A new mindset for the SDGs? Takeaways from Singularity University

A view of Singularity University's 2017 Global Summit held in San Francisco, California. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

SAN FRANCISCO — David Katz, the CEO of Plastic Bank, said the idea for his company came from an “aha!” moment that took place at Singularity University — the institution that started as a Silicon Valley think tank, but has evolved into a global community, with a unique approach to applying “exponential technologies” to global challenges.

Katz realized during an additive manufacturing lecture the value that recycled plastic might have for applications such as 3D printing. Since then, his Plastic Bank has launched recycling centers in developing countries, where people can exchange plastic waste for things they need to purchase. The plastic that’s collected is labeled as “Social Plastic,” and sold to participating companies. More recently, blockchain is bringing supply chain authenticity to what Katz calls the largest convenience store for the ultra poor.

Singularity University faculty explain how exponentially growing technologies — such as artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing and synthetic biology — will enable us to make dramatic gains in the years ahead. Through online courses and the university’s annual Global Summit, among other examples, they challenge leaders to consider how they can positively impact the world and contribute to what they describe as an “abundant” future.

Singularity University helped Katz come up with an idea to connect the dots between emerging technology, recycling and global poverty. On Tuesday, he was one of 1,400 participants from 64 countries who gathered Aug. 13-15 in San Francisco to connect with others who are answering the call to “be exponential” at this year’s summit.  

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While large organizations are designed for efficiency and predictability, they would benefit from flexibility and adaptability, Salim Ismail, author of “Exponential Organizations,” said onstage on the final day of the summit. He pointed to the United Nations as one example of an old institution that lacks feedback loops and update mechanisms to keep up with current trends. Representatives of traditional donor agencies and nongovernmental organizations were few and far between at a summit that gathered leaders to explore how converging technologies are transforming every industry, including foreign aid, global health and humanitarian response.

But Devex was on the ground to gather key insights for the global development community on how this kind of thinking can support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Technological convergence

“If you think today is fast, you haven’t seen anything yet,” said Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University and founder of the X Prize Foundation, on the first day of the summit. “We’re entering a period of time where we’re about to start hockey sticking.”

Diamandis explained that it is not just computation, but a convergence of technologies, that is driving accelerated change and reinventing entire industries. As computation becomes faster, cheaper and more ubiquitous, so too do technologies ranging from artificial intelligence to virtual reality. This convergence is allowing for what Diamandis calls “interface moments,” when entrepreneurs can build businesses and make money on top of these new capabilities.

“Another force driving and accelerating change is just massive connectivity,” he said, before a slide representing companies — from Facebook to Google to SpaceX — that are working to connect the unconnected to the internet. “One of the most interesting unintended consequences of this massive connectivity is more genius,” he said.

“If you think today is fast, you haven’t seen anything yet.”

— Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity University and founder of the X Prize Foundation

Diamandis also pointed to the growing wealth concentration, with more money concentrated in the hands of individuals than ever before. Many of those billionaires are willing to take a chance on ambitious and potentially revolutionary projects, he said. He mentioned Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Bill Gates as among those using their money with the aim of benefitting billions.  

“The world is becoming better at an extraordinary rate,” Diamandis claimed. Standing before a chart from Our World in Data, he issued a call to action to those in the audience who have the ability — and therefore the responsibility — to accelerate that curve. “It’s during our lives that the most extraordinary things are going to play out. What you do with it is everything."

Jonathan Knowles, head of faculty at Singularity University, speaks with Devex at the Singularity University Global Summit.

Exponential leadership

On day two, Heather McLeod Grant took the stage promising to teach participants in 10 minutes everything she has learned in 25 years about scaling social impact.

Because the scale dynamics are different in the social sector than in the private sector, leaders need a blueprint, she said, pointing to her book, “Forces for Good,” as an example. She talked about the characteristics of leadership for social impact, highlighting the importance of creative innovators, boundary crossers and systems thinkers.

McLeod Grant was one of a number of speakers who covered topics ranging from human-centered design to scenario planning in a session on “exponential leadership” moderated by Lisa Kay Solomon, chair of transformational practices and leadership at Singularity University. They discussed how leaders can help their organizations adapt and transform in the face of a technological revolution that will transform every industry, exploring this “exponential leader” in four categories: the futurist, who imagines bold ideas; the innovator, who brings ideas to life; the technologist, who accelerates possibilities with technology; and the impact driver, who makes choices that positively impact people and communities. To successfully navigate a rapidly changing world, leaders need to be all of these, the speakers explained — and these practices can be taught and learned.

Participants received sheets with a framework for exponential leadership broken down in terms of mindsets and skills. Futurists are optimistic, bold, visionary leaders who seek the big picture, explore external trends, and see and connect patterns. Innovators are curious, adaptive and resilient leaders who observe and question openly, reframe opportunities and visualize possibilities. Technologists are inquisitive, disciplined, focused leaders who identify levers of disruption, engage early adopters and build uncommon partners. And impact drivers are empathetic, passionate, purposeful leaders who map systems and theories of change, empower sustainable business models and promote a diversity of ideas.

The sheets posed the question “How exponential are you?” — with 1 being never and 5 being all of the time — to help participants determine opportunities for themselves and their leadership teams to improve across each category.

Proponents of exponential leadership are urging development donors and NGOs to adopt this mindset in tackling the Sustainable Development Goals. Doing so means considering not only what is possible today, but also what breakthrough technologies will bring tomorrow. A growing number of development organizations are heeding that call.

Toolset and mindset

Jack Sim is the founder of the World Toilet Organization, a nonprofit that aims to improve toilet and sanitation conditions worldwide, in part by raising awareness through initiatives such as World Toilet Day. Last year, he participated in the Global Solutions Program, a Singularity University initiative that gathers innovators from around the world for 10 weeks to develop an idea he calls the BOP Hub. While his latest project leverages AI and blockchain to encourage NGOs to collaborate rather than compete for donor dollars, he acknowledged that the key problem is not technology but trust.

“What are the disruptions that are going to happen, and how can we reorient ourselves both to embrace the positive aspects of technology and what it offers, and to prepare for the potential fallout of that?”

— Robert Opp, director of innovation at the U.N. World Food Programme

“Technology alone won’t fix everything,” Jonathan Knowles, head of faculty at Singularity University, told Devex, explaining that solving global challenges will require a technological toolset, as well as an exponential mindset. “None of us are wired to think exponentially,” he said.

Singularity University faculty includes both technologists — leaders in genomics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing — and subject matter experts. They have an understanding of the 12 “Global Grand Challenges,” such as sustainable energy and disaster resilience, which the organization has identified as the most urgent challenge facing the planet. At the summit, entrepreneurs pitched their solutions to these problems. The winners, presented onstage Tuesday, included an inflatable solar lantern that could replace kerosene lamps.

“What are the disruptions that are going to happen, and how can we reorient ourselves both to embrace the positive aspects of technology and what it offers, and to prepare for the potential fallout of that?” Robert Opp, the U.N. World Food Programme’s director of innovation, said in summarizing why the WFP has partnered with Singularity University. “In an organization where people are so committed and fully dedicated to the challenges of the present, it’s very hard to think about the challenge of the future, so trying to create that space for exponential thinking is very difficult for organizations like ours.”

The WFP Innovation Accelerator had its own booth at the summit, but while innovating at their office space in Munich, Germany, is one thing, innovating across the U.N. is another, Opp acknowledged.

Speakers and participants suggested that global development organizations can learn from and bring insights to programs like those offered by Singularity University. Sim applied to the Global Solutions Program with a problem he was familiar with, but he said he was open to any technology that might help to address it. And when it comes to the Global Grand Challenges, while global development professionals may not be as familiar with emerging technologies, they certainly bring the subject matter expertise.

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