As the world’s population grows and gets richer, so is demand on the world’s resources. If we’re going to supply enough food, clean water and energy for millions more people, we are going to have to re-think a lot of our approaches to industry and technology.
So I’ve come to a place where they are trying to re-imagine the world. It is the Singularity University based at the NASA Ames campus in California. I’ve come to meet Peter Diamandis who along with Ray Kurzweil founded the University which aims to help people think differently about the world and how it can be shaped by a new era of technology.
Peter and Ray have a long list of honours and achievements. Ray is Director of Engineering at Google but he also invented the world’s first CCD Flat Bed Scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano. Peter Diamandis is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the X Prize. The prize was created to run a $10 million competition to create private passenger-carrying space craft. It’s now a foundation with many prizes to encourage technological innovation in lots of different fields.
The Singularity university is the focus of some serious attention by some very serious minded organisation and is supported by Google and Cisco amongst others.
We set up filming in one of the University Labs next door to a lecture theatre in which Peter Diamandis was presenting to a group of business leaders. He is a man in demand. He ran in for our interview between a number of meetings and whilst we took some publicity shots, he was also continuing a meeting with someone who had followed him from the lecture.
Peter is a man who likes to paint big and bold pictures of the future. His best-selling book called ‘Abundance-The Future Is Better Than You Think’ encourages its readers to think differently about the world – to think of it as a world of plenty. He believes technology is taking what used to be scarce and is making it abundant. His Book called ‘Bold’ drawers parallels between the modern world and the one which saw the end of the dinosaurs. Just as an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth and made way for small furry mammals, a new wave of planetary disruptions is about to occur., he says. This new asteroid is called “exponential technology.” Peter’s view is that this tech astroid is going to wipe out industries in a similar manner to the rock which fell on Earth during the Cretaceous Period. It will create a new era of opportunity and abundance.
Such optimistic visions of the future make me sceptical. In a world where millions suffer from basic shortages and regular crisis, his is certainly a revolutionary notion but it’s one he is convinced of.
Take knowledge for example, Peter says “The President of the US 20 years ago and a kid on the streets of Mumbai with a smart phone today – have access to the same level of knowledge and expertise.” Technology, he believes, has made knowledge abundant. It has democratised information.
But it’s not just Google searches which are now available to everyone. Peter also says “We used to think of energy as being scarce. But technology is driving new revolutions. Solar cells are becoming ubiquitous. Oil used to be available in just a few places but now technology is allowing us to go 5,000 feet below the ocean surface to find more and more.”
Peter is certainly an engaging character. He speaks with enthusiasm and commitment and he is taken seriously by a large number of people and businesses.
But the notion of us all living in an abundant world still jars with what I see on my travels. In many ways I think his view is a First World view of problems. Millions of people in the developing world don’t experience abundance at all. They are time poor, money poor, energy poor and food poor. The abundant world Peter describes is not the experience of their lives.
I put those concerns to Peter but he believes things are changing. He says in Africa a billion people will soon have access to cell phones which gives them access to the world’s knowledge. Yes in comparison to the rest of the world they are still poor, but the world is being transformed by these devices, he says and that change is coming to the poor as well as the rich,
He believes that technology is changing the nature of the world to “create abundance at scale”. The number of people solving problems is exploding and the tools they have to help solve these problems – is also exploding.
On our travels around the world for this series of Horizons, we have certainly seen an explosion of ideas aimed at tackling the world’s biggest problems. Whilst many of these ideas are coming from the globe’s biggest corporations, big business doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. Many of the most interesting ideas come from unusual and unheard of businesses,
Petra Wadstron is the CEO of a company called Solvatten which my colleague on Horizons – Alex Forrest visited in Sweden. Petra and her company are trying to solve the problem of unclean and dangerous water supplies which blight the lives of millions in the poorer parts of the world.
She has invented a water carrier that sits in the sun and absorbs light to power a filtration process that can take dirty river water and turn it into something safe to drink. The solar powered system breaks down the cell membrane around potentially dangerous micro-organisms. The UV destroys the bindings in the DNA and makes the water safe from bacteria, virus and parasites. It also creates hot water of up to 75 degrees – meaning it can provide warm showers and baths to those who have no powered heating water systems. Her Solvatten system is already being used by 40,000 families with hopes it could expand to millions more.
The system costs around $100 a unit but it lasts for up to 10 years. One of its users is Nancy Wamaitha Njuguna. She spoke to us on the bank of a river in Kenya where she scoops up water for her family. The system, she says, is changing her life. She used to go for firewood several times a week to heat up her water. She also used to have to pay out of a very limited wage for typhoid treatment for her family- something she no longer has to do.
Petra points to examples like those of Nancy and her family and says this is not just about a technology solving a practical problem, it’s about energy and dignity.
In this first programme of the series another colleague of mine on Horizons -Sharanjit Leyl, saw how in Singapore technology is coming to the rescue of food scarcity. Due to a shortage of land in this city state, almost all of its fresh vegetable has to be imported. Only 7% of fresh vegetables is grown there. The city state wants to improve its food sustainability by producing more locally.
Jack Ng has taken farming to new heights by creating Sky Green. It’s a farm in a building in which tiers of food are in motion to the top of the building and down again – regulating the light they get. It produces 1 tonne of vegetables a day. It’s part of a worldwide investigation we have seen in many countries to try to re-imagine the world of farming – making it more efficient, more sustainable and producing food closer to the markets and people that consume the product.
There are certainly examples of the kind of innovation that Peter Diamandis thinks will change the world. Some of the ideas you will see in this series of Horizons have taken billions of dollars to create and have involved the support of some of the world’s biggest companies and countries. Some have been created by individuals with few resources other than a big idea, optimism and drive.
We are living in an age of innovation where technology is driving change at an unprecedented pace. However millions do not live in a world of abundance. Millions risk their lives travelling away from disasters, uncertainty, insecurity and shortages to find a life where these things do not exist. But Peter Diamandis says: “When I think about creating abundance, it’s not about creating a life of luxury for everybody on this planet; it’s about creating a life of possibility.”
Investigating the world of possibilities is certainly what Horizons is all about. I hope you enjoy the series.
You can follow our exploits at @adamshawbiz and @horizonsbiz