Feb 142010
Earth as seen from Space
Image by gautamnguitar via Flickr

Running on just sugar and caffeine, 32 teams of students worked non-stop for 18 hours to develop applications that they hoped would blow the judges’ socks off. This was at the UC-Berkeley Hackathon, last weekend. Indeed, many teams succeeded in their mission. They built some amazing software: to provide server-side rendering of games, convert website mockups to HTML/CSS, create sophisticated playlists for Youtube videos, and to analyze Twitter streams. One team even built a gaming interface for a neural headset.

There were so many cool tools that the seven judges, who included representatives from Zynga, Facebook, Y-Combinator (and me), had a hard time picking a winner in each category. The exception was the “social good” category. There was only one team worthy of receiving this prize. The team built a system to enable villagers in developing countries to send SMSs to volunteers across the globe who provide emergency medical advice. But the Silicon Valley judges couldn’t see the value of this technology. One commented, “If the villager has a cell-phone, why doesn’t he just call 911? This is really dumb”. (Most of the judges didn’t understand that 911 services don’t exist in most places in the world, and that SMSs have become the internet of the developing world). Instead, the panel awarded the prize to a team that developed a polling technology for university classrooms and for conferences. The rationale for this decision? “Helping universities is a social good.”

This brings me to the point of this post. What if we challenged these students and Silicon Valley to build businesses that do good for the planet and make a healthy profit doing so? Today, the world faces more problems than perhaps at any point in recent history. The economy is on the brink. Greenhouse gases threaten to turn Earth into a giant steam room. Scarce resources such as food, water, and oil have already become international flashpoints as the developing and developed worlds jockey for position to sustain or improve their standards of living. Drug-resistant bacteria threaten us with doomsday plagues. Yet we have the greatest minds and the deepest pool of investment capital in the world focused on building Facebook and Twitter apps.

Yes, I know that some in Silicon Valley are solving important problems. But these are the tiny minority.  Out of 32 teams at UC-Berkeley, only one was focused on a social cause. That’s probably the same proportion of do-gooders as in the Valley. I’ll bet that most Berkeley students would do anything to better the world if they knew how.  But like the Hackathon judges, they don’t know what problems need to be solved and what they can do to solve them.

There is a way. In 2008, Charles Vest, the president of the National Academy of Engineering brought together a group of prominent deans of engineering schools from around the country to create a list of Grand Challenges that can be solved by engineers, in our lifetime. These were in several broad realms of human concern — sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living. Dr. Vest believed that “the world’s cadre of engineers will seek ways to put knowledge into practice to meet these grand challenges. Applying the rules of reason, the findings of science, the aesthetics of art, and the spark of creative imagination, engineers will continue the tradition of forging a better future”.

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