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Collaborative Solutions: Using Technological Innovation to Benefit Humanity

Matthew Bishop — Former Managing Director, Bellagio & Fellows Program

This piece is part of our 2018 United Nations General Assembly series.

How technology is introduced, owned and regulated needs to be thought through with great care if the world is to reap benefits rather than disaster.

Will the current wave of technological innovation be good for humanity? No question that what is known as the “fourth industrial revolution” is touching almost every part of the economy and society, often in ways that are deeply disruptive to old ways of doing things. No question, too, that there will be big winners, but also big losers, from all this change. But will the overall impact be positive or negative? And what can we do to tip the balance into the positive, especially for the vast majority of humanity that lives far away from, and in much less blessed conditions than, innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley?

In June, The Rockefeller Foundation gathered leading thinkers and doers in our Bellagio Center in Italy to focus on how to ensure that today’s new technologies advance rather than hinder human progress, as expressed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Both of the keynote speakers there believe that we can meet this challenge. Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google, urged for a focus on creating apps designed to meet the basic needs of the developing world. Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, the driving force behind India’s remarkable Unique ID system, argued that giving people ownership over their digital data could drive an unprecedented rise in living standards in countries including his own.

While we could expect to hear optimism from Eric and Nandan on a discussion about technology, we also greatly benefitted from diverse perspectives on this topic, with participants coming from philanthropies, government agencies, academic institutions, and international NGOs. Together, they discussed approaches to avoid following the trajectory of a typical Silicon Valley innovation—develop a minimal viable product and scale it up by gaining users. Advancing people’s well-being and ensuring that the benefits are shared by everyone would require system-wide transformations. These will only occur through coordinated action between civil society, government, technologists, and private companies. This is the essence of SDG 17: building stronger dedication to partnerships and commitments that realize all of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Yet it was clear from our discussions at Bellagio that nobody sees technological innovation automatically as a force for good. Even before social media was exposed as a useful tool for hate groups and nasty populists, the spread of artificial intelligence was being held up both as a potential destroyer of millions of jobs but also, perhaps, as an existential threat to humanity. Clearly, how technology is introduced, owned and regulated needs to be thought through with great care if the world is to reap benefits rather than disaster.

In Bellagio, we focused on four big technological disruptions that are currently at a crossroads between good and bad. First, it seems possible that new scientific breakthroughs involving big data, plant-based substitutes for meat, and lab grown meat, have the potential to create big wins in terms of healthier eating – nutrition without obesity – with a smaller environmental footprint. Yet there is also growing fear that scientific breakthroughs such as gene editing could be used to do terrible harm more broadly– a fear that may soon outweigh the widely-expressed concerns about genetically-modified food.

A second challenge is how to spread education to impoverished communities that lack digital technology. The opportunities for delivering education via mobile phones, for example, seems obvious—yet so far, despite numerous initiatives, there is little sign of real progress. An idea that gained traction from the group was around the need to map the overall architecture of the educational system to identify different innovations but more importantly understand the interoperability issues that would help the entire system become more effective.

Then there is the issue of how to change the investment industry so capital is directed into technological breakthroughs that really improve billions of lives, rather than simply make their creators rich. How can we mainstream the sort of impact investing that only makes money when it delivers a real environmental or social benefit? And how do we close the gap of trillions of dollars per year between what is currently invested and what is needed in order to deliver the SDGs?

The defining feature of the fourth industrial revolution is, arguably, the vast amount of data it is creating and using. How do we ensure that the era of big data is about empowering positive change for everybody? The Rockefeller Foundation is committed to doing all it can to promote data for good, ranging from supporting innovative entrepreneur applications that integrate machine learning and satellite imagery for social purposes, to large humanitarian organizations leveraging digital ID systems to accelerate post-crisis responses.

The current wave of technological transformation will define what our society looks like in the next few decades. As it has in the past, our Bellagio Center allowed diverse thinkers to resist the forced flow of most conferences that rush through planned agenda topics with brief introductions and exchanges of business cards. The setting stimulated a constant flow of conversation and reflection that flourished over a mix of structured meetings, walks through the grounds, and group meals in order to probe complex ideas deeply and to surface new connections between seemingly unrelated topics.

Watch this space for more updates.

This piece is part of our UNGA 2018 series.

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