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Answers to your #askBillG Questions

How can we change perception of agriculture: not something backward but something essential for the future?

Since so many people live in cities now, many of us have essentially no exposure to farms. Gains in productivity in farms in the developed world have been amazing over the last generation. But many of those innovations have been slow to get to smaller farmers, particularly in developing economies. Better yields and more sustainable practices can mean the difference between life and death in many parts of the world.

I think we need to do a better job of letting the world know that development aid is leading to amazing innovations in agriculture that can have as much impact as new vaccines and drugs.

Scientists have created new seeds for staple crops that are resistant to drought, flood, and disease. This will be more important than ever as climate change brings higher temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events. There are new varieties of sweet potatoes—a staple crop in much of Sub-Saharan Africa—that are more nutritious and produce yields five times higher than other varieties. These new varieties are also rich in pro-Vitamin A, so they address a deficiency that contributes to high rates of blindness, disease, and premature death in millions of children and pregnant women in developing countries.

The breakthroughs in agriculture aren’t limited to plant science. In India, women farmers are using inexpensive pocket video cameras to create agricultural extension videos that help their neighbors understand the most effective farming methods.

One of the things we’re doing at the foundation is working on our own communication with grantees, partners, and others to make sure we’re doing our part to tell these kinds of stories.

What steps can tech companies take to adapt and stay relevant in an industry that is evolving at an exponential pace?

The speed of innovation today is faster than it’s ever been—in IT, in medicine, in energy. The way most discoveries occur says a lot about what organizations need to do to stay relevant. The mythology about innovation is that it occurs in some sort of eureka moment. More typically, a breakthrough is the result of what American scientist Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible”—the idea that what is achievable today is defined by the various combinations of events and activities that have occurred prior.

The decision to start Microsoft, for instance, wasn’t based on a momentous flash of insight. It was based on incremental developments in a nascent personal computing industry, the fact that Paul Allen and I had access to mainframe computers at the high school we attended, and our hunch about what people could do with computers in the future.

At the foundation, our work in global health, development, and education builds on the great ideas that others have developed over the years. We help advance those ideas further by acting as a catalyst and convener—taking risks that others aren’t able or willing to take and creating unique alliances of people and organizations that can achieve greater impact together than alone.

In a book I read about a year ago, called Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson talks about some of the factors that create a fertile environment for innovation—technology, of course; urban settings; work environments that are flexible yet structured enough to encourage collaboration and connections between good ideas. Johnson also talks about low-tech strategies like contemplative walks, long showers, and carving out time to read a variety of books and papers. All of these open the door to what Johnson calls “serendipitous collisions” of ideas.

Is technology now just following advertising? Will we do “big” tech again that doesn’t involve ads?

Advertising has always been a question of tradeoffs. Are you willing to pay more for a subscription to a high-quality magazine with fewer ads? Do you want to pay $10 to see a movie without any interruptions? Or would you rather watch ad-funded TV? (the lines are more fuzzy these days because cable is a hybrid).

So far, people have pretty clearly expressed a preference for websites that don’t require a paid subscription. There are some exceptions, of course. But these days, it’s the websites with advertising that are huge.

I think we’ll have to see what happens. People have been willing to share information about themselves and their Internet usage in exchange for free content and features. How companies use that information may ultimately determine the future of advertising on the web.

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