October 9, 2012 | 1
Summer Davos—formally, the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions—is known as a gathering of captions of industry and policy leaders. Increasingly, it is also making room for discussion of science and technology as drivers of the innovations needed for us to continue to thrive in a finite world. I moderated or facilitated at four such innovation-focused sessions at this year’s meeting, held from September 11 to 13 in Tianjin, China. The meeting’s theme was Creating the Future Economy. I’m not the most artful person when it comes to taking good notes while simultaneously running a session. But I thought I could at least share the interesting topics and links so you can find out more about the fascinating people who were there.
At 9 a.m. the first day, a standing-room only crowd filled the IdeasLab session that I moderated with four scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their lively, five-minute Pecha Kucha-style presentations focused on how physical and digital worlds are combining to create smart environments. Joseph Paradiso, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab directing the Responsive Environments Group and co-directing the Things That Think Consortium, spoke about sprinkling sensors throughout buildings, enabling the structures to adapt rapidly to the needs of human occupants, changing such aspects as temperature and lighting, for instance. Next up was Kent Larson, who directs the Media Lab’s Changing Places Group. Larson’s work includes designs for cars that fold up for urban dwellers and compact-but-spacious-looking apartments that have moveable walls and other systems to adapt on the fly—whether you want to arrange the space for a quiet evening dinner or a full-on dance party. Cesar Hidalgo, ABC Career Development Professor at the Media Laboratory, explained how crowd-sourcing an analysis of existing images from sources like Flickr can yield fascinating insights about which urban spaces are most livable—information that planners might use to create better environments. Taking another research tack, Kristala Jones Prather, associate professor of chemical engineering, talked about engineering organisms to perform as chemical factories. After the audience was suitably bathed in inspiring ideas, they broke into four groups for the “lab” part of the IdeasLab. Each speaker led a brainstorming around a question related to his or her presentation.
Innovations such as those being developed at MIT and elsewhere obviously will be important in meeting “The 7 Billion Challenge,” the subject of the next session I moderated, on meeting the needs of a growing global population. The live-streamed panel included the perspectives of Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Ben J. Verwaayen, CEO of Alcatel-Lucent, and Seth F. Berkley, CEO of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. The discussion ranged from providing healthcare to taking advantage of new digital tools. You can find a video of the whole hour-long discussion here. And here is a quick post-session video analysis with the rapporteur, Richard Jefferson, founder and CEO of Cambia of Australia, and me.
Earthly concerns include those in our planet’s orbit and beyond, as attendees learned at the next session I moderated, “Creating the Future Space Economy.” Two astronomers led off, talking about their work and how space science furthers such endeavors as climate monitoring, archaeology, engineering and commercial transportation. The first, Merieme Chadid, explorer and astronomer at Antarctica Research Station, outlined her studies on the evolution of stars and how such information helps us understand our own solar neighborhood. The second, Giovanna Tinetti, reader, Royal Society URF, spoke about her studies exoplanet atmospheres. Last, Li Juqian, professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, spoke about the benefits of space development for the economy and suggested that lawmakers should consider regulations about the use of space for sensible development.
I ended my Summer Davos with a session on “From Minds to Markets,” which focused on how you get innovations out of the labs and into applications. Groups of young scientists and entrepreneurs sat together for a couple of hours to brainstorm hot topics in broad areas of health, physics and energy. They then talked about the major obstacles and opportunities facing them.
And yes, I had some of those famous Davos moments. My favorite started as a light chat on a bus with a pleasant fellow from the Boston area about the challenges of helping young people succeed. We were both interested in educational efforts, so we started trading stories. I talked to him about judging the Google Science Fair, and about the two winners of Scientific American’s first $50,000 Science in Action Award this year, given to 14-year-old Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlelela of Swaziland. Part of our prize is a year of mentoring. I told my companion how I worried about continuing to support the boys in their desire to share their simplified hydroponics system with local farmers. My companion was only too delighted to help: He turned out to be Sean Rush, the president and CEO of JA Worldwide, with a chapter in Swaziland.
For more details on the rest of the sessions, see the Summer Davos full meeting report here.