Missions to Mars and robot butlers: the future is exciting, but let’s not stick our heads in the sand when it comes to innovation

Richard Wallace

Everybody’s excited about the future. And rightly so: between driverless cars and missions to Mars, it seems as if our childhood sci-fi fantasies are inching ever-closer to reality. And nobody represents this new frontier of brain-warping technological metamorphosis than Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire and Silicon Valley pin-up. But before we make that great leap towards Martian colonies, robot butlers, jetpacks and living forever, aren’t there a few things closer to home we should be worried about?

Don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having your head in the clouds—or the cosmos. Wild, radical thinking like Musk’s may or may not successfully put human boots on the red soil in our lifetimes, but vision and ambition (especially if you’re acting on it, which Musk does through his privately-funded would-be Nasa rival, SpaceX) is a pretty much surefire way to advance human knowledge and thinking, even if it’s not in the way that you initially anticipate. We need people who can push boundaries and aim for the stars.

But we should have just a little bit of scepticism about this kind of innovative showboating, too. It’s possible to get so starstruck by the seductive possibilities of the next human frontier that we forget the true value of innovation; not just pushing things forward or changing the future but also using our newfound knowledge to solve the boring problems that aren’t sexy enough to spend much time in the headlines. For example, how many people are worried about the human race’s impending sand shortage crisis? Nobody, because sand is such a dull topic that anybody who brought it up a dinner party would never be invited again. But, despite its inherent yawn-worthiness, sand is also a huge, fundamental resource that has widespread applications; as this New Yorker long-read points out, a very specific type of sand needs to be mined for Olympic volleyball to meet incredibly strict standards (it may even need to be shipped through war zones to get there) and the use of sand (as “construction aggregate”) is shockingly ubiquitous in ways we take for granted every day. The building you’re reading this in, the laptop or phone you’re reading it on; they wouldn’t exist without sand.

In some ways, the whole revolutionary explosion of tech in the last few years would have been hampered if we hadn’t had easy access to the right kinds of sand; those billions of iPhone screens on which we buy our BitCoin and crowdfund our tech billionaires would have to be made of something else, for a start. I’m not saying it would have been impossible—tech always finds a way—but, due to the witch-like complexity of the markets and the fluctuating prices of tiny components having huge butterfly effects on global economies, there is a strong basis to claim that protecting the world’s heavily relied-on sand supplies—whether that’s by inventing a sustainable synthetic alternative or finding other ways to make iPhone screens—is an immediately pressing issue that we should be applying human thinking to. Solving it could be worth billions or trillions of pounds—a reminder that innovation doesn’t always need to be transformative or revolutionary to be incredibly valuable. Sometimes applying radical, daring thinking to the mundane, to business as usual, can pay off massively.

Of course, when it comes to sand, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the knock-on effects; safeguarding our aggregate stockpiles might save us a whole load of pain down the line, something we would feel if the incredible price of fine-particulate matter, for example, prohibited public bodies from building disaster protection infrastructures in major cities. Sure, crowdfunding a mad genius who only wants to talk about sand is not as headline-grabbing as Elon Musk sending twenty-four earthlings to die on the second rock from the sun, but it might be worth thinking about too. Because the timer’s ticking, and someday, the sand will run out.