An email I sent to Jason Crawford

from: Amy Huang
date: Jan 16, 2021, 6:13 PM
subject: Question from a Roots of Progress reader: first mile vs. last mile problems

Hi Jason,

I read your blog and twitter avidly. They help me think about the question “how do I do the most good for society?”

I’m writing to ask for your opinion on a struggle I’ve been having w.r.t. answering that question, if you have any interest or time at all.

Regardless, thanks for your writing. I’ve enjoyed it a lot!

My struggle is over something I’ve been calling “first mile vs. last mile problems”.
Many technological advancements are invisible to the end consumer, but are undoubtedly impactful. For example, cloud computing has greatly improved corporate IT. It solves “first mile problems”: customer business needs that don’t directly correlate to the needs of individual people. If those problems are solved, however, the benefit eventually reaches many people. Better IT means better businesses, which is good for customers and the economy.

Other innovations solve “last mile problems”: problems that affect people in their daily lives. It’s easier to see the impact of the solutions, because they improve people’s lives in tangible ways. An example would be earlier detection of kidney disease, which caused ~2% of US deaths in 2013. This advancement may not scale to many people in number, but would benefit those few so much that it’d be folly to dismiss its importance.

My dilemma is this: how can you possibly compare the solutions of these two kinds of problems against each other? 

As a thought experiment, imagine you must choose between two business ideas. You can either create a technological platform that anyone can build on top of, or create an application technology that would help a limited number of people directly. All else being equal…when is it better to build the platform, vs. the application on top of it?

In reality, I know that my professional decisions will never look like this. Most of them will be resolved by practical factors – am I good at this job; do I like it; can I live well on the salary. But to some degree, I can mold what is practical to better fit what is ideal. It fulfills me to at least try. 

What do you think?