After attending the first AVPN (Asian Venture Philanthropy Network) conference to be held in Hong Kong, the session that stood out for me was ‘Digital Transformation: The Future of Venture Philanthropy and Social Investment’ hosted by the highly engaging Tris Lumley of New Philanthropy Capital.
Naveen Menon of AT Kearney introduced us to the scale of the internet economy, an impressive $5.6 trillion, despite 57 per cent of the world (4.3 billion people) not yet being connected to the internet; in fact 22 per cent of the world doesn’t even know it exists. And when Naveen explained the exponential (multiplier) nature of the internet comparing 30 linear steps of 1 meter getting you 30 meters in total vs. 30 exponential steps (1m then 2m then 4m then 8m etc) getting you over 1 billion meters in 30 steps it makes you stop and think about the multiplier opportunities of the web. What did he mean by exponential activity? The example shared was if you combined developments such as nano technology and 3D printing then the impact on surgery would be a multiple of these two technologies combined.
Jake Layes of Autodesk stunned the audience when he explained how when a machine learning program was challenged to create a new rear fork for a motorbike, (which holds the wheel and chain in place), it responded with an evolutionary design! What the machine did (empowered by the ability to manufacture through 3D printing) was to create a design that looks like a cat’s hip joint. The point of this being that computers sometimes have better ideas than humans, an emerging concept known as generative design.
Both of these examples may seem out of touch with the tough realities of addressing health, education and poverty but what they show is the ambition and breadth of thinking that is going on in the commercial sector and the way that digital can bring a totally new approach to existing challenges. How can such thinking transform our approaches to the grittier issues in the world today?
Sylvia Cadena of APNIC brought us back to earth by reminding us that the internet does not always need to connect communities to the world but just to themselves, whether that be emergency alarms for the elderly or market pricing updates.
John Hecklinger of GlobalGiving was the voice of experience on how the internet can resolve asymmetrical situations for the good of the developing world. Just like how the web empowered the everyday car buyer to be able to distinguish between a good and bad car thanks to comparison websites so too can it empower philanthropists and social organizations to better connect and be understood, unlocking greater and smarter human and financial capital.
In the Q&A after the main panel, there was a general agreement that the development sector needs to be braver and more dedicated responding to new technology and the opportunities it presents. The question therefore is, with incredible technological advances going on, with machine solutions and exponential change possible, how do we move forward?
And this is where we come back to Tris and NPC. They want to see pooled funds, pooled market experience, and a brokering of expertise such that we focus on the user and develop a networked solution. There are exciting possibilities out there.
John Paul Hamilton is associate director – funding & collaboration at Dasra