Can reality TV save the planet? - RSA

Can reality TV save the planet?


  • Technology

I have a big idea that would use today’s technology to unleash the vast problem solving potential of people.

People are already comfortable with digital technology and reality TV formats. We can use this to crowdsource local solutions to some of our biggest problems – most notably climate change.

It could be not only the greatest show on Earth, but the greatest show for Earth. Here’s how it would work and how you can get involved. 

Using technology to unleash the power of people

The Greatest Show for Earth is a big idea that sits at the intersection of my passions: future workplace, behavioural psychology, digital technology and how to fix our monumental environmental and social challenges.

I’ve spent my career showing organisations, including the United Nations, how digital can unleash the potential of people. I learned a lot at the UN:

  • Firstly, most of the people who work there, and in governments, are too busy battling bureaucracy, protecting budgets and building empires, to actually do anything to combat the worlds challenges at the necessary scale and speed.
  • Secondly, there is no big plan. Assuming leaders have a hidden solution to our growing environmental and social challenges is madness.

These challenges are systemic and complex. The human brain struggles with complexity. Global Warming, through the lens of behavioural science, is the hardest of all challenges to solve. The symptoms are far away, in the future, they affect other people more than us. They are easy to file away while we struggle with day to day challenges. For now. But we need to do something. And fast. According to the UN, we have less than 11 years at best.

To make matters worse, rising levels of technological unemployment are set to strain, or irreparably rip, our social fabric.

To thrive, humans need purpose. Purpose for most people is associated with “work”. Young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. If predictions are accurate, a lot of young people will have less and less to do with their time which will lead to decreasing levels of purpose or worth. There is a direct link between unemployment and suicide rates.

To stand any chance at all of solving these challenges, we have to accept and work with human nature and harness the things that people are really motivated by. Our brains thrive on simplicity, reward, recognition, competition. We are hardwired to connect, communicate, to solve problems collaboratively.

Action on climate change can start with lots of small solutions

But hierarchy and bureaucracy blocks innovation and systemic change. Centralised systems make people apathetic. They result in bottlenecks to action. People need to be mobilised en masse.

Not just to protest (though awareness is important) but to design, implement and share solutions to the problems we face. Myriad small fixes would lead to massive impact. Our software is a distributed platform that exposes shared challenges and brings people together to actively co-design pragmatic solutions. It’s one small part of a big solution. We need to drive action at speed and scale. 

TV is a proven platform for mass activity. Why not harness its power to drive change at scale? 

There are a number of proven formats:

  • One out of every two people in the world watched the last Olympic Games. We like watching nations win medals. And it’s not just about winning: research shows just taking part makes citizens of participating countries feel more positive. Better still, thousands of kids train every day aspiring to represent their country in this global celebration of human excellence.
  • Reality TV shows like Big Brother congregate massive audiences around fishbowls of play, passion and disappointment. People love watching human beings being human in social settings.
  • Crowdsourced shows like Diagnosis attract big, engaged audiences and riveting TV.

But how can we use these formats to impact social problems?

I run a startup and am part of all sorts of entrepreneur networks that gather at residential across the world. The conversation, creativity and collaboration at these retreats are life-affirming, unmissable and unforgettable. 

Imagine a reality TV show that offered a fishbowl view into the creative processes of entrepreneurialism.

A global televised competition between ‘tech for good’ startups on crowdsourced challenges could bring these ideas to life.

Crowdsourced collaborative problem solving – how would it work?

How will it work? Before we start filming the reality TV show, citizens will crowdsource regional challenges. The challenge could be ‘the loneliness of the old’, ‘plastic pollution in a local lake’, ‘hunger and the homeless.’

Why the regional engagement? To leverage ‘the IKEA effect’. This is a cognitive bias that makes people feel a stronger sense of connection to things they’ve helped create. Inviting citizens into the creative process means they will feel more connected to the narrative.

Once the annual challenge is set, we need smart people from different fields to solve it. Here’s where reality TV comes in.

The best local regional innovators could win places in residential labs. TV audiences will watch as participants find collaborators and design scalable solutions. Viewers will be gripped by the challenges, frustrations and successes of startups battle to win their regional heat. A start-up version of Survivor. We will invite investors and entrepreneurs to mentor the teams for added draw. (Vint Cerf, the inventor of the internet, has agreed to be one of those mentors.)

Every year we could hold a big celebration recognising the best startups for good: imagine the Oscars for sustainability.

‘Tech for good’ rebranded as sexy and aspirational. Thousands of jobs created. All while figuring out lots and lots of little fixes to drive positive change. Cities would spend millions to host an event where millions of viewers congregate around the show on TV, online, on phones and big screens. 

Dragons Den meets Big Brother, meets Diagnosis, meets the Olympics, meets the Oscars. I’m calling it the Greatest Show for Earth. Maybe, just maybe, the Solution will be Televised!

Katz Kiely is a serial entrepreneur, pioneer and CEO of beep.

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