An Exponential Primer

Your guide to our essential concepts

Are you new to Singularity University? Curious about what we mean by “exponential” technologies or an abundance mindset? You’ve landed in the right place. By way of introduction, here is our lexicon, our essential concepts that form the basis of our work, our values, and our strategy.

Massive Transformative Purpose

We have an ambitious mission to create a positive impact on our world. This is our raison d'etre, and we believe that as we move closer and closer to achieving it, we’ll help usher in, quite literally, a massive transformation for humanity. We also believe it’s really important for any organization seeking to shape the future in a positive way to clearly and boldly define its own Massive Transformative Purpose, or MTP. Google’s MTP, for example, is “Organize the World’s Information,” and Singularity University’s is “Building an Abundant Future Together.”

Exponential Technologies

Exponential technologies are those which are rapidly accelerating and shaping major industries and all aspects of our lives. Exponential technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), data science, digital biology and biotech, medicine, nanotech and digital fabrication, networks and computing systems, robotics, and robocars. We believe that the solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges lie in the intersection of these exponential technologies. That is, when two or more of these technologies are used in combination to attack a persistent challenge, the possibility of developing a sustainable solution becomes much more likely.

For example, consider a potential healthcare solution that leverages machine learning, public health records, and individual genetic profiles to help prevent heart disease. Or, consider another solution that might use personal health records, a new biosensor, and the data from smartphones to predict the presence of cancer. These are the types of solutions we are trying to enable through the innovation and learning platform we provide.

Exponential Growth

For a technology to be “exponential,” the power and/or speed doubles each year, and/or the cost drops by half. 

As humans, we tend to overestimate what can be achieved in the short term, but vastly underestimate what can be achieved in the long term. Humans are not equipped to process exponential growth. Our intuition is to use our assessment of how much change we’ve seen in the past to predict how much change we’ll see going forward. We tend to assume a constant rate of change (thinking linearly rather than exponentially). Thinking exponentially, though, is key to discovering potential new opportunities and building innovative solutions.

The Law of Accelerating Returns and Moore’s Law are both central concepts to understanding exponential growth:

The Law of Accelerating Returns (Ray Kurzweil)

The rate of progress in any evolutionary learning environment (a system that learns via trial and error over time) increases exponentially. The more advanced a system that improves through iterative learning becomes, the faster it can progress. 

Moore's Law

Computing power has exponentially increased in price performance for more than a century. Moore’s Law is the observation that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits has doubled every 18 months since they were invented in 1958 and the prediction that this trend would continue into the foreseeable future. Moore’s Law is only applicable to the most recent paradigm of computing; however, the exponential increase of price performance holds true for the following paradigms of computing: electromechanical, relay, vacuum tube, transistor, and integrated circuit.

Exponential Mindset

An exponential mindset refers to our point of view at SU that there’s no problem that we cannot solve when we apply exponential technologies and innovative ways of thinking. We also sometimes refer to this as an “abundance mindset.” We have a hopeful outlook on the world and our future, and so we focus our energies on empowering others to create the abundant future we envision. 

Thinking linearly can prove costly to businesses, governments, and individuals alike. Firms in countless industries are seeing the effects of disruption and disintermediation happening at the hands of emerging technologies and those companies smart enough to be wielding them. Exponential thinking reduces some of this disruptive stress and reveals new opportunities. If we can better plan for the accelerating pace, we can ease the transition from one paradigm to the next, and greet the future in stride.

Global Grand Challenges

At SU, we’re committed to fostering the development of scalable, sustainable positive impact in the world by enabling others to tackle our planet’s most urgent problems using exponential technologies. These grand challenges are: disaster resilience, energy, environment, food, governance, health, learning, prosperity, security, shelter, space, and water. Learn more.

Theory of Change

We use a methodology called the Theory of Change (ToC) to map out our strategy for creating impact. It helps us understand how we create impact in the world, and it directs our efforts and resources toward activities of the highest impact. The ToC breaks down business goals and activities into four segments: inputs, outputs, outcomes, and impact. Learn more.

Moonshot

We help entrepreneurs and startups that take moonshots. Here’s what we mean by that:

Some companies focus on improving existing solutions. Incremental changes can lead to a 10% improvement, but in this case no one is challenging commonly-held assumptions or applying new tools to create a totally new solution. Those that aim to make something 10 times better end up challenging the status quo, and typically end up taking a completely new path. This type of innovation requires bold, courageous thinking. This is why our founders welcome “all who dare to make the world a better place and help shape the future of humanity” to come to Singularity University.

The grand challenges we seek to alleviate require the 10x approach because we’re not talking about incrementally growing problems. These problems are accelerating on an exponential curve, as are the technologies we know hold the solutions we seek. 

So herein lies the definition of a moonshot, somewhere between bold thinking and science fiction: Moonshot thinking involves taking aim at a global challenge, ideating radical solutions that can otherwise seem like the stuff of science fiction, and then leveraging some initial validation or tangible breakthrough that could make the solution achievable in the not-too-distant future. That’s why we challenge our program participants to propose solutions to humanity’s most difficult challenges that have the potential to help a billion people in 10 years. For more on how we view moonshots, check out this article on Singularity Hub.

The 6 D's

Peter Diamandis constructed a useful framework to help navigate the exponential journey that a digital technology takes, known as Peter Diamandis’ 6 D’s. This framework explains what happens as an area becomes information-enabled:

Digitized

Once a technology is digitized it becomes an information science, and so we can use computers to manage it.

Deceptive

Exponential growth is hard to spot. At the beginning of most exponentially advancing environments, the early stages of development are almost imperceptible.

Disruptive

After the initial deceptive growth, the development of an exponentially advancing technology can make the previous paradigm effectively obsolete, out-performing it in both effectiveness and cost. 

Dematerialized

Items that were once large and unwieldy can now fit easily into our pockets. The miniaturization of sensors paired with digitization allows for the elimination of dedicated single-use physical devices. 

Demonetized

GPS systems and high resolution video cameras were prohibitively expensive in the past, but almost anyone can access them now that they are applications and sensors included on and in your phone. The cost of producing and replicating software is dramatically cheaper than creating the physical version of it, and the economies of scale associated with the sensors allow them to become eminently affordable.

Democratized

Products, services, and information that were once only available to wealthy nations, research labs, or companies, are now becoming accessible by an ever-increasing percentage of the global population. If you can buy a cheap phone with an internet connection, you have the same communications capabilities and access to the same exact platforms as a billionaire.