand it as a universal food access tool.

Mental health is health: An integrated approach to mental health and personal growth

Problem: 1 in 5 US adults live with a mental illness. Most of them can't afford therapy. I strongly believe, and I've written about this before, that mental health is one of the greatest silent crises of our generation. We live in a fast-paced, unforgiving society that demands a lot from the individual, and we've sacrificed market productivity for health. If not fixed, this will cause mass social unhappiness and unrest, leading to our society's collapse.

There are many apps on mindfulness and meditation, and others promoting chat-based therapy with mixed results. However, I've yet to see a systematic approach to mental health that takes into account the physical and treats them as one. That's a shame since I firmly believe they are one and the same. Anecdotally, I've heard from many primary care physician friends that they find themselves doing rudimentary therapy for their patients while not being entirely trained to do so, because of the underlying cause of their conditions.

Solution: a platform that offers an integrated, full-spectrum approach to wellness:

  • Nutrition tracking (and advice)
  • Exercise tracking (and advice) – Exercise is one of the very few proven ways to reduce depression.
  • Financial/professional tracking (and advice)
  • Relationship tracking (and advice)
  • Personal growth tracking.
  • Automated CBT and integration with therapist's office – if the user doesn't have a therapist, the platform would offer one at a reasonable cost.
  • Integration with PCP's office

The reason I keep repeating advice is because this is the crooks of the problem. When I was working on the design of the Fitbit years ago (RIP Jawbone), the hardest problem was transforming data into actionable advice and insights. If it's not immediately actionable, the user will ignore it. This means imperative, directional advice with specifics.

The goal of this platform is personal growth and balance. Most people won't do something they've never seen can be done. I'd like this platform to show people what is possible and available to them, what tools they can use to better themselves, and track their success. It can be a great complement to existing therapy, including scenarios where medication is needed.

Personal note: These aren't meant to be perfect, one-size-fits-all solutions for the problems I outlined. Food insecurity and mental health are both incredibly complex and rooted in deep societal inequities that this blog post can't do justice to. The true solution to their root causes is not tech or software, but a fairer and more equitable society that offers a truly level playing field to all of us, regardless of who we are in society. Consider the two proposals above ways to democratize access to food and personal growth while we continue working on a better society together.

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