Let Us Stand on Planes, and Other Health Ideas in Progress

Thoughts that will not be featured at the Aspen Ideas Festival

James Hamblin

I’m sitting alone in an enormous tent on the campus of the Aspen Institute right now. The big “IDEAS” sign is in place, and the stages are set. The Aspen Ideas Festival is about to begin.

When I talk to people throughout the year about the Aspen Ideas Festival, the main question I hear is, “What?”

The Ideas Festival is a far-reaching gathering of journalists and thought leaders of all stripes—politicians, artists, activists, industry, not otherwise specified. The first three days is entirely about health (actually called Spotlight Health) and I’m fortunate to be part of it for my fourth summer (because The Atlantic co-sponsors the festival).

No one else is here yet, though, so I am a thought leader without thought followers. This is emotionally taxing, and combined with the thin mountain air, my head is already starting to hemorrhage ideas.

So from a tent alone on the campus of the Aspen Institute, I write them down. Here are a few that I can already tell are not going to be “prime time” ideas at Spotlight Health. Some might get me asked to leave. But some might actually be pretty good ideas by non-thought-leader standards and could probably make somebody a million dollars. (That’s not enough to buy an apartment in Aspen, but it is in a lot of places.)

Standing tickets for airplanes

Sedentary lifestyles are a serious health problem, and so is airplane death from a pulmonary embolism. So why is sitting the only way to fly? Why not have the option to stand? Especially for a short flight. I bet we could fit more people on the plane, and fewer people would get head lice from the seats. (Don’t know if that’s an actual problem or just one I always imagine.) I realize this isn’t for everyone, and that during takeoff and landing we’d probably have to be strapped to a wall or pole, which many people wouldn’t enjoy.

Bike helmets for ride share

Like New York and D.C., Aspen has a great bike-share system. I’ve already used it to cruise the A.M. downtown Aspen scene, which is more lively than the midnight downtown Aspen scene. I didn’t bring a helmet, so I rode without one. There are bike lanes and very little traffic here, so it was fine, but it gave me the idea that even shared bikes should include some sort of helmet. Though again that raises the specter of head lice.

A suit you can wear that makes you very strong, possibly invincible, except to people who know how to deactivate the suit.

One year at Spotlight Health I wore an exoskeleton that was meant to simulate what it’s like to be 70-some years old—including arthritis, cataracts, and tinnitus. Similar exoskeleton products in development are meant to help with mobility in people with neuromuscular disorders. An idea, then, is to take it a step further. It would be sort of like Iron Man, but less sensational. The most you could lift would be a car or something.

A public option

The idea is basically that everyone in the country could buy into Medicare if they want to.

When a professional columnist writes “Let me explain,” an algorithm immediately removes the columnist from payroll

I should keep the rest to myself.

Stay tuned for more real-time writing from The Atlantic staff about what’s happening at the Ideas Festival. The ideas will be bigger and better than this, I promise.