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Dreaming the Future of Health for the Next 100 Years

The Honorable Minster Chen, President Zeng, David Rockefeller, Jr., Distinguished Guests:

I want to thank the Honorable Minister Chen and President Zeng for hosting us.

I would also like to express gratitude to the children from the Chaoyang Primary School Affiliated to Beijing Normal University for leading our processional and carrying the flags of those countries represented here today—more than 20 in all.

As I trust you have gathered from David’s telling of the profound, long-standing history between the Rockefeller Foundation and China, it’s no coincidence that we have selected Beijing to hold this global health summit. Just as David’s grandfather was proud to be here to dedicate Peking Union Medical College all those many years ago, we are also pleased to be here today to celebrate with you the world-class medical institution it has become, always on the leading edge of medical progress.

The role of China in advancing health has been extraordinary, both to the world and to the Rockefeller Foundation’s own history. As then-secretary of the Foundation and former secretary of Harvard, Jerome D. Greene, remarked in 1914 when considering the establishment of the Chinese Medical Board, an investment in medicine in China would “light a lamp which would burn for centuries.”

And we are delighted to have Wendy O’Neill, another member of the Rockefeller family and current chair of the China Medical Board with us today.

Here we are one century later, and that lamp is burning as brightly as ever. The Chinese government’s recent $125-billion initiative to establish a universal health system, which has already provided health coverage to more than 90 percent of the country’s residents, is just one example. And Minister, we know your tireless efforts and continued dedication helped to make this possible.

So, truly, there is no better place than here to dream the next century of health, which is why the theme of today’s event is “Dreaming the Future of Health for the Next 100 Years.” And we are so fortunate to be able to begin our dreaming here in the Great Hall of the People.

I believe Chinese writer Bing Xin said it best when she compared the awe of walking into the Great Hall to “a drop of water falling into a vast ocean. You would feel how small a drop of water is and how boundless the ocean looks.” I think we all can share that sentiment today.

For those not familiar with the history of this Great Hall, it was among the Ten Great Constructions, commissioned by the government as part of a national celebration and tribute to the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 1959. It was built to accommodate more than 10,000 people, to seat 5,000 in its dining hall, and to last more than 350 years. Quite a magnificent way to mark an anniversary, wouldn’t you say?

And it’s an honor to be able to mark our own 100-year anniversary, here in this magnificent place. While we are not building grand buildings in the literal sense, we have a few grand plans for our centennial year just the same. At the centerpiece of these plans is a series of gatherings around the globe that bring together the world’s leading thinkers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and political leaders to identify, understand, and solve problems in innovative new ways.

Over the last century, innovation has been at the heart of all of our work, particularly in the field of health. Let me give you one example:

In the 1920s, China did not yet have a system of public health. In fact, it was the responsibility of the police force to oversee matters of sanitation and hygiene. In 1925, Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Division representative in China, John Grant, partnered with the Beijing Municipal Police to establish the first Health Demonstration Station. In addition to providing on-the-ground learning for the students of Peking Union Medical College, the Station provided nursing services for the local population by training midwives and police officers. Grant saw that this innovative model could be a template for other communities, particularly in rural areas, where well-trained physicians were few and far between.

So Grant, along with students from Peking Union Medical College, established another Health Demonstration Station in what is now Ding County in Hebei Province, then a county of 40,000. This experiment would eventually become the template for the “barefoot doctors”—those who travelled the countryside promoting preventative medicine by administering vaccines, teaching basic hygiene and tracking epidemics in villages. That’s just one example, and it produced a century of breakthroughs and new ideas that have improved lives in China and throughout the world. So it should be no surprise that we’ve made “Innovation for the Next 100 Years” the theme of our centennial.

That brings us to the pressing business at hand: dreaming the future of health for the next 100 years. Our use of the word “dreaming” is not accidental—it is purposeful and significant to what we hope to achieve. You may wonder whether dreaming will work, when too many of the world’s poor and vulnerable lack access to the basic provisions that are essential for healthy, resilient societies, including medicines, preventive care, and clean water. The truth is, those of us who study and work on health issues each day know better than most the power and potential of dreaming big dreams.

We’ve seen this first hand at the Rockefeller Foundation. It is because our founder John D. Rockefeller and his contemporaries dreamed big dreams that communicable diseases, from smallpox to polio, have been either vanquished or controlled. It is because these visionaries permitted themselves to dream big dreams that 20th century improvements in public health, including sanitation and water quality, have led to a reduction in premature deaths and an increase in life expectancy. As Whitney Johnson, a co-founder of innovation guru Clayton Christensen’s investment firm, wrote in Harvard Business Review this month: “Dreaming is at the heart of disruption.”

Let me give you another, more recent example:

When the idea of universal health coverage was first introduced to the global community, the popular wisdom was that it couldn’t be done. We would neither have the political will nor the resources to make such an ambitious goal a reality, particularly in developing and emerging economies. But to a few, including the Rockefeller Foundation and many of the leaders in this very hall, it was a dream worth dreaming—and importantly, a dream worth pursuing. And because of those dreamers, last month the UN did what others thought impossible: it adopted a resolution on affordable universal health coverage, setting the stage for UHC to become a central health goal in a post-Millennium Development Goal framework.

For the first time, there is real  hope that poor people will no longer be forced to choose between paying out of pocket for needed health services or facing financial ruin. The resolution and the future realization of Universal Health Coverage is a powerful, and very immediate, example of how humankind has changed course when newer solutions, rooted in collective action, became feasible.There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done before universal health coverage is a reality. But we are on our way.

So, I ask you, my fellow dreamers, what’s next? What is the next big dream just waiting to be realized? What lamp can we light here that will burn for centuries? What are our dream responses to the health challenges arising from the increasing growth of mega cities and the impact of climate change? And how do we dream for a planet that by 2100 will have 10 billion people interacting in new ways, unimaginable to us now?

At the Rockefeller Foundation, we dream of a world in which globalization’s benefits are more equitably shared and the inevitable challenges that accompany this much dynamism and volatility are more easily weathered, by building greater resilience. Now, as the Chinese philosopher Mencius once said: “To talk much and arrive nowhere is the same as climbing a tree to catch a fish.”

We certainly did not come here, many of us from far away, to climb trees to catch fish. We are here to solve problems. So to that end, we’ll spend time focusing on the tangible ways we’ll get from here to there. We’ll discuss the trends that are shaping the health landscape, the technologies that show promise, and the types of leaders we need to bring us to the next level. We’re going to leave here with clear, tangible next steps to turn powerful ideas into the innovations that will shape the next century.

If your mind wanders or you lose your train of thought even for a moment, think of those children who so honorably marched before us, carrying the flags of all of the countries represented. Think of their hopes and their dreams. They are the reason we are here today—those children and the billions of them around the world—who will not only benefit from the innovations we pursue, but who will carry them forward.

Let’s light another lamp here today that will keep burning for centuries to come.

Thank you.