Singularity University Notes — Global Grand Challenges (4 of 25)

Nicholas Haan and Nathaniel Calhoun: Global Grand Challenges

Isfandiyar Shaheen
6 min readSep 3, 2016

Articulating problems worth solving and making the effort of solving them measurable is a profound challenge. Singularity University takes a crack at large scale problems by defining the challenges that are broadly classified in 11 categories:

Nicholas Haan started us off by articulating the Food challenge as follows:

800 million people are chronically food insecure, while 2.1 billion people are overweight or obese

Food requirements are expected to increase by 70% in the next 35 years

Existing systems of food production, processing and distribution cannot fulfil humanity’s needs

However, technological innovations in the world of Food shed some light on what is possible and more importantly, why re-imagining food production and delivery systems is critical to our survival as a species

The first innovation introduced to us was In vitro Meat. The first ever public trial took place on August 5 2013, around then a number of headlines came out talking about the $300,000 hamburger. Since then the cost of producing synthetic meat has fallen dramatically to a point where now a burger patty can be made for under $10. For a moment park the blegh factor in thinking about synthetic meat and think about why this is a problem worth solving

The environmental impact of beef is staggering when comparing it to other proteins!

Now compare the life cycles of cultured or synthetic meat versus livestock

One of Singularity University’s home grown companies is tackling this challenge of making protein cheaper by understanding the technology behind cultured or synthetic meat.

There was a time some years ago when whales were slaughtered for energy, right now that would seem ridiculous.

In a similar fashion, Nicholas Haan highlighted the advantages of Vertical Farming (uses 98% less water to name one), he showed us the dramatic improvement in LED price and performance (this matters because LED lights are a source of nutrition for the plants). There are lots of articles on this topic, here’s one just for reference.

Beyond this point Nicholas really opened up the avenues by discussing the impact of robotics and sensors on farming. Though one company that really caught my interest was Freight Farms. Why I think Freight Farms is cool?

The container in which a farm is housed allows the user to grow food anywhere and also run experiments on how to enhance yield. More importantly, it makes food production predictable (relatively). I learned last year that predictability of food production and prices was the primary reason KKR invested $100 million in Sundrop Farms (a company that uses solar panels and salt water to grow tomatoes, and makes the business model viable by forward selling its produce to a large retailer).

Other examples cited were 3D printing of food, printing food in space, and also realising that insects are a large protein source that may become accessible in an affordable manner in days to come.

AgTech or Foodtech is now a fairly visible trend, there were some 21 Food and AG Funds which launched in 2014.

15 food accelerators and 6 crowd funding sites focused on food were launched as well.

The Food discussion led to the next grand challenge, which is Water:

Clearly beef is quite a culprit when it comes to water. So where is the earth’s water?

One person worth highlighting in the whole water discussion is Alfredo Zolezzi. He has built a plasma water purifying system that can purify 35 litres of water in 5 minutes and will cost less than a penny. This technology does not neutralise things like salt and heavy metals but does kill bacteria. I think it’s a great starting point and given how water stressed so many important countries (including Pakistan) are, water will clearly remain an important challenge to overcome.

While Nicholas Haan talked about Food and Water, Nathaniel touched on Prosperity and Education. Similar situation with staggering statistics, far too many to quote. I like solutions, so I’m going to talk about one of them:

Bridge International Academy franchises a primary school in a box! The user gets a minute by minute script, anyone who can read can “teach” a class. This effort is SO disruptive that the Kenyan government froze the opening up of more schools, check out some of their growth numbers

Nathaniel also talked about MakerSpace which has enabled the printing of a 30 cent stethoscope that seems to work as well as a significantly more expensive off-the-shelf version.

The Precariat was highlighted as a very important book worth reading, since I have a fairly long reading list I figured going through the summary will probably make sense. The more I google it, the more I get curious about Guy Standing (yes that’s a name!). For now I am pasting a brief blurb from the Wikipedia page of Guy Standing:

“Standing’s best-known book is The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, published in 2011.[8] In it, he blames globalisation for having plunged more and more people into the precariat, which he analyses as a new emerging social class.[9] According to Standing, the precariat is not only suffering from job insecurity but also identity insecurity and lack of time control, not least due to workfare social policies.

Standing describes the precariat as an agglomerate of several different social groups, notably immigrants, young educated people, and those who have fallen out of the old-style industrial working class.[10]

Standing calls on politicians to make ambitious social reforms towards ensuring financial security as a right. He argues for an unconditional basic income as an important step to a new approach.[11] If politicians fail to take the necessary decisions, he predicts a wave of anger and violence, [9] and the rise of far-right parties.[12]

[Just like that I realised that pasting hyperlinks onto Medium keeps the hyperlinks intact. Good job Medium!!]

Nathaniel was perhaps the only guy at Singularity University who kept talking about the “have-nots” and kept reminding us that the euphoria of Singularity is great but let’s not forget the wreckage that exponential technologies will leave behind. However, he did leave us with some very cool concepts and technologies, specifically:

  • Loomio :It’s a collaborative decision making tool, some say Loomio is hitting a sweet spot between individual voice and collective decision making. Irrespective, I plan to try this product out very soon
  • Adhocracy: The opposite of bureaucracy. A highly flexible organisation.
  • Swarm Collective (decentralised autonomous collectives). I googled this term and found a really great article talking about human swarming and collective intelligence
  • Fairmondo — A socially conscious e-commerce platform!
  • Loconomics Loconomics Cooperative’s mission is to use technology, shared ownership, and community to grow local economies.

Finally, a book recommendation, The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin. The book is about the internet of things, the collaborative commons and the eclipse of capitalism.

More from Nicholas Haan

The full set of detailed notes available at this link