Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

If you want to start a business, you’ll typically hear the advice that you should look for a customer’s pain point and try to solve it.

Over time, this advice has given consumers a plethora of apps and devices that solve life’s minor annoyances.

For instance, before Waze, drivers had to actually guess how long it would take to get to their destination and what route to take. Before Uber and GetTaxi, it was possible to find yourself stranded because you didn’t have the phone number of a cab. Before smart washing machines, you had to remember to put your clothes in the dryer instead of receiving a push notification.

But despite the convenience that such apps bring to our lives, how much do they actually contribute to our well-being or happiness?

And why would that be so? Is it the nature of the app economy that it is mainly good at solving what one Facebook executive described as  “Seinfeld problems“?

A life better not be a show about nothing
This is the question popular philosopher Alain de Botton addressed recently at London’s Midtown Big Ideas Exchange. Botton said that most of our core human needs are drastically underserved by the present-day business community. Things like our need for fulfilling relationships, meaningful work, and a sense of autonomy and security.

According to TechCrunch, Botton said that one of the reasons for Facebook’s runaway success was that it tapped into a loneliness many of us were experiencing without even knowing it. How good a job Facebook is doing at improving relationships is subject to debate, but the need was there, de Botton told the audience.

“How are we going to go about creating a better version of business a better version of capitalism?” he asked. “Capitalism is in deep trouble as a concept, assailed from all sides.”

Botton said that much of the economy tries to excite in us a desire for things we don’t really need. Whereas our true needs go unfulfilled.

Also Read: Will they steal my idea?

“More of the economy needs to further up Maslow’s pyramid,” he said, and cited the Greek philosopher Epicurus who said humans need three things: community/friendship, independence and freedom, and an analysed life.

That’s where Botton’s advice for startups comes in. He says that startups can follow in Facebook’s footsteps by looking inward. Make a list of all the things that make you unhappy in the course of the day and that could be the germ of a business plan.

For instance, half of all marriages fail, and of the couples still married, 40 per cent have thought about leaving more than once in the past month.  “We need to think about this area. It should be a major area of the economy. It should be a bigger area of the economy than running shoes,” he said.

Another market failure, said Botton, is people who hate their jobs. For instance, in the United States, seven in 10 adults are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work, according to a recent Gallup poll.

“Most of us are still trapped in the cage that was chosen for us by our 17-year-old selves and we can’t get out of it because we are still at the dawn of really trying to understand how to match people with jobs which properly fit their talents,” he said.

But what about the really big societal problems, like war, famine, disease and poverty? Can these be addressed by businesses? And who would pay for, say, a poverty-fighting app? Botton didn’t address this question, but the Editor of MIT Technology Review, Jason Pontin, has. According to Pontin, many of these big problems (with the exception of disease) are self-inflicted. Poverty and famine tend to be political problems, he writes, that likely can’t be solved by technology without the accompaniment of political will.

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