[Header Image: Mann Deshi Foundation, Images: How To Academy]
Albert Einstein famously said that “imagination is the highest form of research.” And in one simple phrase, he encompassed the idea that to make change, we have to see beyond the world we live in and look to the potential solutions. We often talk about thinking outside of the box when it comes to solving the world’s problems, but what we are perhaps a little less aware of is just how many people are silently busy blowing the box wide open.
As the How To Change The World conference by the How To Academy unfolded, a sense of awe-inspiring creativity filled the space. From innovative technical solutions to people-focused projects with communication at their heart, each of the speakers told a story of challenging expectations in order to solve the world’s societal and ecological problems. Advanced technology came together with farming and biodiversity, philosophy with psychology and society with industry, in order to question existing frameworks and promote positive change. Here is a roundup of the work of the extraordinary people that took part, and the world-changing projects underway.
Alex is the founder and CEO of Beam, an online platform to crowdfund employment training for homeless people. After becoming friends with a man sleeping rough outside his local tube station, Alex realised that giving the odd hot drink just wasn’t enough to make a real, tangible difference to his life. He founded Beam with the goal of getting those who have long been out of employment re-started on their career path by connecting those who needed help with those wanting to offer it. From building surveyors to beauticians, the platform breaks down the training each individual would need to get their ideal job and allows people to donate. “Sure, that’s going to cost more than a cup of coffee,” Alex explained, “but what if we all chipped in?”
Chetna’s work supports the ordinary women doing extraordinary things in their lives. An activist, farmer, and banker, her career was inspired by a woman named Kantabai who worked as a black smith on the street, but was denied access to a bank account as her daily savings of five cents was deemed too little. Chetna was inspired by this story to set up the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank in 1997, which came to be India’s first bank for rural women. After struggling to get a licence due to many of the women being illiterate, she simply responded: “We may not be able to read and write, but we can count.” Needless to say, they were given the licence. She has since developed a doorstep banking system using thumb prints instead of pin numbers, protecting the women’s money from theft.
As director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, Greg combines the world of technology with that of biodiversity. An award-winning ecologist, he works to protect ecosystems and reduce carbon emissions, developing scientific solutions to conserve the millions of different plant and animal species on our planet. His airborne observatory project uses high-powered lasers to precisely map out nature such as animal specials and coral reefs, collecting data for scientists and biologists can develop accurate ways to protect them. The goal? To use highly visual imagery to widen the gap between science and society, leading us all to a more sustainable future.
After deciding to give up a career in farming due to the dwindling mineral content of the soil on their land, Isabella Tree and her husband began a daring project to rewild a 3,500-acre estate in West Sussex. After removing the fencing and leaving the land to renew itself, Isabella remembers how, as the time passed, the sound of insects returned. “It showed us a glimpse of what our land could become,” she smiled. The estate is now home to rare species such as the turtle dove, which have found home thanks to the unique habitat it offers, as well as being one of the biggest breeding hotspots for purple emperor butterflies. “It’s about changing a mindset, letting go and taking joy in unpredictability,” she summarised. “It’s about rewilding ourselves.”
The founder and CEO of Babylon, Ali Parsa is harnessing the power of technology and AI to put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on Earth. His company, Babylon, uses artificial intelligence to offer personalised medical consultations around the world. The technology means that those who might otherwise need to sacrifice a whole working day to walk to the nearest hospital can now simply call a nurse who will use the service to help diagnose their condition and prescribe the right medication. Thanks to Babylon, over 3000 people in Rwanda will now get their health care without even leaving their town.
An American linguist, philosopher and cognitive scientist, Noam Chomsky shared his thoughts on climate change and the future of our planet. “We’re pushing the accelerator so that we can go off the cliff as fast as possible,” he said. The urgency to act comes through loud and clear in his interview, with action needed in the next decade: “This is our country. Are we going to choose to destroy human civilisation?” he asks. So what needs to be done? Chomsky advises us to listen to the children. “The idea that it takes young kids to try to awaken the adult community to the severity and immediacy of a major crisis; it’s almost hard to find words to describe it,” he explains. “We know what we need to do, and there’s time to do it. But not much.”
A self-described storyteller, Elif Shafak works as a novelist, journalist and political scientists. A true testament to the power of stories, Elif’s work gives voice to the topics that are often left unaddressed. Her eloquent musings on perspective served as a powerful reminder of the influence of both optimism and pessimism on how the world is run, and the hopefulness of people that history will not repeat itself. “Maybe we cannot take things for granted,” she explained, “and we cannot think that history much just go in one linear direction.” If our worldviews alone can change the world, Elif’s advice is as follows: “Our minds need to be pessimists. But our hearts need to be optimists.”
Far from re-usable bottles and bamboo cutlery, Steve takes care of all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into lowering the environmental impact of industry. His work lies in making industrial systems more efficient and aware, highlighting the waste created and setting new standards for lower impact systems. Take the 435 litres used to make a pair of jeans in the factory, or the 1 billion sock rings (these are the cut offs when the body of the sock is attached to the toe piece) for example. “If we can teach people how to see waste,” Steve explains, “they are inevitably good at finding loads of creative ways to use it… We don’t know what is possible, and unless we start going on this journey we don’t know how far it will take us.”
The founder of Trillium Technologies, James’ work specialists in applying emerging technologies to the world’s biggest challenges. Having pioneered machine learning technology to protect and help citizens in the face of natural disasters, the system is now able to predict the likelihood of flooding. The technology can also create generalised maps to assess the damage after an emergency in a fraction of time this would take humans, allowing services to get help quickly to those who need it most. “The public sector is always the first customer,” he explains, “and the ultimate public sector is our planet.”
Kristen’s work relies on the intelligence of one particular animal to save lives: the humble rat. As chairwoman of the US Board of Directors for APOPO, her career has seen rats trained to detect landmines, one of the biggest causes of community fear in third-world countries. The intelligent rats are also now being trained to detect tuberculosis, with a massive potential to stop the spread of this deadly disease.
A neuroscientist seeking to understand consciousness, Anil has set out to better understand how the brain controls out perceptions of what we see. “Our experience really depends on what our brain thinks is going on,” he explained, proving just how preconceptions can influence our experiences. And what does this all mean? “We are a part of, and not apart from, the rest of nature,” Anil suggests. Surely by truly reconnecting with the oneness between ourselves and the world around us, we are on the path to taking care of the planet we call home.
Hilary’s work underpins her call for a Fifth Social Revolution, in order to efficiently connect people to the resources available by re-thinking the power structure within our institutions. “We need systems where everyone can get in,” she explains. Take unemployment, for example; by simply challenging the idea of a conventional job centre and prizing connections and relationships over endless fruitless applications, she designed a scheme to help people find work through public meetings and digital platforms. For Hilary, the solutions always lie in reframing the problem, creating communities and investing in relationships.
A leading global expert on clean energy and climate finance, Michael predicts that by 2040, we are heading for what he calls the ‘Three Third World.’ A third of our electricity will be wind and solar, one third of vehicles will be electric, and the economy will be one third more energy productive. But one vital question remains: “Is the Three Third World enough to limit the global temperature change to 2°, or even 1.5°?” And the simple answer is no. According to Michael, while this model can stop our emissions from increasing, we need to get them down to net zero. For this we need to do more, and soon.
A world-renowned expert in fertility and genetics, Robert’s speech focused on the ethics and moral compass of genetic engineering, both in animals and humans. Having been at the forefront of many advancements in fertility treatments, Robert brought one key question into conversation: Do humans have the right to decide the future of our species? “Human life is scared,” he explained, “and if we make humans super humans, what is the price of that?”
For author Malcolm Gladwell, changing the world is all about how we communicate. An expert on connection and relationships, his writing focuses on sociology and social psychology, exploring human behaviour and challenges our preconceptions. This time, Malcolm spoke about deception; or more precisely, how humans have evolved to trust each other. “It makes better sense as a species if we’re not paranoid, but rather trusting,” he explains. “Everything we do requires an explicit faith in others.”