Singularity University at Ten Years: The Global Grand Challenges

Exponential technologies are reshaping every aspect of our lives and disrupting every industry. The accelerating pace of change is unfamiliar and unprecedented. To some, this change is a threat; to others, it’s an opportunity; for most, it’s both… and we’re all struggling to adjust to this new state of dynamic equilibrium. The ultimate outcome will be determined not by the technology itself, but by human ingenuity, collaboration, and an explicit intention to try to make the world a better place.

This is the grand challenge of our time — to adapt to a world of accelerating change and apply technology for the greatest good.

Singularity University exists to address this challenge. We bring a unique lens and empower individuals and organizations with a specific set of tools and resources, and a global network united by a common perspective and purpose. We embrace exponential thinking over linear, design for abundance over scarcity, and strive for 10X results vs. 10% improvements. Our global ecosystem comprises exponential leaders and innovators pushing the boundaries, entrepreneurs challenging convention, changemakers tackling global challenges, and executives transforming legacy organizations.

At scale, this is a powerful community that has what it takes to take on the world’s most intractable problems and help create an abundant future. Our mission—to educate, empower, and inspire leaders to leverage exponential technologies to solve humanity’s grand challenges—has always been about enabling as many people as possible to step up to solve the problems that need solving.

Singularity University’s primary role is to convene the community and create the conditions for tackling these challenges. Because success requires taking a lot of shots on goal, so to speak, we aim to get as many players in the game as possible. To continue with that analogy, our focus to date has not been on taking the shots ourselves, but rather to assemble the teams, fire them up, and point them at the goal post. We are the coaches, fans, cheerleaders, and sponsors.

Everything we do at SU contributes to supporting this kind of engagement and impact. Our programs are designed to expose people to opportunities to shape the future and empower them to take action. Our community of passionate and purpose-driven individuals and organizations is united by a shared sense of urgency and agency, and is actively collaborating to build the future.

The global grand challenges

When equipped with an understanding of the capabilities represented by exponential technologies and a new mindset for thinking about the future, the next question is always “What future do we want to create?” If you take a “moonshot” approach, the world’s biggest problems come into focus. While there is no roadmap for where we are headed as a species, there is some generally shared perspective of what constitutes “progress.” This generally means improving human living conditions and to date, the most widely accepted representation of the problems to be solved is expressed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which were published in 2016.

In his first book Abundance, Peter Diamandis did a great job articulating the possible future that we could create by leveraging exponential technologies to solve the biggest problems we face—ultimately unlocking the scarce resources we struggle over today and making them abundantly available to everyone equitably. We see this future scenario as a real and exciting possibility, but recognize that the path to get there is a challenging one to say the least.

The more interesting and productive focus is on the transition to this future of abundance, and the problems that must be solved to get there. If we are to help individuals and organizations learn to adapt to accelerating change, it’s important for us to have a framework for how to think about the challenges we face today and how to forecast possible future scenarios to help us navigate our way through this transition.

Over the years, SU has defined twelve global grand challenges (GGCs) that we believe must be addressed if we are to create a better and more equitable future. These GGCs are aligned with the SDGs, but focus on understanding specific end-states and providing an entrepreneurial lens for addressing them. These GGCs are:

  • Resource Needs: Energy, Environment, Water, Food, Shelter, Space

Societal Needs: Security, Governance, Learning, Health, Disaster Resilience, Prosperity

Twelve Global Grand Challenges

For framing and high-level understanding, it’s important to note that the GGCs are interrelated and interdependent, so the convergence of technologies and related solutions can have cascading and compounding effects over time. For example, water and health are interrelated and by solving for the water challenge, the health challenge becomes much more addressable. Solving for energy makes water solvable, which makes ending hunger much easier, and that has direct effects on security. And so on. The GGCs are also interdependent. For example, any solution to the food challenge necessarily requires doing so in an environmentally sustainable manner. Solving for environmental challenges must consider the effects on people’s prosperity around the world. And so on.

Solving the global grand challenges—end-state definitions

We think about solving the GGCs from three perspectives:

  1. Meeting basic human needs for all people
  2. Sustaining and significantly improving quality of life
  3. Mitigating future existential risks

We have defined end-states for each GGC that we believe are achievable. This approach differs from (and is complementary to) other approaches that identify specific, narrow challenges with clear criteria and success metrics (this is used by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, XPrize, USAID Grand Challenges, Millennium Development Goals, and others).

How to solve Global Grand Challenges

Solving the global grand challenges—key insights

In our work with the GGCs, three specific insights have emerged that continue to guide our evolution as an organization:

1. The acceleration and democratization of technology are lowering barriers to entry and enabling anyone, anywhere to solve local and global challenges.

Exponential technologies are rapidly becoming dematerialized, demonetized, and democratized, making their capabilities more universally accessible at lower price points. As a result, emerging markets are able to leapfrog old, linear technologies and accelerate innovation. The growth of the mobile phone market is the classic example. Another is the World Bank’s recent pronouncement that it will no longer fund old, fossil fuel-based installations given the exponential increase in capacity of solar photovoltaics and exponential decrease of prices.

Ten years ago, these powerful technologies and tools were only used by the largest corporations, governments, and research institutions, but the democratization of technology and increasingly ubiquitous internet access is enabling anyone, anywhere to create world-changing innovations. The kind of tech tinkering and experimentation that put Silicon Valley on the map can now be done by the proverbial ‘two guys/girls in a garage’ in Mumbai, Uganda, Reykjavik, or Sydney. The rising billions will not be passive recipients of technology, but rather active and empowered agents in creating a better world for us all. We must support and accelerate these shifts in order to make the greatest impact.

2. An exponential vs. linear approach is required to navigate the accelerating waves of change and confront the existential threats facing humanity.

Humans are hard-wired to think linearly, which means we intuitively assume the future will evolve linearly and predictably from today. It won’t. Ray Kurzweil often reminds us that because technological change is exponential, in the next century, we won’t experience 100 years of progress, but 20,000 years. That’s just mind-blowing. It’s hard to comprehend that rate of change, and even harder to contemplate the implications to our lives, families, businesses, governments, societies, and humanity.

But not only must we contemplate the implications, we must also learn to adapt to this new paradigm and pace of change to ensure we can harness these new forces versus get crushed by them. Our ability to navigate this shift will require a massive transformation in how we think about our own capabilities. At SU, we help individuals and organizations transcend their linear perspective of the world and embrace an exponential mindset and toolset. To do this, we teach several foundational concepts, including:

  • Forecasting—Building scenarios to explore potential implications and opportunities across various time horizons
  • Narratives—Using stories to bring far future scenarios to life, then working backwards to build execution road maps
  • Convergence—Considering new intersections between technologies and industries
  • Moonshots—Pursuing solving big problems with radical solutions that could have a massive, or 10X, impact
  • Abundance—Exploring opportunities with open and accessible approaches that are not driven by competition over scarcity

3. The best solutions require diverse perspectives.

One fundamental reason the GGCs still exist is the lack of collaboration among critical stakeholder groups. We believe that ideating, developing, and scaling game-changing solutions requires the following six audiences to come together to share their unique perspectives:

SU Impact Ecosystem

  • Startups & Entrepreneurs—small, scrappy teams with audacious goals able to learn quickly from trial and error
  • Corporations & Executives—established organizations with the resources and assets needed to scale solutions, motivated by market forces
  • Governments & Policy Makers—policies, regulations, and government funding applied to accelerate creation and scaling of solutions
  • Nonprofits & Philanthropists—organizations and individuals with a unique understanding of root problems and committed to addressing market gaps and failures.
  • Academic Institutions & Thought Leaders—framers of scientific thinking and narrative-based storytelling for breakthroughs and societal understanding
  • Financial Institutions & Investors—providers of risk-tolerant, adaptable and market-based funding to enable experiments and scale successful models

In addition to these professional perspectives, diversity across many other dimensions—social, geography, gender, political, religious, age, socioeconomic, etc.—is also critical to the creativity required for breakthrough innovation. Numerous studies have proven the economic value of diversity. Too often in our experience, organizations and teams suffer from homogeneity on multiple fronts, limiting their ability to think expansively and drive transformational business and cultural initiatives.

Impact Initiatives

There are six specific ways we encourage individuals and organizations to pursue solving the GGCs. When leveraging exponential technologies, these Impact Initiatives can have transformational effects and address problems at scale.

How to solve Global Grand Challenges

Six types of Impact Initiatives are:

  1. Form a New Organization
  2. Innovate within an Existing Organization
  3. Launch an Education and Awareness Campaign
  4. Influence Policy
  5. Pursue Research and Development
  6. Mobilize Resources

Some of SU’s programs focus on the pursuit of a particular Impact Initiative (e.g. the Global Startup Program (GSP) and SU Ventures support entrepreneurs and startups), while others offer a more general exploration of the intersection of exponential technologies, an exponential (10X) mindset, and the world’s biggest challenges. Our long-term roadmap explores ways to build programs, partnerships, and community tools that optimize for one or more of these impact initiatives. All of our programs, courses, and events aim to empower participants to feel the agency and urgency needed to engage in shaping the future.

Measuring our impact

When we converted to a Benefit Corporation in 2012, we began measuring both direct and indirect impact from both our programs and our community. It has been challenging to track all of the activities that SU inspires or catalyzes around the globe, and we know our metrics only tell part of the story. But while there is so much more to do, we are incredibly proud of the progress we have made to-date. Below are recent impact statistics reflecting our global community of action. You can find regular updates on our impact dashboard at https://impact.su.org/.

Singularity University's Impact

Enabling the future

I believe we have just set the stage for the degree of impact SU and our global community can make. For ten years, we’ve been focusing on amplifying our unique narrative and convening the frameworks, tools, resources, and community needed to educate, inspire and empower others to take on this 10X call to action. We continue to explore new ways to help people transform their mindsets from linear to exponential, to expand capabilities for navigating change, and to connect others through unique programs, partnerships, and projects.

Our diverse and inclusive global ecosystem grows daily with passionate and purpose-driven individuals and organizations eager to design their roles in creating a better tomorrow. It is by supporting and empowering this network that SU’s perspective and purpose will propagate. It is the true impact engine that will enable us to define and shape the future we want to live in.

Singularity University is itself on an exponential journey, which gives us deeper empathy for the journeys that each member of our community is experiencing. We will keep working to strengthen our business model and operations to ensure we’re a sustainable organization. We will continue to explore the potential of being a benefit corporation. And above all, we will keep pushing ourselves and others to be more exponential in our ideas and actions.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share more about how our business model supports our strategy and impact model. Meanwhile, I invite you to explore our newly reimagined Global Startup Program (formerly known as the Global Solutions Program) and apply to an upcoming cohort if you’re ready to take your efforts to the billion scale.