Innovation Event Explores Risks, Benefits of Exponential Change
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UNGA President Peter Thomson convened a High-level Event on SDG Innovation, on 17 May 2017, in New York, US.

Technologists presented ideas for advancing towards the Global Goals, and urged UN Member States to foster a culture of risk-taking.

The Day "planted a seed," said Thomson, about the need for an innovation mechanism at the UN.

17 May 2017: At a day-long event on innovation for the SDGs, technologists from Silicon Valley presented ideas for advancing towards the Global Goals and urged UN Member States to foster a culture of risk-taking. Participants addressed the potential anxiety posed by technological change and called for holding onto shared values.

Opening the High-level Event on SDG Innovation on 17 May 2017, in New York, US, UN General Assembly (UNGA) President Peter Thomson highlighted that in an era of rapid change, it is important to distinguish between good and bad changes. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed asked participants to consider SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) as a “docking station” for all 17 Goals.

Peter Diamandis, Chairman of XPrize Foundation and Singularity University, gave a keynote talk on the exponential rate of change facing humanity, which he said exceeds humans’ ability to “upgrade” themselves, and this difference can create either disruptive stress, or disruptive opportunity. Diamandis noted that the entire world population soon will be connected digitally, asking what five billion minds can do when connected for the first time? He stressed that “the world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest business opportunities.”

In another keynote talk, Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, described his company’s approach to “moonshots” – testing radical, untried technology solutions to address world problems. He described this process for Project Loon, which uses balloon-lifted satellites to provide an internet connection in low-population areas. He said “nothing will change lives more” than connectivity, noting the power of information to improve health, agricultural and economic outcomes, as well as democratic participation. Teller highlighted the collaboration with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to gain governments’ permission to place balloons in their airspace. In short, he told governments, “we make the balloons, you make sure we’re not crazy.” He said new technology solutions only work when they are tested in the real world and then redesigned.

“Move fast and break things” is a motto at Facebook, said Kevin Lo on a panel about unleashing the innovativeness of the global population. Rwanda’s minister of youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana, called for taking Silicon Valley’s culture and lessons to the rest of the world, and said governments can mitigate risks and threats from new technologies by: supporting digital connection; educating to address risks and participate in change; co-creating solutions with the private sector; and investing where markets need help. Moderator Marcus Shingles, CEO of XPrize Foundation, noted that people now must “retool” themselves several times within a lifetime, unlike in past generations. Thus, education should ensure agility and adaptability.

Lara Stein, TedX founder and MIT ReACT Director, said the benefits of crowdsourcing, or gathering ideas and wisdom from the broader population, outweigh its risks and consequences. Shingles urged governments to crowdsource solutions from their newly connected populations. Chiyoko Osborne, Empact Collaboration Platform, highlighted the need to connect technological developments, and said Empact organizes its work not by the 17 SDGs, but by specific stepping stones to achieving them.

In a panel highlighting examples of innovative approaches, Uma Valeti, Memphis Meats CEO, said meat consumption is increasing globally, and “at status quo, we’ll eat through the Earth very quickly.” His company produces meat directly from animal cells without raising and slaughtering animals, using one tenth of the land and water resources. He said the outcome supports ten of the 17 SDGs.

On government regulation, Will Marshall, Planet Labs CEO, said nation states “need to regulate us” while also embracing new technologies. Anousheh Ansari, Prodea Systems, said governments can set policies that allow for innovation, cautioning against simply shutting down efforts that do not match current regulations. She suggested that innovators make governments aware of their plans and involve a local partner that understands the respective government.

In a discussion on including everyone in the innovation process, Ansari said “we can’t rely on Silicon Valley to solve all the world’s problems,” and noted that financing is not adequate. She called on governments to help create a funding system to support innovators and to foster a risk-taking culture in other parts of the world. UNGA President Peter Thomson highlighted the UN’s registry of voluntary commitments for implementing SDG 14 (life below water) as an example of making innovation and crowd-sourcing work for humanity.

Schools must prize a desire to learn, exploration and breaking rules, rather than following old ways, said Cassell.

The afternoon session featured a presentation from Justine Cassell, Carnegie Mellon University, who explored why people fear and blame technology for social problems. She said technology holds up a mirror to ourselves, and that we must ask what values we are afraid of losing. She noted that the same artificial intelligence (AI) that threatens people’s jobs, for example, can also reskill the workers for new jobs. Cassell also called for schools to prize a desire to learn, rather than facts, and exploration and breaking rules, rather than following old ways.

Moderator Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya, asked UN Member States whether the technology approaches being discussed will help their countries to achieve the SDGs. Among the responses from Hungary, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Cuba, Brazil, Guatemala, Denmark, Bangladesh, Honduras, and the Group of 77 and China, representatives highlighted: that governments must address citizens’ fears about losing jobs to technology, and help them prepare for new jobs; that it is riskier to proceed without technology than to avoid it; the need to provide resources for countries to implement new technologies and to close the “digital divide”; and the need to balance innovation with protecting people, as in the case of Uber.

Cassell said smaller countries with less bureaucracy have the opportunity to serve as “sandboxes,” fostering the courage to explore, and leapfrogging over developed countries’ awkward phases. She also stressed that the digital divide is not due to access issues, but lack of digital literacy, noting that in communities that already have access, many people do not know how to use a search engine. Kamau noted that the same technology can benefit one part of a community and eviscerate another: people don’t want technology to become dehumanizing, he said. Rob Nail, Singularity University CEO, said the technology and innovation system is not set up to incentivize actions that meet basic needs.

Martin Stuchtey, SystemiQ, said regulation is not a helpful focus, and instead governments should focus on designing markets to ensure technology serves the SDGs. He gave the example of plastics, which has created economic advances but adds to ocean pollution and therefore detracts from a systemic solution to our goals.

Kamau noted that governments have established the UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM), and the STI Forum that convened on the previous two days was an effort to bring it to life. However, the TFM “has run into all sorts of problems,” because technology must be shared through partnerships and relationships, not “trucks and buckets.” He noted the need to foster connection between technologists and policymakers.

David Roberts, Exponential Leadership CEO and Chairman of 1Qbit, gave an emotional presentation on the need for “bystanders” to get involved in stopping problems. He said that although governments are not good at taking risks, they have stepped off the sidelines before, putting aside categories of perpetrator and victim, to reduce CFCs and successfully shrink the ozone hole in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Concluding the day’s discussions, author Salim Ismael suggested that governments think of technology policy as economic development, and work to generate start-up ecosystems, as Chile has done in Santiago. President Thomson said the day had “planted a seed” about the need for an innovation mechanism at the UN that “connects us to the innovators,” and he will ensure the conversation continues with Member States. [IISD Sources] [Event Webpage] [Webcast] [UN Press Release]


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