The Gift of Giving – 2014’s Thrilling Three

December 22, 2014

Just imagine a world in which all is static; no room for improvement, no art, no science, no advancement or iteration. Thankfully, that’s a bad dream we can wake up from. Instead we are graced with a world animated with the curious and the driven – the innovators who surround us with remarkable advances sprouting from their minds and nurtured through their perspiration.Source: iStock

History was written by those who stepped beyond barriers to bring forward creations – sweeping sonatas from a nearly deaf Beethoven, the ridiculed Michelangelo struggling on the ceiling in his Sistine Chapel, the nearly completely paralyzed Stephen Hawking and his space/time descriptions. All combine the “gift of giving” with the “grit to deliver.”

Each year I build and curate a list of the most remarkable advances I encounter, then I boil it all down to what I call my “thrilling three” – the three most thought-provoking ideas, products or trends of the year. Though diverse, each has caused me to pause and say, “Really? Wow, that is impactful.”

For 2014, here they are:

1) Immersive Virtual Reality. When it emerged in the 1990s, immersive virtual reality (VR) was the sole domain of the military and airline industries, which relied on multi-million dollar platforms that provided a significantly constrained experience. A young home-schooled California teenager changed all of that. Palmer Luckey, VR enthusiast and hardware geek, launched a 2012 Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of Oculus Rift. Luckey’s objective was to create a virtual reality headset that would revolutionize the VR experience at price points low enough for the masses. Soon after pulling in $2.4 million from Kickstarter, Luckey’s product concepts caught the attention and imagination of many. Within weeks of giving the prototype a test drive, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg bought Luckey’s company, Oculus VR, for $2B earlier this year. 

Although expected to transform gaming experiences, it is clear that immersive VR will do much more than that. Words often used to describe Luckey’s VR begin to foretell the ways in which next gen VR will influence society and many industries. VR will be infused into education as we begin to “teach” and “learn” content in new ways. VR will enable new models of travel and leisure as we “experience” and “visit” other locations without the need to physically fly or drive there. VR will be used for health and wellness, as doctors examine and care for us from a distance. The list goes on and on. Get ready – it is coming your way soon.

2) Power of Peer Pressure. The world is warming. For most of us, the clues are subtle. Local changes in weather, differences in seasons, behaviors in animals – none of these are datasets that we can reliably base our decisions on, but when aggregated and placed into longitudinal context, the facts are irrefutable. It is no longer a question of “if” the world is warming, but rather a question of “how fast and far will it go, and what will ensue.” The causes are likely multi-factorial, but we know that greenhouse gases, derived from energy utilization, are the largest contributor.

On a per captia basis, the U.S. population uses more energy than anyone else (excluding countries living in extreme temperatures e.g. Iceland, Qatar, etc.). Yet, Americans spend on average only 9 minutes per year considering their choices relating to energy utilization. The science of understanding choice behavior is experiencing a renaissance.   Whether it’s choosing which products to buy, when or if to exercise, whether to eat healthily, or decisions regarding our energy utilization, the most impactful parameters turn out to be social. It is not how much it is going to cost me (economic), or how much better or worse I might feel (personal). The most influential parameter is “how I compare to my peers.”  So-called Normative Comparisons have been shown to have the strongest influence in driving action dependent decisions.

OPower is a great example of how data and behavioral discoveries can be coupled. This start-up drives down energy utilization by showing customers how much more energy they are wasting than their neighbors – in other words, guilt-tripping them into caring. We’ve always known about “peer pressure,” but with the new analytics of social science, we are now able to quantify just how powerful a force this truly is. OPower is a good example focused on energy consumption habits, but similar approaches will have important impacts in health, wellness and beyond.

3) A better end of life. Everyone on the planet shares a single common dilemma: we are all going to die, and too few of us are prepared to deal with the topic, the decisions, or related consequences. In fact, very few of us, including most physicians, know anything about dying. Mortality is one of the “unspeakables” in medicine. Neither taught nor often contemplated, the inevitable truth that regardless of technology or best practices, the fact that we will all return to the earth is a troubling and very expensive oversight.

The vast majority of the money spent on healthcare during our lives is spent at the very end, and still only a very small fraction of individuals die in way similar to their wishes. Surveys in the U.S. indicate that more than 80 percent of the population believes it is critical to have their end-of-life preferences thought through and reduced to writing – yet less than 25 percent of Americans have done so. A stunning 65 percent of personal bankruptcies are attributed to healthcare expenses, and approximately 10 percent of all seniors are bankrupted by their end of life expenses through choices made all too often by others and against the will of the person directly affected.

Step one is deciding what you would prefer and sharing it with others. Michael Hebb and his Death over Dinner movement are bringing this conversation to a new level. With tools, inspiration and (delightful) recipes, they remind us of the power of breaking bread to address difficult issues and tackle challenges together. Empowering these choices are start-ups like Medalogix, which leverages predictive analytics to help clinicians better manage patients through the hospice decision and transfer process, and Everplans, which brings easy and effective online tools with which patients and their families can enable and capture their smart choices regarding end-of-life decisions.

2014 has been an impressive year of technological progress and a visceral reminder of our collective vulnerability.

Next up, 2015 and the annual ritual otherwise called the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. Here we go again.