Theses for 2020

a non-exhaustive list of stuff I’m thinking about in the new year

Early last year I wrote a bit about some of the ideas I was most interested in learning about and exploring. Now I want to refresh that exercise with this non-exhaustive list of spaces and problems I’m (still) thinking about.

I hope there’s some value in just putting this out there both to force myself to commit my ideas to paper and hopefully to start some conversations with anyone (interested in) building these kinds of things.

If these are things you also care about or if these wrinkle your brain, I’d love to hear from you.

Financial services for bottom 50%

Most Americans are not in good financial shape. We know this. We know that 40% of Americans can’t afford a $400 unexpected expense and that household debt is higher than ever. Yet, for the most part, the “solutions” startups keep proposing don’t make basic sense. For people making $35k a year with $40k in debt, managing their finances is not an optimization problem. You can’t engineer your way to financial security by skimming dollars here and there if the inputs are just insufficient.  We’re not going to solve a consumer debt crisis with more consumer debt and predatory loans, no matter how pretty the packaging.

The only way to fix the problem is to actually transfer wealth and/or increase income. I see a ton of potential for companies that can help people file for bankruptcy (especially student loans), reduce predatory fees, and, most importantly, increase their income through either job training/switching, better negotiating, or even collective bargaining.

Homeownership/building equity

How do we protect communities and let the longtime residents not just avoid being hurt by but actually benefit form development? How can begin to make up for the wealth gap that renter/owner disparities have worsened over the past decade since the global financial crisis?

We need to create better, more accessible paths to building equity and somehow turn renters into owners without just increasing household debt or creating shitty loans for unqualified buyers. This likely means dramatically rethinking what homeownership can look like and most likely divorcing the concepts of house as residence and house as savings account.

Affordable housing

For as long as I’ve been writing anything, I’ve been writing about affordable housing. The housing market is even more punishing for those that aren’t in the market to buy at all (see: building equity above). As cities increasingly become playgrounds for the rich, working people who actually make things run are pushed to the margins. I remain really committed to the idea of co-living, if executed properly, can be a low-cost way to bring new affordable housing stock onto the market. Beyond that, there’s opportunities to lower the cost of new development through pre-fab and other innovative construction methods, to keep putting more downward on brokers, improve public transit and city planning (which has knock-on effects on housing), and so on and so on. 

If we can’t find a solution our housing affordability crisis soon (likely a multitude of solutions from government and the private sector), this will be the defining political and social crisis of the next decade.

Identity and privacy

Cambridge Analytica. Russia hacked the election. Data breaches at Marriott and Target and Equifax and everywhere else. These all get wrapped up into one big flashing red warning light. Now I think there’s beginning to be enough awareness, fear, uncertainty, and doubt about data privacy and security that regular people may be getting the point where they’re willing to pay for it. At this point it seems clear that there’s opportunities for better governance and data/privacy within companies, for users to secure themselves through more private alternatives to traditional technologies and services, and for some whole new paradigm of identity management and how we permission our PII.

Sure VPNs and adblockers and password managers are a good starting place, but when surveillance is the primary operating model of our economy, the change to put users back in control of their own data and safe in their digital lives will have to be profound. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on what this can really mean. Whether its better data governance, decentralized identity management, privacy-forward products and services, and/or consumer-friendly cybersecurity tools, I honestly have no idea what this will look like but I’m excited.

Aging

Americans are getting older. Obviously. The portion of (for now) retirement age Americans has already doubled in the past 50 years and could nearly double in the next 30. We’re looking down the barrel of a demographic crisis that will force us to completely re-shape every level of our social organization and challenge its basic operating principles. Some of that is already starting to play out as Baby Boomers come into retirement, often without adequate savings or support. So we’ll need to rethink everything from retirement homes/communities (see co-living above) to how we provide social services to how keep people productive longer and engaged in retirement. How do we export innovations for the young to older generations?

I don’t think we can lump “old people” together into one bucket. Segments have to be understood by cohorts; the elderly and the aging couldn’t be more different. I think I’m generally more interested in the former (new models for healthy, pro-social aging) than in the latter (improvements to convalescent aging/care). Better aging is more a preventative and all-encompassing problem and solution set, as opposed to focusing on the elderly which is largely healthcare-related and corrective.

Climate Change/Resiliency

Ultimately protecting and mitigating the damage from our climate disaster isn’t an individual responsibility. Small consumptive changes aren’t an empty gesture but they also aren’t on the scale we need to be thinking about as a society and a species. Nevertheless there are still important steps to take on the individual level to both improve our carbon footprint and protect ourselves from the ravages of a changing climate. I’m very interested in new approaches to climate-related insurance lines (flood, wildfire, etc.), re-location away from vulnerable areas, and sustainable building techniques and materials (even deconstruction).

It’s deeply problematic that flood and wildfire insurance, for example, require people to rebuild damaged and destroyed homes on the same lots, in the same flood plains and wildfire-prone areas, for example. This is to say nothing of declining utilization of those (federally backed) insurance programs. I’m not an “abandon the coast!” kind of guy but we are going to face migratory pressures within our own borders because of climate change and need to prepare for that. Finally, we need to better build for resiliency and sustainability, both by lowering the outputs of new construction (concrete is a huge contributor to carbon emissions) and by building to better withstand disasters.


These are just the things I’m actively thinking about/pursuing right now. It’s a big world and there’s lots more out there. So tell me what I’m getting wrong, what I’m missing.