Monday, April 02, 2007

Conference Report

Back from several conferences- the Nat'l Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) and Skoll World Forum (SWF). Here are some exciting things I saw or heard during my travels:

1) March Madness of the Mind- the NCIIA presentations of college student teams from around the country... some great ideas on medical diagnostics, water filters, wind turbines, cleaning up mercury emissions from gold mines... and of course I was very proud of Katie and Chaun representing CSU with the Bright Light stove. "Kids these days," indeed!

2) Dan Kammen, from UC Berkeley, gave NCIIA keynote talk on climate change and energy. A few spicy excerpts:

  • "It is remarkable how much we know about climate change; but stunning how little we are investing in doing anything about it."
  • After discussing the potential of other (dirtier) fossil fuels (tar sands, etc.)... "So we run out of atmosphere way faster than we run out of oil."
  • Discussing the coming alternative energy revolution, and how to avoid what happened with... "the Green Revolution, which was an 'equity ungenerator' and helped wealthy farmers, but not the poor."

In addition, he had a nice chart showing that "not all fuels are created equal" and showing the differences in carbon emissions per gallon (for the entire production and combustion of the fuel). Gasoline was 20 lbs/gallon; fuel from coal was 50 lbs/gallon; and biodiesel was 12 lbs/gallon. The real shocker... some of the cellulosic ethanols (from agricultural waste) actually took a couple pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere in their production and consumption. As he pointed out, a battery powered hybrid, using wind/solar electrical power and this type of ethanol, could get 100 mpg and be basically carbon neutral!

3) Jim Taylor of Int'l Development Enterprises (IDE) in Myanmar gave a great seminar at NCIIA on designing for "extreme affordability" in BOP markets. The poor are very risk averse, as they are often one bad judgement (or accident) away from starving. IDE shoots to have its products priced to customer at $10-25. They do not use microfinance, but instead give their dealers longer payment terms, in effect, providing financing for their channel. Most products hit "payback" in a few months of growing new crops.

4) The SWF was at Oxford, a place dripping with tradition. You can't help feeling smarter walking around this place. A "temple of the mind" for sure. But it also feels a tad stodgy and musty, and the SWF got the institution's heart beating a bit faster. Oxford needs the SWF.

5) Bill Drayton's (Ashoka) remarks throughout the forum were intriguing. This guy is out on the frontiers, and has a vision for a very different world.

  • "Agriculture allowed everyone to live on land... with small surpluses that allowed a small population of elites and bureaucrats. That is changing in rural areas, and we can no longer rely on elites to solve the world's problems. Everyone must be involved, everyone must become a changemaker."
  • He was a bit defensive about the charges that social entrepreneurship is growing its own elite. But my observation from SWF is that this is something about which these folks will need to be very careful. It is quite clubby, and that contradicts Drayton's message (as does his traditional assertion that Ashoka fellows are one in 10 million). A little cognitive dissonance... Jeff Skoll and Bill Drayton and Dr. Yunus weren't exactly going to the same events as most of the attendees, or joining in the networking at the coffee breaks.
  • "The lifecycle of entrepreneur goes on for life. Unless young people get these skills when young, you will have a small level of people qualified to be changemakers." Drayton gets it, and is leading the charge on how youth will drive this field. However, the crowd at SWF was decidedly middle aged. The Skoll folks did a great job of webcasting most of the sessions, but SWF would benefit from more participation from youth, including panels. They could use the March Madness concept to their benefit!
  • "Changemakers will be the sustainable competitive advantage of this century… for companies, countries, regions, ethnic groups."

6) The opening ceremony had some real "names" including Yunus and the Queen of Jordan... I found the most interesting comments to be those from David Galenson (U Chicago) who spoke of his research into models of creativity. There is the "conceptual" creativity, which are the bursts of big ideas (think Leonardo, Picasso) and there is the lesser known, but perhaps more important "experimental" creativity, which is built on years of work. His work started with art, but he finds these patterns across fields. Experimental Creativity is particularly empowering to those later on in years. Cezanne, who was a banker for many years before becoming a painter, is a great example. Galenson pointed to Yunus as an example from social entrepreneurship field, in that he didn't start Grameen until later in his career (his 50's?). An even better example, I think, is Dr. V of Aravind Eye Center, who started the first clinic as a retirement project. WOW!

7) My personal favorite of the SWF was Dr. Larry Brilliant's session the last day. Despite my questioning of Google.org's strategy in an earlier post, he did an amazing job of showing the optimism that drives work in this field. Do yourself a favor and watch this session "Reflections from a Pioneer"! He started out with a list of some of the important challenges facing us... global warming, disease, poverty. Then he told the tale of the battle to eradicate smallpox... a challenge that is certainly up there in complexity and impact. A few nuggets:

  • Smallpox: killed more than any disease in history…500 million in 20th century..2 million deaths in 2007. It killed kings and queens… wealth didn’t protect you. Lesson: “A gated community can’t save you. We are all in this together”
  • In India, it took an army of 150,000 workers, searched every house for 2 years… 1 billion house calls. Rivers wouldn’t flow from the bodies of dead babies. There were 185,000 cases in 1974.
  • "The fact that this disease no longer exists gives us hope. This disease brought teams together across countries to fight a common enemy… how can that not make you optimistic that we will be able to solve these other challenges that face us today?"

8) Cool organizations from SWF (more info at www.skoll.org)

Health (particularly distribution of stuff that works; vaccines, bed nets)

  • Village Reach
  • Riders for Health
  • Healthstore Foundation
  • OASIS (social insurance)

Environment

  • CERES
  • Global Footprint Network
  • Marine Stewardship Council

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