Inside Singularity University: Talking technology, innovation, and Grand Challenges with UNICEF

Singularity University’s article about the Global Grand Challenges Week with UNICEF at their premises last month. Original article was published on July 7, 2014 on SingularityHUB by Singularity University.

Singularity University has a mission—use technology to positively impact the lives of a billion people in ten years.

A key component of SU’s mission is technology, but it’s not the first thing participants in the summer graduate studies program (GSP) learn. Before diving into the latest tech, the program takes a week to carefully review the global grand challenges. Lacking a clear understanding of these challenges, technology is a screwdriver with no screw.

So what are the grand challenges facing the world today? SU focuses on nine broad categories: food, education, water, security, health, energy, environment, poverty, and space.

Knowing the challenges on paper is a start, but it isn’t enough. You know what happens to paper when it’s out in the field—it gets crumpled, torn, wet, and warped. Everything is simpler in theory, more complicated in practice, which is where Singularity University’s partner in impact UNICEF comes in.

UNICEF, admittedly a big public sector bureaucracy, is increasingly embracing technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship as vital tools to their mission. The organization has 12 innovation labs across the world. And one of the latest is on the second floor of Singularity University—UNICEF’s foothold in Silicon Valley.

SU recently interviewed some of UNICEF’s best and brightest to find out: What challenges are they seeing? How can technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship make a dent in the world’s biggest problems? What more can be done?

The group was in town to address GSP participants and talk grand challenges. Gary Stahl is UNICEF’s representative to the government of Brazil. Tanya Accone heads up global strategy in New York. James Cranwell-Ward works on innovation in Lebanon. And Landry Dongmo Tsague is tackling HIV prevention in Zambia.


During the conversation, three central themes repeatedly rose to the surface.

First, innovation is not necessarily the invention of an entirely new technology. That is, it’s often the creative repackaging of existing tools to solve a problem. Second, innovation is not one-size-fits-all—local conditions matter. And third, though simply giving technology away can help, teaching technology is a self-sustaining solution.

Let’s look at the first one: Innovation isn’t necessarily the invention of new technology. It might not even mean using the latest technology.

Stahl’s Brazil team, for example, recently developed a smartphone app (Proteja Brasil) to encourage people to make reports to child protection agencies during the World Cup.

In about a month, Stahl says, there were 47,000 downloads and over 4,000 people used the app to file a complaint. They had calls from five countries interested in the app in the first week.

“It’s a pretty basic app,” Stahl said, “but it facilitates the life of anyone who wants to take action to protect those children.”

A few takeaways from the conversation: Solving big problems requires big thinking, but don’t be afraid to repurpose. Always put yourself into the shoes of those you hope to help. And the best solutions are ones that sustain themselves.

In coming weeks, GSP participants will focus on the worlds biggest levers—the exponential tech that promises to revolutionize the world five and ten years from now as much as mobile computing and connectivity is changing the game right now.

Read the full article and learn more about the other speakers and their ideas on SingularityHUB.

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