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Dare to Dream Big

September 6, 2011

by Sofya Yampolsky

You can change the world.  If you’re a designer, you probably already do this in innumerable ways.  For those not already converted, just a few examples illustrate the breadth of our discipline: from changing the way people interact with their environment,

"Making housing truly accessible for disabled U.S. military veterans and their families" —IDEO
“Making housing truly accessible for disabled U.S. military veterans and their families” —IDEO

to creating new products that make life easier for the developed world and for the developing world,

Born out of a strong desire to help his fellow Kenyans, Evans, just 19-years-old, came up with the idea of replacing kerosene lamps with solar-powered LED lanterns.

to novel ways of expressing the human condition—your marks on the world will be followed by young designers and absorbed into the daily patterns of people in a way you might not anticipate.  You already have an impact.

There is no reason you cannot change the world, sometimes it just takes a shift in perspective. This September marks my third time returning from a summer at Singularity University, a new university located at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, dedicated to bringing together ambitious young leaders with the goal of positively impacting one billion people in 10 years.  It is a place to broaden your vision of what is possible (anything) and your role in it (huge).

Two Singularity University Graduate Studies Program 2011 students on a site tour to the Lawerence Livermore Labs’ National Ignition Facility. The NIF hold the world’s largest and most energetic laser, which has the goal of achieving nuclear fusion and energy gain in the laboratory for the first time—in essence, creating a miniature star on Earth.

The University’s 10-week graduate summer program brings together a group of 80 students from a wide array of backgrounds, and educates them in emerging technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, space, nanotechnology and bioinformatics among others. Then it introduces the group to problem spaces (the “Grand Challenges” of humanity) where these technologies might be applied. This year’s “Grand Challenges” were global health, poverty, energy, security, education, and space. Lastly, the students coalesce in small self-selected groups that do the hard work of asking “How do we take this technology or this trend and use it in a novel way with the maximum, scalable impact on the world?” More often than not, they come up with an astounding solution, and the foundation for a business.

Here are a handful of projects that have come out of Singularity University from the past 3 years:

ACASA: (that was my team project in 2009, when I was a student) proposes using 3D printing of housing to alleviate the need for safe and affordable housing in the developing world. Watch our video here.

CiviGuard: CiviGuard was built to guide and serve millions of civilians during times of crisis using mobile technologies. They recently created a live platform that would let you know if you were located in an evacuation zone during Hurricane Irene.

Getaround: leverages the trend towards a smart transportation grid through the creation of a peer-to-peer car-sharing network

BioMine: BioMine uses existing scaled-up mining industry technologies to capture value from the 40 million tons of “e-waste” that is landfilled or incinerated annually around the world.

H2020: H2020’s Water Poverty Initiative uses mobile devices to collect data on water quantity, quality, access and price in communities.  They combine this “crowdsourced” information with data from other sources (like water poverty reports and satellite images) and publish it using a map-based format

IgniSolar: IgniSolar produces low-cost concentrated solar photovoltaic panels (they even made a prototype in 2 weeks, using a 3D printer to print the joints!)

Matternet: is focused on autonomous drug delivery systems for the developing world. The Economist covered this and other projects here.

In essence, if the goal of design is to solve problems, Singularity University might be  considered a design school, where the outcome is a collection of startups focused on solving some of the world’s biggest challenges. You might think you don’t qualify to start a world-changing business because you’re not already an entrepreneur, or because you don’t have a background in engineering or computer science, but in fact your design background is what enables you to see patterns and opportunities that others might miss.  In 1996, Steve Jobs told Wired Magazine “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

This quote inspires me more than any other to value what makes me a designer in the first place, and compels me to apply my insights to large problems.  Singularity University is what keeps my dreams big, but you don’t have to go there (though, you should!) The message is pretty simple: get together the smartest people you know, start with a problem, and keep on trying and keep on trying until you change the world.

Sofya Yampolsky runs The New Futurists, a design studio for innovators in science and technology.  She is also the Media Producer for Singularity University at NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View, California. Sofya holds a Master’s in Media Studies from The New School in New York, and a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Museum Education from the Massachusetts College of Art.

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