Confronting Global Grand Challenges
On March 12 and 13, I had the privilege of joining with more than 450 leading thinkers drawn from around the world and across disciplines at the inaugural Global Grand Challenges Summit in London. Organized by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with the US National Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the summit brought together engineers, artists, economists, designers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, industry leaders, educators, and policymakers, all striving to achieve the cross-discipline and international cooperation needed to solve global problems.
The Grand Challenges were organized around six themes: sustainability, health, education, enriching life, technology, and growth and resilience. The summit also included plenary addresses from Craig Venter, founder of J. Craig Venter Institute, who spoke about the promises and problems of creating synthetic life, and Bill Gates, co-founder and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who discussed challenges in global health. Among the other luminaries present were IET President and tech entrepreneur Andy Hopper, who addressed the technology and growth theme, and Dame Ann Dowling, who spoke on directions in education. The presence of David Willetts, the UK minister for universities and sciences, underscored the significance of the summit as a vehicle for innovations and learning. An additional highlight was the surprise address from will.i.am—singer in the band, the Black Eyed Peas—who made a passionate plea for the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for underprivileged children. Acknowledging that many of these youngsters aspire to a successful music career like his, he wants these children to realize that a much wider range of career opportunities is open to them.
I served on the joint organizing committee for the event, representing the Royal Academy of Engineering. My best contribution was organizing the Student Day, which took place on the Monday before the beginning of the summit. Microsoft Research Connections sponsored this event that brought together 60 undergraduate and post-graduate students to collectively tackle the following six grand challenges:
- Provide access to clean water
- Restore and improve urban infrastructure
- Advance health informatics
- Secure cyberspace
- Enhance virtual reality
- Advance personalized learning
Representatives from each student team presented their business innovation to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea.
This event bore a resemblance to the popular US and UK television shows, The Apprentice, or The Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank. The 60 participants divided up into teams based on which challenges they wished to tackle, ultimately combining two challenges: “securing cyberspace” and “enhancing virtual reality,” resulting in five teams. The teams went away and engaged in a variety of exercises to demonstrate the creativity and collaborative nature of their ideas. After debating their ideas with their peers, they worked the best into business proposals. At the end of the day, representatives from each of the five teams presented their business innovation, based on their team’s challenge, to a panel of angel investors that selected the winning idea. The team on health informatics won, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. I was extremely pleased to introduce the winning team as they addressed more than 400 distinguished invitees.
The team on health informatics won the Student Day grand challenge, earning the opportunity to present their innovation as a part of the main summit program. (L to R): Nikhila Ravi (University of Cambridge), Elizabeth Choe (MIT), Andrew Whyte (University of Bath), Julie Shi (University of Washington), Michael Morley (IIT), Alison Gerren (University of Toledo) and Carolyn Damo (University of Toledo).
Grappling with grand global challenges and encouraging the development of the next generation of problem solvers—it doesn’t get much better than that!
—Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections