Twenty years ago this June, the United Nations convened a conference in Rio de Janeiro that came to be seen as a watershed moment in what is widely called "sustainable development." Representatives of 172 governments and more than 2,000 non-governmental organizations opened the world's eyes to issues such as the scarcity of clean water, developed nations' patterns of production that were polluting the environment globally and exacerbating climate change, and discussion of the importance of biodiversity and calls to halt the destruction of rain forests and other ecosystems.
Many of these issues will be revisited in June, again in Rio, when the United Nations convenes the Rio+20 meeting. In preparation, Stanford GSB's Center for Social Innovation and the U.S. Department of State hosted a novel event in early February called USRio+2.0, "Bridging Connection Technologies and Sustainable Development." As opening speaker Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, put it: It was designed to explore "tools at our disposal we could not even imagine 20 years ago."
It's startling that in many developing nations, millions of people now have access to mobile phones but not fresh water, sufficient food, or even minimal levels of health care. Leveraging the GSB's proximity to Silicon Valley and its growing reputation for collaborative, interdisciplinary problem solving, several hundred government officials, business leaders, academics, and non-government organization staffers from 35 different countries crowded into the GSB's Oberndorf Event Center on Feb. 2 for the conference kickoff, an experience dubbed "Speed Geeking."
In 10-minute presentations, an array of social entrepreneurs demonstrated potentially game-changing ideas based on connection technologies, ranging from using text messaging alerts to help rural village people find and access clean water supplies to a fascinating high-tech hazelnut farming operation, called Mountain Hazelnut, in the deforested mountains of Bhutan.
The remarkable leverage of relatively simple technology was apparent at nearly every station. As long as he could remember, for example, Josh Nesbit, a 2009 Stanford human biology graduate, wanted to be a doctor, and after graduation he signed on for an HIV research project in the African nation of Malawi. But Nesbit immediately found staggering obstacles. Some patients would travel 100 miles to find the closest medical care. Basic documents essential to tracking the health status of a given village, or supporting a research protocol, would have to be hand carried 50 miles. At his "geek" station at the GSB "USRio+2.0" event, Nesbit held up a tiny SIM card about the size of a cornflake. "This bad boy right here could be the answer to a lot of our prayers."
Nesbit's nonprofit company, Medic Mobile, is creating community health applications that run on mobile phones as inexpensive as $10 or $15. The tiny sliver of technology is literally jammed in next to the existing SIM card in these phones, and it enables the phone to run programs that allow community health volunteers to perform myriad tasks, including diagnosing symptoms remotely, tracking the spread of infectious disease, monitoring maternal health, and simply reporting research data. At just one Malawi hospital, a 2008 pilot project showed the technology saved hospital staff 1,200 hours of follow-up time and over $3,000 in motorbike fuel. And more than100 patients started tuberculosis treatment after community health workers noticed their symptoms, reported by text message.
Samasource, where Claire Hunsaker, MBA '09, is director of sales and marketing, uses another connection technology that supports sustainable development. The nonprofit distributes small technology "microwork," discrete, short-duration specific tasks such as finding a phone number on a cluttered web page or finding workers sitting at computers at 1 of 16 centers located in Kenya, Haiti, India, Pakistan, and Uganda. Clients requesting work include LinkedIn, Intuit, and the U.S. State Department. Microwork tends to be simple and straightforward and can be divided into small bits but requires human judgment that computers can't typically perform automatically. The workers amass task credits that add up and translate to payment, raising their standard of living.
Subsequent conference sessions addressed other topics from promoting literacy in the developing world through eReaders to corralling so-called "Big Data" to help identify and track myriad environmental and public health issues. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the conference Friday that "for the first time in human history we have in our sights the possibility of fostering a truly global middle class, with billions of people enjoying a quality of life and opportunity their parents and grandparents never knew." Jackson sketched the challenges and opportunities that this partly technology-enabled surge represents — coming up with good disposal options for e-waste, for example, and also the opportunity to use internet platforms to more efficiently report and expose polluters and corruption. Other participants did not shy away from pushing the discussion to whether technologies could help reform the most fundamental structures of developing nations. Said a delegate from Madagascar at an open session: "Sustainable development requires stable government, and stable government requires free and fair elections. We need to mobilize citizen engagement."
Stanford GSB was a fitting host for these conversations, Garth Saloner, the Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told the attendees on Friday. "We strive to change the world for the better — one idea and one leader at a time … Our curriculum and development programs are designed to drive innovation, generate ideas, and transform people who can make the world a better place. I know these are lofty goals, but that is what we must do."