Monday, July 29, 2013

Finding Home

One of my best friends shared this TED talk with me the other day. In a world where so many of us have lived in several countries, hold multiple passports, and speak at least two or three languages. where is home? Do we feel at home in a community of travellers? Do we feel at home when we spend time with the people we love? Do we feel at home when we find time to stop and reflect?

It is wonderful to feel like the world is small, that we can choose and change countries with relative ease. As Pico Iyer mentions "movement is a fantastic privilege and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing." Technology has made it easier to keep up with friends, family, news, and even pop culture in other countries. I FaceTime with my boyfriend in London, Skype with my parents in New Jersey, message my cousins in Tel Aviv on WhatsApp, and keep up with my Chilean family through Facebook. When my parents moved to the US in 1989, we would call my grandparents once a week. My mother found a store that sold Israeli newspapers and bought a copy each Friday. We sent pictures by post and waited for letters to arrive. It was a different world and the cost of living abroad (both fiscal and emotional) was much greater.

Even today, there is a cost. We can make our lives easier with virtual communication, but we cannot live virtual lives. There are countless ways to show that we care- a goodnight kiss, a hug after a bad day, a toast to good news. They do not have a digital equivalent. With four places to call home, it is the absence of these small touch-points with loved ones that I miss the most. I try to make it back for special occasions, but life is so much more than that. Our lives are made up of many small, unexpected moments (both good and bad.) How much support can we really show from far away?

I love my life. But it has become so scattered that it's hard to focus on the people and things that matter most. So I am moving once again- this time, back to London. In his TED talk, Iyer talks about his realisation that "movement was only as good as the sense of stillness that you could bring to it to put it into perspective."I have been travelling so much that I find it hard to be present. It's time to put down roots, simplify my life to a single city, and invest in my relationship, because ultimately, that's where I want my home to be.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Adapting to Climate Change

I have been spending this week on a Global Leadership Fellows training at Columbia University, working with the Earth Institute and the Mailman School of Public Health to understand the impact of climate change on urban areas. In particular, we have been looking at New York City's climate change adaptation plan in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The Economist estimates that 64% and 86% of the developing and developed world (respectively) will live in cities by 2050. As urban populations increase and weather patterns change due to global warming, how can cities best prepare themselves for natural disasters, heat waves, and decreased access to water and other key resources? The challenges are immense and complex.

During Hurricane Sandy, flood waters surpassed previous flood records and reached 16 feet in a city where infrastructure was built to withstand 12 feet. Neighbourhoods were destroyed, a power plant substation exploded (leaving parts of the city without electricity for days), supply chains were disrupted, and waste water overflowed.Vulnerable populations were particularly at risk; hospitals were evacuated. A number of elderly and disabled individuals died during the storm.  This is just one example of the havoc that a single natural disaster can cause. As natural disasters become more common and resources become increasingly scarce, cities need to focus on resilience. Updating infrastructure is just one piece of the puzzle.

What is the role of technology in climate change adaptation? Renewable energy plays a key role, both in reducing the dependence on fossil fuels (which become scarce as supply chains are disrupted) and, more importantly, provide clean energy that reduce greenhouse gases. Social media and text message updates can disseminate information to the public. Smart grids and feedback on energy usage can be used to reduce demand. We can use big data to create a comprehensive registry of vulnerable populations. Technology can also improve communications among stakeholders (local governments, community organisations, civil society, and corporations) who need to work together to provide a more effective and coordinated response.

Climate change is our new norm. How can we think creatively, strategically, and pragmatically to adapt? And how can we prevent it from getting worse?

Friday, July 12, 2013

My Response to Can Silicon Valley Save the World?

The Foreign Policy magazine article "Can Silicon Valley Save the World?" has created a debate about the role of technology and entrepreneurial thinking in the development sector. The article had some valid points about the unrealistic view that technology is a stand-alone panacea for solving the world's problems. It also mentioned the issue of distributing products and services to a market (the poor in the developing world) that do not have a say in the products and services it is receiving, which is a serious problem across the field of development.

I took issues with several of the key ideas in the article. There was a clear fear of risk taking- seemingly because of the expense that failure creates. A culture of caution stifles creativity and the willingness to think big. Poverty is a massive challenge and we have not solved it with the models we've tried so far. We need bold ideas to hit the Millennial Development Goals and make meaningful progress. We have spent millions in aid knowing that a large portion of those funds will be grafted by corrupt officials. So why are we so uncomfortable with failure when the potential benefits are huge? Also, most of these solutions work to provide direct access to the people that need it most, bypassing corrupt systems.

I was also disappointed to see the focus on "innovations" that cost more and provide fewer benefits than the tools that they were meant to replace. What kind of innovation is that?

Technology is not a panacea- some of the most effective development interventions are as simple as providing iodised salt. And no one is discounting the great work that has been done to eliminate disease, improve maternal health and reduce infant mortality. But why deny the opportunities inherent in technology and shun the brightest minds from Silicon Valley from bringing their out of the box thinking to the challenges that need it most? We need more innovation in the development sector.

New models (like USAID's venture capital arm) have the potential to involve entrepreneurs and the private sector in a meaningful way. I hope we decide to embrace these types of opportunities and not get territorial about "their" role and "our" role. Can Silicon Valley save the world on its own? Probably not. But if we embrace the Valley and this type of thinking across the big international organisations, we will create meaningful change. The Millennial Development Goals need to get back on track. Silicon Valley's input on those and other development initiatives will be beneficial for everyone.