Sep 28
September 28, 2012

Why I’m Optimistic


For eight years now, the CGI Annual Meeting has brought together leaders from around the world, from the public sector, the private sector, philanthropies, foundations, NGOs and the UN system to share what they’re doing that’s working – and not yet working – to make our world healthier, safer, stronger.  Given the relentless focus on the future and the specific commitments made to build a better future, I can’t imagine anyone could be cynical at CGI. This year, I had the privilege of moderating a special session about optimism with five visionaries who provided even more reasons to be, indeed, optimistic: Jack Andraka, a high school student who is also a leading cancer researcher; Gregory Lucier, chairman and CEO of Life Technologies and a leading advocate for the role of science in shaping our future; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, finance minister of Nigeria and Africa’s own eternal optimist; Billy Parish, the president of Mosaic and a pioneer in the solar energy sector; and Luis A. Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation and a firm believer in people’s capacity for progress.

Like my parents (and it’s impossible not to be optimistic in my family, particularly given the growing body of research that there is an ‘optimism gene’), I believe that optimism is infectious; the more evidence we have in support of it, and the more we share it, the more people will believe in it – and be inspired, in their own ways, to further it. I wanted to share briefly what we discussed at the panel and why my fellow panelists are each, in their own ways and for their own reasons, hopeful about our shared future.

Jack Andraka

Jack was born the same year that I graduated from high school, yet he’s already on the leading edge of cancer research worldwide. After losing a close family friend to pancreatic cancer, he set out to find a way to screen cancer more effectively; and through remarkable perseverance (he sent 200 letters to researchers, 199 of which were rejected!), he developed a cancer testing method that’s been found to be 168 times faster, 26,000 times cheaper, and 400 times more sensitive than the gold standard testing methodologies we use today. His mentor at the Johns Hopkins lab where he works called him “our next Edison” and his fellow panelist Greg Lucier (and probably lots of people in the audience) wanted to hire him.

I found Jack’s story such a source of optimism because he believes his story could be any young person’s, anywhere in the world. Jack believes that because of the way that the Internet and technology have democratized access to information, a young person in Kenya or Cambodia could make the next cancer research breakthrough. He credits Google and Wikipedia, in part, for his discovery, and is certain that the researchers of the future will be people just like him – people outside of traditional institutions who stumble upon an idea and have the persistence – and the resources – to make it a reality.

Greg Lucier

Greg’s company, Life Technologies, has developed a machine that can sequence a person’s entire genome in a day for about a thousand dollars. He spoke passionately about how life sciences will transform the 21st century in ways we can’t even imagine. Soon, in Greg’s schematic, cancer will be something akin to a chronic disease – rather than a death sentence. We’ll know more about which crops will grow best where, and how to advance nutrition in developing communities. We’ll make discoveries that change our relationship to energy, like reengineering algae to make gasoline.

And because of the world we live in today – a world that’s already been brought closer together through science and technology – we should be optimistic that we’ll only continue to move increasingly faster in our accumulation of knowledge and how to translate that knowledge into real ways that make a real difference in people’s lives. (Take Jack’s example above.) Greg affirmed that we’ve learned more in the last few years about how life works than we have in the last 25. Just imagine what the world will look like if we continue to progress at that pace.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Minister Okonjo-Iweala began by challenging everyone in the room to see Africa the way she sees it: with high economic growth rates, full of young entrepreneurs, turning the tide on AIDS, and a source of optimism about the future. Minister Okonjo-Iweala cited private sector investment, rather than foreign aid, as a major source of this growth (the kind of investment that many CGI members are bringing to the continent).  She gave examples of innovation from Africa that make her optimistic – like Ushahidi (from the Swahili word for “testimony”), a crowdsourcing platform that was developed in Kenya by citizen journalists to map instances of violence after the 2008 elections. This platform has since been adapted to a variety of aid and emergency uses, from the 2010 Haiti earthquake (‘person finder’) and Tahrir Square (‘harass map’).

The Minister was careful to say that it’s not that Africa – like everywhere – doesn’t still have problems, but, rather, that a full picture of the continent must include its recent progress and development. The Minister cited Nigeria’s own reliance on oil as one of the country’s major challenges, but she also sees it as an opportunity for reform and reinvention and discussed how increasingly Nigeria is focused on questions of sustainable growth. The Minister exudes optimism, as did many of the people I met when my father and I were in South Africa, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Uganda this summer.

Billy Parish

Billy is the man behind Mosaic, an online marketplace where anyone can invest directly in solar energy and other clean energy infrastructure. His goal is to get millions of people tangibly invested in a clean energy future (and advance clean energy by solving one of the major barriers to growth – lack of financing). What I found powerful about Billy’s story was that he wasn’t always so optimistic about a clean energy future. A series of policy failures in the last decade, combined with the rapid rise in global carbon emissions, left him feeling decidedly un-optimistic.

But Billy saw how the Internet was tapping our vast human potential to solve problems – platforms like KIVA and Kickstarter were successfully crowdsourcing funds and ideas bringing people together to advance solutions. He started Mosaic to harness this same potential. And though the world may be growing and consuming at an unsustainable rate, he believes – as I do – that his venture is proof that we can have a world that’s more sustainable than the one we have now.

Luis A. Ubiñas

Luis cited one of my (and my father’s) favorite reasons for optimism: the interdependence of our 21st century world. He noted that technology has not only brought us closer together, but made our interactions more frictionless and meaningful. And the more people we include in our global community, the more we increase the capacity of the world to change for the better.

He also noted a trend that is particularly meaningful to CGI members – the fact that cross-sector collaboration has inspired dramatic and rapid progress on challenges once believed intractable. As president of the Ford Foundation, he understands the flexibility of civil society to experiment and take risks – but knows for innovations to become sustainable change, governments and the private sector must adopt those innovations and take them to scale. The entrepreneurial capacity of civil society and the increasing partnerships between civil society and the private sector makes us both optimistic. Luis told us that he always begins a conversation with, “What are we trying to do together? What does winning look like?” – and then, knowing that he can’t do it alone, he finds the right partners and gets to work.