The vast majority of people on this planet hope for a shared future that is fair and thriving. People want their families to be safe, healthy, and educated. How do we get there? The international community took on that question by establishing its 2030 Agenda with clear Sustainable Development Goals, or “Global Goals.” To achieve these ambitious and transformative goals, however, we are going to need both bold new ideas, and robust, open-minded partnerships.
The stakes are high—we do not have time for small changes to reverse the massive global challenges we face. We need exponential change. Innovation, technology, and moonshot thinking are key ingredients for impact. But for sustainable and scalable positive change, we are going to need the rigorous thinking and deep knowledge of a diverse group of experts to help develop, study, and deploy our best solutions for the betterment of humankind.
Too often, experts stick to people in their circle who share a similar worldview. Sectors can get stuck in their ways and be slow to change. I have a Ph.D. in History, with a focus on development and human rights, and spent about a decade as a professor. Just over three years ago, I left academia and joined the XPRIZE Foundation—a non-profit organization that launches and operates large-scale incentivized prize competitions to leverage technology to solve grand challenges.
It would be a vast understatement to say that leaping from the “ivory tower” of academia into the world of technology competitions was a shock at first. While academia is slow, rigorous, and thoughtful, the tech world is fast, flexible, and easiliy distracted. I have become increasingly convinced of how seriously these worlds need each other, and of the unbelievable progress we could make if we brought together academics, tech developers, governments, private companies, and impassioned citizens. It is both possible and necessary.
The opportunity to talk to people from so many walks of life across the globe and try to find common ground is the greatest joy in my work. The Global Learning XPRIZE is one such project I currently help lead that aims to achieve the powerful Global Goal of ensuring inclusive and quality education for all. The prize, backed by a $15 million prize purse from Elon Musk, challenges the world’s innovators to create new software solutions, specifically for out-of-school children. Existing policies and market conditions have left over 250 million children around the globe without the ability to read, write, or do basic math. With the incentivized prize model, we inspire diverse voices and approaches to mobilize resources to address this problem.
To get this project off the ground, we enlisted the expertise of experts from fields such as neuroscience, game design, and linguistics. We had 198 teams from 40 countries on six continents register to compete, and we have had the truly amazing opportunity to foster instrumental collaboration with our partners UNESCO, World Food Programme, the Government of Tanzania, and Google. Following the competition’s upcoming field test in Tanzania where the top five solutions will be tested, we aim to connect stakeholders across borders and industries so that new, open-source technologies can reach over 250 million children most in need.
Without partners in public and private sectors, we will fail. We seek groundbreaking innovation, but we also need boundary-breaking human connection to harness these new technologies for scalable positive impact. We have an unprecedented moment to combine forces to create a more sustainable, equitable, and abundant future.
This week, Scientific American and Macmillan Learning hosts its 5th annual STEM Executive Summit in New York City. The purpose of this convening is to encourage experts and thought leaders to collaborate across all walks of life to advance STEM education and access. Training and inspiring young people to build their future is foundational. Teaching them to combine this with open partnerships across disciplines and borders is transformational.
New technologies are allowing for exponential progress to address our biggest challenges. We need innovative, bold thinking and strong STEM solutions. Together, we can harness these incredible new technologies to reach our Global Goals.