A sustainable world is more than the environment we live in and the planet we need to protect. It is also about the people—all of us—who live in this world and need to survive and thrive. All of us coexist on the planet and have to deal with challenges together. If nothing else, the pandemic has been a great equaliser and has hopefully made all of us think about sustaining ourselves. Our evolution is to find newer ways to solve problems around us as responsible custodians of the planet for future generations. This is where innovation plays a huge role. Solving new problems with old ways is a futile effort. All of us play a crucial role in innovation, and the quest for finding solutions to problems that affect all of us helps develop a prosperous world.
We see problems and challenges that have worsened with time, such as pollution of resources, or have never existed before, such as cyber-bullying. All new tools make our lives easier, but they also open up avenues to create new social problems. New diseases, loss of personal privacy, depletion of natural resources, misinformation and lack of authoritative sources, illiteracy, global income disparity, etc are some of the growing challenges affecting our lives and have the potential to derail them.
Thankfully, we are also living in interesting times where newer technologies are shaping our present and future. These also offer opportunities for innovation and solving the challenges for today and tomorrow.
5G wireless technology is already here. A 20 Gigs/sec 5G speed offers near real-time interaction with almost no lag. Heavy machinery can be operated remotely, traffic patterns and data can be analysed in real-time, surgeries can now be performed remotely, ultra-safe autonomous vehicles can be developed with instantaneous reaction times, or people can be in video conferences as holograms.
Nanotechnology allows the development of bots that are smaller than viruses and can cure diseases. At 50 nM wide, some nanobots can perform functions in human bodies for diagnosis and drug delivery that is today inconceivable.
3D printing has gone beyond a novel concept to mainstream uses. Additive manufacturing today spans a whole spectrum from custom machine parts to pharmaceuticals and even bioprinting. The idea of printing skin grafts is not too far!
In medicine, concepts like brain-computer interfaces, which used to be science fiction, are already here with neuroprosthetics such as cochlear and retinal implants. We can easily imagine patients managing and controlling their health through concepts like ‘digital tattoos’ and a gene map in a health card. With advances in molecular technologies for gene editing and better mapping of the human genome, I see a future where diagnosis and treatment are more genetic makeup driven, making it reliable, targeted and predictive. Monogenic diseases will likely have a cure in gene-based techniques. Immunotherapy for cancer cure will likely contribute to precision treatment, along with a possible cancer vaccine. Lastly, as I mentioned about “the power of convergence”, I strongly believe the next generation of medical innovations will be at the intersection of biology, data science and engineering.
Surgeons at Robert-Debre Hospital in Paris use a robotic surgical system; the next generation of medical innovations will be at the intersection of biology, data science and engineering Image: Thomas Samson / AFP
The last century was about machines performing repetitive tasks and automating manual processes. Now artificial intelligence (AI) allows machines to also think and decide like humans. AI machines don’t have to be taught to perform a task; they are instead trained to learn to perform a task. Imagine everyday decisions that require human capacity and experience to determine the best options will soon be replaced by intelligence that learns from our history and provides the best recommendations.
We all heard of autonomous vehicles. Now we can conceive autonomous bots and UAVs that can readily be deployed for search and rescue or perform surgeries. With the advent of the Internet of Things, we can foresee an interconnected world that constantly communicates with each other—not just talking to each other but using ultra-fast networks to make split-second intelligent decisions.
In other words, not only are these technologies powerful by themselves, but increasingly they are coming together to develop solutions we couldn’t think of just a generation back. As Peter Diamandis calls ‘The Power of Convergence’. Think about a future where there are AI-processing chips, nanomaterial medical devices, etc. The optimism is that all of these technologies when used the right way, free us from the mundane and focus on solving hard problems.
Design thinking is a perfect complement to innovation by taking an idea to its natural culmination of something tangible—a solution. The traditional idea of linear problem solving is increasingly giving way to an alternative approach of design thinking that is more focussed on the impact on the end-users, instead of narrowing choices, exploring new choices first. Instead of solving every problem by breaking it down and analysing it, we can try to put combinations together, as Tim Brown calls ‘From consumption to participatory’ systems where the producer-consumer relationship changes from a one-way transaction to collaborative development solutions that benefit both sides. The design has, down the years, for some reason has started to focus on small things with bevelled edges, cool interfaces, and Bluetooth connections. That’s all great, but it needs to expand to solve some of the biggest problems we see today, such as climate change, pollution, privacy, pandemics, and so on.
In my opinion, the future of innovation is not a vague idea, but instead is a consequence of collective empathy for each other’s concerns and the will to solve them. Tools, technologies, and techniques are only as good as the intention to solve the problem. Innovation has to become a citizen movement and should be part of early education and school curriculums. K-12 education should explicitly teach ideation and problem solving to current or imagined problems. Failure should be an acceptable consequence of innovation and should be expected as part of the learning process.
Teenagers, unencumbered by the so-called practical constraints of the world, can develop solutions that expensive research organisations might not be able to. To cultivate and encourage innovation in youth, additional support and investment is needed in grants, recognition, and resources such as laboratories.
Innovation is not an option for us anymore. It is certainly not limited to professional adults in industry and academia. The challenges of tomorrow need all of us. Including innovation as part of early education and empathy to understand the challenges we all face together are the first steps. ● The writer is a 15-year-old aspiring scientist and an innovator