Singularity University and the Environment Global Grand Challenge

The environment plays a major role in each of our lives, whether it’s access to clean air and water, a healthy climate, or time spent in nature or with wildlife. As one of the most powerful species on the planet, humans are also responsible for the long-term well-being of the planet and our ecosystems.

The environment is one of Singularity University’s global grand challenges (GGCs). In particular, at Singularity University we are striving to use exponential technologies to create a world with “sustainable and equitable stewardship of Earth’s ecosystems for optimal functioning both globally and locally.”

As our Vice Chair of Global Grand Challenges, I wanted to share with you some of the positive impact our community’s work is having on solving the environment global grand challenge. While this article features a set of faculty and innovators primarily working directly on the environment challenge, stay tuned for our future monthly blog posts on energy, water, food, and disaster resilience GGCs, each of which is closely linked to the environment challenge.

Solar panels cover south-facing hillsides in a part of rural China.

Our environmental faculty address the challenge from diverse approaches

We have a number of faculty working on the environment global grand challenge. Some cover the topic broadly, analyzing how it intersects with other issues, while others focus deeply on a  few key sub-challenges. Our environment faculty also work on the challenge through teaching, strategy, fieldwork, and even shifting mindsets through science fiction writing.

Energy and Environmental Systems Chair Ramez Naam speaks about how exponential technologies can address issues such as climate change, ocean health, forests, fresh water, food systems, commodities, and more, and how these systems intersect with social issues including poverty, education, inequality, violence, hate, and democracy. He is also the H.G. Wells Award-winning author of four books, including The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet (non-fiction), which looks at the environmental and natural resource challenges of climate change, energy, water, and food, and charts a course to meet those challenges through technological innovation and policy change.

Jonathan Knowles covers a wide breadth of topics at Singularity University drawing on his experiences shaping tech and innovation over several decades in Silicon Valley as well as his experiences in the field using technology at the intersection of the environment, oceans, wildlife, and outer space.

Owen Gaffney is a writer, global sustainability analyst, and science communicator who serves with the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Future Earth. He has been working on a project providing a roadmap and compass for how exponential technologies and other initiatives can help address climate change.

Furthermore, Dr. Sylvia Earle, who is also President and Chairman of Mission Blue/The Sylvia Earle Alliance and a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence, covers technology and oceans; Kaila Colbin covers how exponential technologies impact sustainability and climate change across a number of industries and sectors; Andrew Skotzo works at the intersection of human interaction and the environment; and SU Canada Faculty Jane Kearns works at the intersection of sustainability, cleantech, investment, and business. Ola Kowalewski, our newest faculty fellow at Singularity University, also has a background in energy and the environment.

Trees in a forest.

Our startups are working in real time to bring exponential technology solutions to the environment challenge

We have a number of startups in our portfolio working every day to address the environment global grand challenge from multiple continents across various industries.

Afforest4Future transforms deserts into forests through projects including smart dams, an innovation to convert mud from artificial lakes into topsoil, and wastewater processing.

Biko encourages people to ride bicycles instead of driving cars by awarding them with special discounts from businesses. The company is active in ten cities across four countries, improving the environment and reducing pollution.

Bioverse Labs is using bioinformatics and artificial intelligence to digitize, classify, and even discover new biological and genetic diversity. Its database of life can then be used to monitor environmental and species’ health from the macro to the micro level. You can imagine this data will be able to power a nearly limitless number of applications across diverse industries.

Blue Oak Resources collects and converts electronic waste into a sustainable source of metals and rare earth for future technologies.

Getaround, a pioneer of the car-sharing industry, is helping decrease the number of cars on the road and thereby reducing pollution, traffic, and fossil fuel use.

Hardera has created an environmentally-friendly way to process reforested wood to give it exceptional strength and durability similar to hardwoods and is, in turn, reducing deforestation. In addition, Hardera’s processes do not contain impurities, heavy metals, or potentially carcinogenic products that could create health risks for employees or consumers.

Blacktip sharks looking for snack

Ixo Foundation uses blockchain to verify that social impact and sustainability projects are succeeding, such as one that’s reducing plastics to save the oceans.

Justdiggit is restoring and regreening land by building hydrological corridors with active projects in Kenya and Tanzania.

Modern Meadow is using biofabrication to create a new category of materials that do not harm animals and create a smaller environmental footprint. The company’s first biofabricated material is  “Zoa,” a leather alternative that can be grown in different shapes and textures and mixed with other types of materials.

Optineo Group invests in efficient water management, air purification, sanitation, and clean tech energy solutions.

SwiftATN is building intelligent transit systems for smart cities through elevated guideways that take cars off the street.

Network of roads and bridges.

The growing SU ecosystem

In addition to our portfolio companies, our Global Startup Program and other program alumni are active in solving the environment global grand challenge. In 2017, Singularity University ran its Global Solutions Program (now the Global Startup Program) with a special focus on climate change and the environment. Participants worked on a number of projects, including 3D printed ecovillages, analytics, and modeling projects to predict the impacts of climate change; coral reef restoration; and projects focusing on agriculture, food systems, and environmental sustainability.

Our alumni have also created companies such as Solubag, which has developed plastic bags and other types of plastics that dissolve when in contact with water; Majik Water, which is working to harvest water from the air; Biocarbon Engineering, which uses data and automated systems to plan, monitor, and restore environmental systems; and Sinai Technologies, which uses artificial intelligence to measure, price, and evaluate carbon risk.

Looking forward

One of the difficulties of the environment global grand challenge is its complexity. Our oceans, air, forests, and wildlife are vast interconnected systems that span across national boundaries and the globe, further interwoven with other social issues ranging from food production and human health to education, job creation, and business models.

While this challenge can seem daunting, one of the real benefits of exponential technologies is that they are very good at complexity. Sensors and devices ranging from cell phones to satellites can help gather information; big data, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing can help make sense of that information; and robotics, biotechnology, and new manufacturing methods can both reduce inputs and materials that extract from the environment, while also helping clean up past messes and restore large areas that have been damaged.

While there is still much to be done, we are at a turning point where we have an increasingly powerful set of tools and solutions that can help us create the types of sophisticated solutions that both work well and serve the needs of a complex group of stakeholders.

Now is the time to move forward. Please join us!