Separating the wheat from the chaff as we invest in our future
As we begin the process of thinking through the places where we can insert the electrodes and shock new life into the global economy, I would propose a new way of reviewing proposals, allowing the best of the best to rise to the top. I propose we only consider projects that can provide at least a 10X rate of return on our investment dollars.
As most taxpayers who are watching this process unfold, the idea of borrowing today against future revenue streams becomes a contentious issue with severe implications for almost everyone. If we invest the money poorly, there will be no revenue streams in the future to pay the money back, a scenario that will not end well.
However, if the money is invested into some truly remarkable developments with the ability to not only jumpstart the economy but also pay handsome dividends in the future, we will have created a win-win situation that everyone will benefit from.
So what are these 10X projects and how do we decide if they have the explosive potential needed for the situation we find ourselves in today?
Let me begin with framing our thinking a bit. Small companies take on small projects. Large companies take on large projects. But for the colossal huge projects requiring massive amounts of capital expenditures, this is an area reserved for the very deep pockets of national government.
Similarly, small projects only inspire small amounts of confidence and colossal huge projects will inspire colossal huge amounts of confidence. As an example, building a new train depot in a small town in the Midwest will do little to rally national enthusiasm.
If we apply the 10X ROI test to the ideas being proposed, it’s easy to see why some will be a bad investment.
- Bailing Out States: Individual states have their own economies and using national money to compensate for poor decisions made on an individual state level is a bad investment.
- Repairing Roads and Bridges: Fixing our existing infrastructure should be something we pay for on an ongoing basis, not something we use special funds for. Repairing roads and bridges will give us a better grade of road, but nothing new, and will not yield a 10X rate of return.
- Building Schools & Higher Teacher Salaries: Investing money in school buildings and paying teachers more does not improve the system. It does make everyone more comfortable, but does little to change the caliber of students coming out of our schools.
- More Government Jobs: Government jobs compete directly with private industry when it comes to attracting top talent. Unless the jobs are directly related to the development of a new system, or the deployment of a new strategy, the accruing expenses will not be recoverable.
- Bailing Out Corporate America: Corporations need to live or die based on the success of their products or services. If they are going out of business because of some underlying governmental system, then we should fix the system rather than patch over it with bailout money. While in some rare instances, money given to companies can yield a 10X ROI, it sets a bad precedent. Companies today are far too global to be dependent on a single government to survive. When one company fails, others will rise from the ashes.
The Bar Has Been Raised
In the past, money spent on a national power grid, interstate highways, railroads, GPS satellites, and the space race worked well as a way to stimulate innovation and build a solid platform on which new forms of business could be conducted. But times have changed, and we have raised the bar substantially.
The primary benefit from these systems happened early on in their lifecycle, so doing more of the same, such as building more highways and railroads, will yield only marginal benefits unless they offer some unusual breakthrough.
Additionally, low paying make-work jobs are not very exciting. We are looking for something that will challenge us, something risky, where the accomplishments are both inspirational and motivating.
Possible 10X Projects
It’s a delicate balance to decide the relationship between government and private industry, especially when a governmental program has the potential for putting some existing businesses out of business. Yet tough decisions need to be made. Here are a few new projects that I believe have the potential for providing a 10X rate of return.
- National Wireless Internet Grid: According to technology writer Robert X. Cringely, “Ten years ago, the United States had the fastest and cheapest residential Internet service in the world. Today U.S. residential Internet service, especially broadband, is among the slowest and most expensive.”The investment being made today into wireless technology by the telecom and cable industry has been a measured response based on past demand. However, they are about to get blind-sided with big data demands stemming from video, gaming, mapping software, real-time sensor monitoring, real-time geo-spatial data, object recognition software, advanced search technologies, and much more. In fact, several technologies have been put on hold because the existing grid cannot keep up.The opportunity here is to once again reclaim the moniker of the fastest and cheapest grid in the world, only this time it needs to be wireless, and scalable to meet future demands.
- Massive Data Storage Libraries: Currently the majority of data storage centers are owned by private companies. Yes, these are well-funded companies, but in many respects, similar to ones we have seen go out of business with very little notice in recent months.In addition to being in private hands, data centers are extremely expensive to operate with energy demands skyrocketing. According to Forbes Magazine, by next year computer data centers will consume three percent of global energy, and in less than five years that number will double.Much like the Library of Congress served as a national archive for information in the past, it is crucial that we construct long-term data archiving systems that we can reliably trust, ones that will still be in existence 200 years from now.
- Self-Navigating On-Demand Automobile System: While most people in the US enjoy the freedom of having their own automobile at their beckon call, it ends up being an enormous waste of natural resources with most cars sitting idle 98% of the time. When cars sit idle they require parking spaces, garages, maintenance, insurance, and a variety of other resource-consuming expenses.Cars are not only very expensive to operate, but extremely dangerous with over 40,000 traffic deaths recorded in 2008.Designing and creating a national automated navigation system will be quite challenging, but in the process, force a much more efficient lifestyle to emerge. The reason it will prove to be so disruptive is that it will enable on-demand transportation services to replace the need for individual car ownership.Unlike today’s mass-transit systems where riders have to conform to route and timing schedules, people will be able to request a vehicle through their cell phones or hand held devices whenever they need it and a driverless vehicle will show up, on-demand, and take the passengers to wherever they desire to go.An on-demand transportation system will not significantly reduce the overall number of vehicles on the road at peak times, but will be better at matching the size of the vehicle with the number of people traveling. Since the vehicles will be in continuous operation, there will be significantly less need for parking spaces.Removing drivers from the equation will enable vehicles to be operated with optimum precision, performance, and efficiency. Traffic will flow more smoothly, breakdowns and maintenance issues will be greatly reduced, and at the same time vehicle longevity will be extended dramatically.
- Whole Earth Genealogy Project: The genealogical industry currently exists as a million fragmented efforts happening simultaneously. While some sharing of information exists, there is no comprehensive effort to build a database of humanity’s heritage capable of scaling to the point of including everyone on earth, along with their entire family tree.Admittedly, the project is huge, and will require the buy-in of many countries. The information, however, will prove to be tremendously valuable, providing data patterns about hereditary diseases, demographic, and census bureau data, and much more.More importantly, this system will become a new organizing system for people – a new taxonomy. Every person on earth will have a placeholder showing them exactly where they fit. In many respects, it will be similar to the way maps helped us frame our thinking about world geography. This would be a form of “geography” for humanity.Many innovative uses for human taxonomies will spring to life once it becomes operational. Few can predict up front what all the uses will be, but rest assured, the opportunity for creating new businesses will be staggering.
- Digital Upgrading of Community Libraries: Over the past few years I have visited hundreds of libraries and spoken to many library groups across the country. Throughout these trips, I has seen the vibrant nature of libraries in action, and witnessed their role as a catalytic connection between people, many in poverty, and their aspirations for the future.However, the transformation of libraries has only begun and turning them into the launch pad for next generation ideas will require a significant investment. As information becomes more digital in nature, libraries will need to shift from book-centric environments into facilities with a wide variety of equipment that can be used to access, manage, and produce information.Next generation library boards will have many options to consider as they decide on the best components for their particular community. Options will include digital download centers for electronic books, search command centers, virtual world stations, podcast studios for both audio and video podcasts, spherical displays, gamer stations, mini-theaters, mini-planetariums, tele-presence rooms, and much mo
- Space Elevator: The space elevator is a proposed system to transport material from the earth’s surface into space. Many variations of this idea have been proposed, but the primary idea involves an elevator-type car that travels along a fixed cabling system held in place by a geostationary satellite orbiting the earth. The space elevator is intended to replace our present system of using rockets to transport people and equipment outside of the earth’s atmosphere.Current technology is not capable of manufacturing a cabling system that is both strong enough and light enough to make this connection. Most of the recent efforts have focused on the use of carbon nanotube-based materials for the tether design, since the strength of microscopic carbon nanotubes appears great enough to make this possible.A functional space elevator will become a primary driver of space commerce, enabling travel beyond earth’s gravitational pull for a fraction of today’s cost.
- Space-Based Power Stations: Using specially designed solar panels on satellites, a new space station can be created to collect solar energy and beam it to a series of earth-based power stations. By distributing the beam over a broad enough area, this type of power station can offer environmentally-friendly power without harming the environment.Since this power generating station will be located in space, it will be able to collect sunlight 24 hours a day, circumventing problems affecting ground-based solar energy systems, such as cloudy skies and darkness. The sun’s energy is eight times greater outside the earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, it is estimated that a single satellite-mounted solar panel site can have a power output equivalent to a 1 GW nuclear power plant.The idea of a space-based power station isn’t new. In the 1970’s, NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy conducted several studies regarding the design of extraterrestrial solar power satellites, but abandoned the idea due to the extremely high cost of such projects. However, recent advancements in the aerospace industry could make this both an affordable and industry-changing option for meeting the ever escalating demands for energy on earth.
- Trans-Continental Freeway – Finish the Pan American Highway: The Pan American Highway, a highway system designed to connect North and South America, was a good idea when it was first conceived, but remains incomplete.Because of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest separating Panama in Central America and Colombia in South America, known as the Darién Gap, it is not possible to cross between South America and Central America either by train or traditional motor vehicle.Today the Pan-American Highway passes through many diverse climates and ecological types, from dense jungles to cold mountain passes. Since the highway passes through many countries, it is far from uniform. Some stretches of the highway are passable only during the dry season, and in many regions driving is occasionally hazardous.Completing this highway along with an associated rail system will not only allow easier forms of travel and tourism, but also the transport of products and goods back and forth to each of the cities and countries along the route. Trucking lines and rail lines will turn it into a non-stop corridor for shipments, strengthening the economies of ever region along the way.
Matter of Perspective
This list just touches on a few options. There are many more.
My goal in writing this was to give you some examples of unique projects with the capability of radically stimulating the economy.
The projects I’ve proposed are designed to stimulate thinking and challenge current thinking. We can either solve today’s problems or try to advance society. For the best rate of return on stimulus money, I will argue that it is best to spend it on advancing society.
But, it all a mater of perspective.
While most people subscribe to the notion that we live on a very over-populated planet, I believe the opposite is true, that we live in a very under-populated universe. And we don’t ever get to the point of colonizing other planets by only focusing on our existing problems and making it very comfortable to live here on earth.
We need to advance society, and this advancement begins with novel thinking, taking risks, and pushing ourselves harder than we’ve ever been pushed before.
By Thomas Frey