“I’m rich and I’m obnoxious and I’m not eating this stuff,” Esther Dyson says of the sugar-filled yogurt being served for breakfast during the recent DLD conference in New York City.
Dyson, a venture capitalist, digital age guru, and trained cosmonaut who, in golf shirt and jeans, comes across as neither rich nor obnoxious, makes the statement in an interview with Techonomy to help illustrate the challenges most Americans face in maintaining a healthy diet. “Imagine living in a small town where there are only a bunch of chain stores. Normal people with normal lives are not going to ask for sugar-free yogurt. They just take the stuff with sugar in it.” She looks forward to a day when you won’t seem obnoxious if you insist on healthy options wherever you go.
The Way to Wellville, an initiative of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup) founded by Dyson, aims to change that status quo. You might, she acknowledges, consider the Way to Wellville a “cheesy contest.” It’s challenging five small American communities (maximum population 100,000) to see which one can most improve five measures of health and economic vitality over five years. But actually, she says, the competition is “a clinical trial of the proposition that if you want to make people healthy you have to do a bunch of things together: change their environment, change school food, have employer wellness, and manage diabetes. Doing all these things together at critical density will bring a real and lasting impact.” Towns that want to be considered for the contest have until Friday, May 23, to apply.
Dyson, best known as chairman of EDventure Holdings and an angel investor and advisor to healthcare, technology, and aerospace companies, has dedicated her life to breakthrough technology that aims to dramatically improve the lives and well-being of humans. Her current investments include Omada Health, Healthloop, and IconAircraft.
But she says technology isn’t the only solution to improving health. “The thing that’s most broken about health, as opposed to healthcare,” the straight-talking Dyson says, “is that just about everything is undermining people’s attempts to be healthy. You’re being undermined by marketing that sells you bad food, you’re being undermined by cars and transportation, you’re being undermined by being scared that if your kids go outside and walk to school they’ll be kidnapped.”
So she created the non-profit HICCup to inform and promote healthy living practices. The way it will determine the winner in the Way to Wellness contest, she says, will be by “collecting data up the wazoo.” The program will track data in each community like aggregated grocery store receipts per capita, number of local patients with health problems, miles walked by citizens, and the number of people with bikes. “Publicizing that data is going to be huge,” she says.
Dyson hopes selecting a winner to The Way to Wellville will inspire other communities to adopt healthier habits and life choices.
Although she says the challenge will leverage “collective action in small places” as opposed to “government intrusion,” she believes the Affordable Care Act will have an impact on how people stay healthy, and offer better opportunities and experiences to people seeking medical attention. One way the new act can help people, she explains, is by educating them about how to prevent their conditions from worsening, so they can avoid paying expensive doctors’ bills. Dyson adds that HICCup will bolster the impact of the Affordable Care Act by showing “what it is that people should be paying for, like these long-term community-wide interventions.” “The ACA incentivizes health providers to focus on community health in general—not just educating them, but providing preventive services and screenings, etc,” says Dyson.
Because each communities has access to different and limited resources, Dyson believes people must actively voice their opinions on what programs and resources their communities should provide. More efficient transit systems, more nutritious school lunches, and bike sharing are just a few efforts and improvements Dyson believes would produce better healthier lives in America. She says today we’re all collectively contributing to undermining our own health, so we need to collectively figure out how to improve it.