Exponential thinking: A revolutionary mindset for development?

Ruchit Garg, CEO of Harvesting, winner of the Global Grand Challenge Awards in the food category, pitches his company at the Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco, California. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

If you take 30 steps linearly, you will walk 30 meters. But if you take 30 doubling steps, going 1 meter in the first step, then 2 meters, then 4, then 8, and so on, by step 30, you will have traveled 1 billion meters, or 26 times around the globe.

That is how Salim Ismail, the founding executive director of Singularity University, described exponential thinking, which his institution is hoping to translate from product development to global development.

“When you challenge somebody to impact a billion people, it changes their frame of reference,” he told Devex at the first Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco last week. “If I say go impact 100 people, you’ll use your traditional thinking to operate that way. When we say go impact a billion people, you’re forced to think exponentially.”

Breakthrough technologies

Proponents of exponential versus incremental thinking are urging humanitarian and aid organizations to adopt this mindset in tackling the Sustainable Development Goals. Doing so requires considering not only what is possible today, but also what breakthrough technologies — such as computation, artificial intelligence, and robotics — will bring tomorrow. A growing number of development professionals and organizations are heeding that call.

When Singularity University launched eight years ago, the think tank, education institution, and business incubator offered expensive programs targeting corporations. It has since broadened its outreach to startup founders, policymakers, nonprofit leaders, and academics, growing its alumni base to 20,000 people from 100 countries. And as Singularity University aims to create a global ecosystem of innovators tackling global grand challenges, it is increasingly looking to partners in the development space.

“We’re really trying to first help people think differently about technology and the future and their role in it and equip them with tools and a community structure to do something powerful with it,” Rob Nail, CEO of Singularity University, told Devex.

Some of the areas that will require exponential thinking include urbanization, migration, climate change, pandemics, and disenfranchised youth, said Chris Fabian, who helped launch the innovation unit at the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF. Like a growing number of global development agencies and organizations, his office is applying exponential thinking to their work. “This is exactly where our heads are right now,” he said.

UNICEF is currently testing the use of autonomous drones to deliver dried blood spots for early infant diagnosis of HIV in partnership with Matternet, a “flying vehicles and intelligent software company” that was born out of Singularity University in 2011. Drones, rather than motorbikes, could make deliveries of blood samples from rural HIV clinics more efficient, meaning fewer delays in initial diagnosis, and therefore quicker access to treatment.

Salim Ismail, founding executive director of Singularity University, talks about how global development professionals can embrace exponential thinking.

Suspension of disbelief

As more development practitioners embrace the idea of exponential thinking, a few individuals and startups are leading the way forward. As their examples indicate, it requires time, effort and patience to understand the relevance of technology some might associate with a crazy utopian fantasy for their work in some of the most remote and challenging environments on earth.

“Most people in the world can’t comfortably work with things that don’t exist in their mind,” Pablos Holman, a futurist who spoke at the summit last week, told Devex. “Making something new takes suspension of disbelief. It takes a different mindset. And you have to cultivate that.”

Holman is an inventor at Intellectual Ventures, which develops and licenses intellectual property, ranging from a fission reactor powered by nuclear waste to a device that uses lasers to shoot mosquitos out of the sky. Bill Gates has partnered with the laboratory on a collaborative effort called Global Good that brings catalytic inventions to developing countries. An example is Arktek vaccine storage device, which uses the same materials that protect spacecraft from temperature extremes to keep vaccines cool, and was used in Ebola vaccine trials in Sierra Leone and Guinea.

“Exponential technologies by nature allow for scale, which is the key to addressing global challenges and achieving the SDGs,” said Miguel Oroz, the founder of MalariaSpot, which uses video games, artificial intelligence, and mobile microscopy to crowd source medical image diagnosis. “It is about working locally, but at the same time thinking globally, with a solution that can adapt and replicate everywhere.”

Malaria screening currently requires looking under a microscope to count parasites in a blood smear, a process that can take up to 30 minutes. Traditional development thinking might simply call for more labs and technicians to improve diagnostics, exponential thinking calls for something more. Oroz created a first person shooter game with malaria as the target. In one month, MalariaSpot users identified 1 million parasites through its crowd sourcing model. The initiative continues and has since expanded to include tuberculosis diagnosis.

Oroz went on to become the first data scientist at the United Nations, where he is applying exponential thinking to the Sustainable Development Goals at U.N. Global Pulse, a body tasked with harnessing big data for sustainable development and humanitarian response.

Abundance versus scarcity

One challenge in bringing exponential thinking to development is the stark contrast between the narrative of abundant possibilities and the very real material scarcity in many of the contexts where global development professionals work.

For example, Lorenn Ruster — a Singularity University alum and Acumen Global Fellow who spent the past year on solar power in Uganda — said she found it difficult to reconcile the accelerating technology with the day-to-day challenges she faced.

While Peter Diamandis, who cofounded Singularity University with Ray Kurzweil, says that solar power will provide 100 percent of our energy needs within 20 years, Ruster and her team at SolarNow found it hard to keep that in mind as they were heads down in operational challenges such as human resources.

Ruster said she eventually learned how to reconcile the differences between possibility and reality by understanding her responsibility to think about future technology while working with the technology available today.

“Take a leap now to immerse yourself in the future so you're able to get the most out of what's coming,” she said when Devex asked what her call to action for other development professionals would be.

Singularity’s programs are convincing more development professionals to take the leap in thinking differently. Participants of the Global Solutions Program who spoke with Devex said they began the curriculum feeling deeply skeptical of its technological focus. But 10 weeks later, they walked away convinced that the increasing availability and decreasing cost of technology will transform global development.

“It is clear to me now that there are several technologies that are rapidly approaching the field and will change the way that business is done in the Global South sooner rather than later,” said Faith Wallace-Gadsden, founder and managing director of the Archimedes Project, a nonprofit that supports social enterprises focused on water and sanitation in the developing world. She attended Singularity’s Global Solutions Program over the summer.

“These exponential technologies will cause rapid changes to the world that require us to adjust our planning for the future in many respects,” said Lambert Hogenhout, who attended the Singularity University Global Summit on behalf of the United Nations, and is sharing insights with colleagues ahead of the U.N. General Assembly later this month.

Silicon Valley, and the community of futurists gathered at the Singularity University summit, may be among those best positioned to lead the charge toward exponential thinking in global development, he said. But their innovations will work best in partnership with organizations that understand the ecosystem of global needs.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.