Conceptualizing a Solution for Development Through ‘Moonshot Thinking’

A “grand challenge” is exactly what it sounds like: a complex problem that has a stubbornly defined solution (Branscomb). Tom Kahlil of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy defined grand challenges as “ambitious yet achievable goals that capture the public’s imagination and that require innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology to achieve.” One of the most well-known and inspiring historical examples of addressing a grand challenge is Robert F. Kennedy and his promise of the moon landing: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade.” Kennedy’s mindset of believing in the achievement of something nearly impossible, setting a timeframe, and planting the seeds of action is referred to as “moonshot thinking.” Proposing radical solutions to overwhelming problems through the use of research and science, technology, and innovation.  The Medium lays out a five step framework for the methodology of ‘moonshot thinking:’ (1) reset our ‘operating system’ and start thinking exponentially, (2) launching the moonshot, (3) landing the moonshot through trial and error, (4) transform yourself, (5) transform your company. 

This method can be utilized by any kind of actor in the pursuit of overarching problems, specifically the challenge of international development. The USAID addresses grand challenges for development through programs that mobilize governments, companies, and foundations, source new solutions, and test new ideas. Some of these programs include saving lives at birth, having all children reading, making all voices count, securing water for food, and many more. Even though this list only shows a small percentage of all of the challenges of development, it is easy to see how these issues span across all aspects of people’s lives. The Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) were the first commitment of its magnitude to consolidate the efforts of meeting the needs of the worlds’ poorest people.  Building off of the MDGs, the UNGA created the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  The 2030 Agenda is an action plan for “people, planet, and prosperity.” The SDGs are comprised of 17 lofty goals addressing the grand challenge that development poses, each goal accompanied by several targets and indicators in a time-bound fashion to measure the progress towards achieving the goal. Why is ‘moonshot thinking’ relevant for sustainable development? Even though landing on the moon seemed impossible to most, comparable with ending world hunger or poverty, or achieving all of the SDGs, with committed investment in research, innovation and technology, we can achieve truly extraordinary things.

Gender and Intersectionality in Inclusive Development

The term ‘intersectionality’ is tossed around from politics to academia- but what does it truly mean? And can ‘intersectionality’ be a useful concept for inclusive sustainable development? Intersectionality originated from the lived experiences of African-American women facing the dual oppressions and combined effects of racism and sexism; and the term was officially coined by Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989. Since intersectionality’s inception, the working definition has grown to encompass all intersections of identity including gender, race, class, disability, religion, sexual orientation, citizenship status and more. It is also important to point out that these differentiated oppressions are structural rather than individual. All of these social identities must be viewed together, as each one combines to create a person’s experience in society. For example, women who are indigenous may experience gender equality differently than non-indigenous women; the movement for indigenous rights is often prioritizes the group identity, whereas the fight for gender equality tends to focus on the individual rights of women. Intersectionality can be a way to bridge these identities together so as not to fragment varied parts of identities and to understand that inequalities intersect with other oppressions to form people’s lived experiences. Can this concept be used in not only conceptualizing inclusive development but putting it into practice? 

The Gender and Development Network, a network of United Kingdom-based NGOs, is working to promote and prioritize women’s rights in international development. Their website states that, “addressing patriarchy, gender inequality and the abuse of women’s rights remains the primary focus of GADN’s political agenda… But we recognise that gender inequality cannot be understood and effectively confronted in isolation from the myriad of other discriminations and forms of oppression that women face.” Along with this, its pointed out that an individual’s personal experience of intersecting oppressions is unique and their identities can not simply be ‘added up.’ GADN seeks to influence international institutions like the United Nations to propose solutions and shape the gender equality discourse, and GADN also partners with many organizations in the Global South. Along with this, GADN advocates for better gender equality policies and practice in the international development field through providing technical expertise, accessible and well-respected resources, and building a consensus on alternative economic practices. This is a fascinating example of implementing the concept of intersectionality from a feminist lens in both the policy and discourse side of development, as well as actual development practice. 

What does the digital divide mean for inclusive sustainable development?

First, the digital divide refers to the unequal distribution of information and communication technologies (ICTs) across and within societies. This includes not only access to but also usage of computers and the internet. This divide can be on a larger scale, between developed and developing nations, or on a smaller scale, between various socio-economic and socially stratified groups within one country. The term digital divide became more regularly used in the later-1990s, with its beginnings found in news articles and political speeches, most notably in a speech by President Bill Clinton. It’s also important to note that differences in technology and their social implications have been recognized before the term digital divide came about, but the term represents a useful label in the discourse surrounding this topic. 

Second, through understanding the origins and definitional basis of the digital divide, the implications and effects of the digital divide on inclusive sustainable development can be examined. According to an article by the World Economic Forum (WEF), four billion people, as of 2016, do not have access to the internet. The WEF lays out four main reasons why the digital divide persists: (1) lack of infrastructure, (2) high cost of devices and connectivity, (3) education and cultural issues, and (4) language barriers. Due to the complex and multidimensional nature of addressing the digital divide, governments, companies, local and international organizations and civil society members are working on increasing peoples’ access to ICTs. What does this all mean for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Many leaders in the Economic and Social Council of the UN discussed how closing the digital gap is vital to attaining sustainable development in a Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation in May 2019.  Many leaders in this Forum discuss the UN Technology Facilitation Mechanism and its effectiveness. According to Liu Zhenmin, in the wake of the 2030 Agenda, the United Nations must help people, especially youth, harness technology, in order to implement the SDGs. Romain Murenzi, the Executive Director of the World Academy of Sciences, stresses that focuses on technology and innovation can and will ensure inclusivity and close the gaps between “haves” and “have nots.” The international cooperation and multilateral action to address and tackle the digital divide is promising. Closing the gap in digital access and usage will push the world closer to achieving the SDGs and minimizing inequality.

Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction and Management

There are several multilateral organizations aiming to address the unequal destruction that is caused from things like earthquakes or floods.  According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, there is no such thing as a natural disaster, only natural hazards. As such, Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) aims to decrease damage done by natural hazards.  “DRR can preserve lives and increase the resilience of communities by strengthening their capacity to anticipate, absorb and recover from these shocks.” Through systematic efforts to analyze and reduce the factors behind disasters, the UN and other organizations specifically for DRR and DRM aim to lessen vulnerabilities, promote wise management of land and environment, and improve preparedness and early detection. 

Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems (CREWS) discusses how, at the UN Climate Action Summit 2019 countries pledged to many actions regarding detection. They point out that investments in early warning systems not only save lives but also significant assets. The Global Climate Action Summit 2019 committed to protect 1 billion more people from disasters through investing millions in early warning systems. In order to be effective and sustainable, warning systems must actively involve the communities at risk. With the recognition of benefits by local people, the impact of hazards can be significantly reduced if not avoided. One early warning system, Practical Action, has been working in DRR in Nepal since 2001, and their early warning system for the regular flooding of the Koshi River was built for long-term sustainability and community involvement. Can the technical aspects of reducing risks of disaster be effective without addressing inequality and inclusion? 

Along with the technical aspects of DRR and DRM like warning systems and management of land and environment, its level of inclusivity will no doubt have implications for the resilience of communities to natural hazards. Earthquakes, floods, forest fires, etc affect different people in unequal ways, particularly regarding their level of vulnerability. Vulnerability is complex; it is not just about poverty, but includes physical, social, economic, and environmental factors. Also, vulnerability is shaped by historical, political, and institutional processes. Persons with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to disasters and disability inclusion is key to inclusive DRR and humanitarian action. “Achieving disability-inclusive DRM can empower persons with disabilities to take their rightful place as agents of change, and as active contributors to the development and effective implementation of DRM policies, plans and standards.” Being disability-inclusive is necessary in DRR and DRM not only for the resilience of communities but also for society as a whole.  

How can technology bridge inequalities in education?

 In the development field, it is well known that education is fundamental for development and economic growth. Education for All is Goal 4 from the Sustainable Development Goals. The World Bank’s Education Strategy encompasses these three ideas: “Invest Early, Invest Smartly, and Invest in Education for All” (WB). Learning for all promotes equity and makes it explicitly known that acquiring knowledge and skills should be available to everyone. There are still several barriers and challenges to access remain for girls, children with disabilities, and linguistic minorities from achieving the same level of education as other parts of the population. Despite progress, the gender gap in education still exists: according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, 16 million girls will never step into a classroom (UNESCO). An estimated 62 million are not in school, and 100 million will drop out before completing primary school (USAID). UNESCO studies also indicated that 1-2% of persons with disabilities in the Global South receive an education (UNESCO).

It would be impossible to meet the goal of education and sustainable development without considering these inequality issues. Within the context of globalization, the information society and knowledge economies have come to fruition. Its critical to have education particularly to participate in the sectors of industry, science, global policy formation, and civic advocacy.  How can technology contribute to inclusive education? 

The digital divide can be defined as the increasing gap between underprivileged members of society who do not have access to the internet and those who do (Stanford). ICT refers to technologies that broaden access to information and communication technology. As such, ICT can play a significant role in inclusive education through available learning objects for persons with disabilities. Distributed learning, through being able to learn on your own and having resources that you can use by yourself, is one avenue for increasing access to education through the use of technology. G3ICT, a global organization that was spun off of GAID, is very active working all over the world to increase inclusivity. They produce model policy for countries, by creating templates for how to include persons with disabilities.  WCAG, the current version 2.0, produced a set of guidelines for how to use electronic resources and make them more accessible like screen readers. Technological innovations like ICT can and should be utilized to make a more inclusive education system, pushing us further towards SDG 4: Education for All.

https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/digital-divide/start.html

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-90-481-2652-1_6

https://en.unesco.org/themes/education-and-gender-equality

http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTEDUCATION/0,,contentMDK:22474207~menuPK:282402~pagePK:210058~piPK:210062~theSitePK:282386,00.html

City-Scale Resilience Plans: Implementation of WUF 9

The World Urban Forum, established in 2001, is a conference that covers a multitude of urban issues including rapid urbanization and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change, and policies. In 2018, the ninth session of the WUF took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and brought together stakeholders from all around the world to convene on the building, planning, and management of cities. WUF 9 was the first session to focus on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda; the NUA commitments included sustainable urban development for social inclusion and ending poverty  sustainable and inclusive urban prosperity and opportunities for all; and environmentally sustainable and resilient urban development. 

In April of this year, the UN-Habitat published a guide on addressing human settlements in National Adaptation plans, and was presented at the NAP Expo 2019. By including urban settlement issues into the NAPs, UN-Habitat believes it will help countries address urban areas specifically in the context of combating climate change. One specific SDG target that is relevant to this is SDG Target 1.5 that states: “by 2030 build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations, and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters.” As such a complex problem to tackle, making a city resilient to climate change calls for including pre-existing factors, like location, ecology, resources, political history, infrastructure, and culture. Along with all of that, it is so crucial to be inclusive of vulnerable groups in sustainable urban planning. 

With the rapid urbanization taking place all around the world, cities hold immense significance for building and bolstering urban resilience to climate change. Many cities around the world have taken steps to implement resilience plans. For example, Washington D.C. just released its first Resilient Strategy, in April of this year. The plan focuses on two areas, along the Anacostia River and Kenilworth Park. Both of these areas are more vulnerable and at-risk to climate effects, as they are low-lying and flood prone. This strategy also contains broader goals including closing the educational achievement gap, building more housing and more. The D.C. Resilience Plan is a city-scale attempt at pushing us closer to the NUA commitments and SDGs. We can look to cities as a hope for sustainable planning in the future. 

https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg1

Ninth Session of the World Urban Forum (WUF 9)

UN-Habitat Presents Guide on Addressing Human Settlements in NAPs

Technology, Accessibility, and Climate Resilience: Smart Cities

What does it mean for cities to develop in smart and inclusive ways? Many focus on technological innovation, as this is one of the most visible aspects of making a city “smart.” Technology enables day-to-day convenience for people’s lives and opportunities for environmental sustainability in ways that may have not been available before, like solar panels or other green technology. Smart cities are an overall net positive for society across the globe, but it does not come without challenges. Planning and design requires knowledge, money, and extensive research- both scientific and anthropologic. Not only can the building of infrastructure be expensive, but smart technology brings limitations in usefulness and cybersecurity and privacy problems. 

Along with this, the necessity of inclusiveness, particularly with accessibility, must be addressed for cities to be considered smart. Article 9 of the CRPD lays out the right to accessibility to the built environment and infrastructure of cities, including roads, bridges, transportation, indoor and outdoor facilities, and more. The Right to the City, under the HLPF, states that cities should be those places where people enjoy equal rights and opportunities and as well as “to promote the visibility of local and national actions and struggles for the Right to the City at international forums, as well as to advocate for changes in political agendas at the international level and to monitor the implementation of existing commitments” (Human Rights, NUA and SDGs). Technology in smart cities should be used to increase inclusivity, not exacerbate unequal access. This is already being done through applications on our phones, like mapping applications that assist people in navigation to and inside of buildings. 

In the context of climate change and impending natural disasters, inclusive technological innovation must be used for resilience of smart cities. With the potential in cities for climate chaos, ways to facilitate equal participation and management of risks and disaster reduction are crucial and must include all people. Even cities with strong environmental performance share the benefits of smart innovation and burdens like air pollution and heat are shared unequally (WEF). As the size of cities continue to grow exponentially, this inequality will continue to grow as well, unless explicitly addressed through inclusive and smart ways. SDG 11 is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. 

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/12/how-global-cities-are-failing-to-be-inclusive/