“Back in October, I had the pleasure of contributing to the SingularityU Nordic Summit in Stockholm. For me, one of the highlights was having lunch with a group of university students who were in attendance. Our fascinating conversation ranged from innovation to education to what their futures are going to be like—and how they can empower themselves to be leaders toward a positive future. To my delight, one of those students, Vardnan Sivarajah, reached out to me for more discussion. Over the past few months, we’ve had interactions that strengthen my belief in the power of SU’s global community. I’m very pleased to host this essay from Vardnan, in which he shares his vision for the future—as well as a compelling call to action for all generations.”
—Tiffany Vora, Faculty Director and Vice Chair, Medicine and Digital Biology, Singularity University
26th of November, 20:50 CET, Norway: A young man is sitting glued to his computer screen, full of excitement. That’s me, not watching the final episode of Game of Thrones that evening, but something completely different: the landing of NASA’s spacecraft, InSight, on Mars. At that transcendent moment, in my 19-year-old mind, alone in my bedroom, I was transfixed by the sensation of knowing that those last minutes before touchdown were shared with others from all over the globe.
Imagine a high schooler from China, a lawyer from the USA, a dancer from Spain, and a young boy from Norway, all in awe at the same moment over this extraordinary achievement accomplished by humans, by us. We had taken a huge step forward in understanding life, how we came to be, and the other wonders of our universe. I find it truly breathtaking.
27th of November, 14:58 CET, New York Times: “Russia-Ukraine Fight Over Narrow Sea Passage Risks Wider War” … “Money and Muscle Pave China’s Way to Global Power” …“Mexico’s New Leader Faces Clash With Trump Over Migrant Caravan” …. and so on.
I just wish that humanity could manage to be united for a bit longer.
Imagine what we could achieve if we weren’t obsessed over competing in this everlasting marathon of conquering the world. What if we instead obsessed over forming strong partnerships, erasing hunger and poverty, or reducing inequality? I envision a place we all are proud to call home. However, in this race we’re in now, I cannot fathom what good is actually waiting for us at the finish line.
Where has this race left us till now? A wealth gap through which the richest continue to become richer while others stay poor, a worsening of the consequences of global climate change, and a rising political tension threatening collaboration between countries.
An imposing polarization of our world, threatening to leave us with nothing.
The root of our situation, I believe, can be found in our current education paradigm. If we imagine ourselves back in the classroom, we’re still seated in a room with students of the same age, some more excited than others, while the teacher stands in front, lecturing with the hope that we’re learning something. During tests, we are still not allowed to talk, we cannot share our answers, we’re absolutely forbidden to collaborate with anyone, and we’re rewarded for doing better than those around us.
This individualistic and competitive mindset is reinforced throughout our entire educational journey. And as students, we have no choice but to bring this mentality along into the workplace, where we find ourselves in positions in politics, the military, the banks, and in big corporate firms. Hence, there is no surprise that there is a striking resemblance between our individualistic education system and our current geopolitical landscape. We compete endlessly—because we are explicitly told to do so or because by now, competition is simply habit. Our efforts at collaboration always face numerous roadblocks. And they always will.
Unless something changes.
As I see it, that change will arise from new values that are central to how we nurture our students. Instead of ingraining a mentality of competition in students, we should teach them the importance of virtues such as empathy, collaboration, and taking responsibility for each other. This ambition requires a substantial reformation of our education system, as well as our entire way of thinking about teaching and learning. Where should we start?
I believe we would come a long way by educating students to experience the beauty and delight of space exploration. Not just at the college level, where I am now, but from the very first moment a child steps into a place of learning.
A fuller understanding of our universe yields a much humbler perspective on life—its rareness, its wonder—and our role in it. The realizations that Earth is just one among a hundred billion planets in our galaxy alone, that humans have only walked the surface of the Earth for about 0.00004% of our planet’s history, and that in some billions of years our universe may be dead forever… A truly universal perspective could prompt learners of all ages to look beyond the contests of power among our self-created tribes and to devote their time to collaborate toward the leaps we need make to solve challenges such as climate change, hunger, and inequality.
Today, space exploration is nearly unparalleled in sparking outstanding human collaboration. The construction and operation of the International Space Station remain among the most politically complex processes ever undertaken. Long-lasting partnerships among 15 countries are responsible for assembling and operating a craft 400,000 meters above the surface of the Earth. For me, that unification of humans into a collective intelligence working toward an extraordinary goal is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of exploring space.
By acknowledging this power and beauty, we position ourselves to enrich our learning spaces with the empathy, collaboration, and sheer joy that have led us beyond the boundaries of Earth. And by bringing these capabilities into our classrooms, I believe that we will begin to witness our geopolitical landscape changing for the better.
I imagine tomorrow’s political leaders thinking twice about prioritizing military investments over improving the country’s infrastructure. I imagine future business leaders grasping the importance of implementing climate-friendly technology. I imagine citizens beginning to fathom the all-too-imaginable consequences of everyday decisions that ruin our planet. And I believe that looking to the skies is the way to start this transformation.
In fact, we can start this destiny-changing journey now. It’s not enough for every politician, general, teacher, and parent to drag to the forefront of every mind the conquests of power, the historical empires, the big industries, and the fast paths to wealth that have obsessed our species for millennia.
Every person has the potential to embrace and communicate another perspective, a bigger one. A view that showcases the importance of preserving and cherishing our very own pale blue dot, which is the only home we’ve ever known.
Vardnan Sivarajah participated in the SingularityU Nordic Summit in Stockholm on a student scholarship sponsored by Telia Company. If you’re a student from the Nordics interested in participating in the 2019 SingularityU Nordic Summit in Helsinki, sign up here to be notified about student scholarships. And if you’re looking to connect with other passionate changemakers and exponential thinkers like Vardnan, join the SU global community—start by activating your free SingularityU Membership.