The Last Word

By Dr. Tiffany Vora | Vice Chair of Digital Biology and Medicine, Singularity University

As a molecular biologist, experimentation is in my DNA. In mid-March, I became involved in a remarkable experiment. Could Singularity University rapidly assemble a half-day digital, global event to infuse truth, responsible caution, and optimism into the current coronavirus zeitgeist—and inspire tangible action? Particularly under conditions of a constantly shifting landscape, rapid turnaround, and an unfamiliar digital platform for contributing experts?

To my delight, the answer was a resounding “yes.” We unearthed a trove of insights along the way—not only about harnessing current trends to positively influence the conversation around COVID-19, but about how this crisis can serve as a catalyst for building the best possible future(s).

The team at Singularity University rapidly assembled a three-day program packed with crowdsourced contributions from 32 astonishingly generous Singularity University faculty, experts, and guests about this crisis’s effect on the future of, well, everything. An hour after registration opened, 2,000 participants had signed up; that number reached a mind-blowing 24,000 registrations by the end of the virtual summit.

My most important insight from this experiment is that times of crisis catalyze trends that are already happening. Here, Singularity University assembled a digitized, democratized, and demonetized (free!) experience with pivotal contributions from partners both inside and outside the company and around the world. Through Singularity University’s curated global community of experts and partners who serve as trusted guides and translators across technologies and problem spaces, we rose to meet the urgent need for trust in a world flush with information (both reliable and bogus). And even during its exponential growth, this Virtual Summit stayed true to our guiding virtues of prioritizing facts over speculation, inspiring optimism, and nurturing agency in individuals, organizations, and societies.

What were my key takeaways from the Virtual Summit itself?

First, COVID-19 is accelerating trends that are already happening but can be easy to dismiss. Whether we’re focusing on the rise of virtual work and interactions, the fragility and importance of connections (infrastructure, societies, human health), the increasing dominance of data and AI, or the urgency of marrying complexity and resilience, COVID-19 is forcing us to “build windmills and harness the winds of change,” as futurist Anne Lise Kjaer puts it. Several speakers at the virtual summit highlighted the galvanization of innovation and collaboration as a COVID-19 outcome that will positively impact the world.

Second, COVID-19 is demonstrating that trust and empathy are necessary for transforming ideas (particularly tech-fueled ones) into impactful solutions. No trust, no transformation. Witness Singapore’s success at converting strong trust in government into a positive social response to COVID-19. I’ve become increasingly convinced that trust will soon become the single most valuable commodity that can be earned by a person, a government, or a company. As Dr. David Bray noted during the summit, “We will get through this only because we work together as a planet.”

Most importantly, I have realized that this terrible crisis is a dress rehearsal for future catastrophes, including those caused by climate change. COVID-19 reminds us that while effects on individuals may be tragic, it is the severe shocks to systems that will generate second- and third-order effects, which Jamie Metzl pointed out may be particularly destructive to fragile societies (natural ecosystems, too). What will happen when a major metropolis burns or floods? When the global food supply is disrupted? Will we have been guided by science and facts to be vigilant, to respond swiftly and appropriately, and to embrace a new, positive, inclusive normal? And how do we get from here to there? The virtual summit has left me with these important questions—and others—about what is next for me, my businesses, my network, my country, and humans as a species.

Every day, I draw inspiration from Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Climate Change. She recently wrote, “If you do not control the complex landscape of a challenge (and you rarely do), the most powerful thing you can do is to change how you behave in that landscape, using yourself as a catalyst for change.” I cannot single-handedly stop the spread of COVID-19. But I can commit to being an agent of positive change, and I can support others in honoring their values in times of unparalleled change. The word “catalyst” brings me back to my science roots: a catalyst is something that accelerates a chemical change—without itself being consumed.

I refuse to be consumed by this crisis. COVID-19 may be straining our grasp on today, but we must never stop reaching for the best possible tomorrow. Will you join me?

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