What would we like the world to look like in 2030?
The Social Good Summit in New York City, a meeting-of-the-minds of world leaders, acclaimed activists and celebrities posed this question at the annual meeting this week. Answers ranged from a $10 million education X-Prize announced Monday for software to teach kids reading and arithmetic around the world on tablets to solutions for the world's 50 million refugees.
The gathering, which featured speakers from Melinda Gates to Mohammad Yunus to Alicia Keys to Graça Machel (Nelson Mandela's widow), is fronted by development heavies like the UN Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with media company Mashable.
If that sounds like a strange combo, that's kind of the idea. The summit seeks to bring together big thinkers and big ideas from a slew of sectors to solve big world problems.
Nicholas Kristof has called it "a grassroots version of the United Nations Assembly."
These big themes emerged from re-imagining the next 15 years in changing the world.
Technology is not the problem, it's the solution
"When you look at tech, you can't help but be optimistic," Michael Dell said in conversation with Fast Company editor Robert Safian. "Tech is accelerating at a rate to address (world challenges) faster than we realize."
Dell noted that customers are using technology in clever ways that most people have never imagined. Cheap solar panels are bringing electricity to remote places of the world — like Tanzanian villages — where getting on the grid previously seemed impossible. An inventive clean-burning cookstove, which saves lives in developing countries by curtailing smoke inhalation from cooking, also has a port for charging cellphones and electronics.
This allows people in developing countries who are using cellphones the way others use computers: to get information, run a business or get access to credit online.
"It's almost become a cliché today that people are connected on their cellphones," said Melinda Gates in another tech-optimistic address. "You bump into people when you walk outside in New York because they're texting on their cellphones. The same thing happens in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Dhaka, Bangladesh."
Next year, 95 percent of the global population will have access to cellphone reception and three billion people will have Internet access, she said.
Dell has even bigger plans for technology and the future.
"We are still in the early ages of impact on energy, the environment, all of the big, unsolved mysteries of science," said Dell. He noted that these are all "computational problems" that processing and other improvements in tech will help tackle, and will come at a lower cost.
"We will knock off these problems at a faster rate," said Dell. "It's enormously exciting."
It's finally time for women and girls
What do Melinda Gates, Emma Watson and Machel have in common? They all called for improved women's rights this week. Issues for women and girls around the world are a hot topic — from stopping child-forced marriages to equal rights.
"I think this conversation brings to the center the understanding of the value of our girls," said Machel, who is minister of education and culture in Mozambique and an activist against child-forced marriage. "A girl has the same value as a boy. And this means a huge change in the way families and communities look at girls.”
About 15 million girls under age 18 are forced into marriage every year, largely in Africa and South Asia. Forced marriage can stunt women's lives and the lives of their families. They rarely complete their education, and in many of the same places that forced marriage is common, more than 75 percent of people live on less than $2 a day, according to ICRW reports.
Even as cellphone technology is catching on in the developing world, there's a gender gap as women still have far less access to cell technology than men, according to United Nations Foundation CEO Kathy Calvin, who said that changing that is critical to women's empowerment and employment.
Tracking where and how women are being served is also important, said Machel, who would like to use technology and data to "map" the pockets where women are still being subjected to forced marriage, female genital mutilation, or don't have access to maternity care: "For those people, life hasn't changed at all," she said.
Head of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka called for an increased involvement of men and boys in the struggle to achieve gender equality.
She announced the 'HeForShe' campaign in March, which aims to enlist one billion boys and men around the world to become advocates for women's rights, and called on the world's fathers, sons, husbands and brothers to stand up and support equality for women in their lives. Watson of Harry Potter fame spoke passionately about the HeforShe campaign at the UN this week.
"How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feels welcome to participate in the conversation?” Watson said. “Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation.”
The hashtag #HeforShe has since been trending on Twitter and social media this week.
HeforShe is described as a "solidary movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity," on issues like representation and leadership.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union estimates that 22 percent of parliamentarians are women. There are also still 100 countries with laws that prevent meaningful involvement of women in the economy, Mlambo Ngcuka said. Even developed countries, like the United States where less than 20 percent of Congress is female, lag sadly in this regard.
The U.S. ranks No. 69 among countries with the highest percentage of women in government. Countries that have a higher percentage of women include Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uganda.
"Gender discrimination is the most tolerated violation of rights on earth today," said Mlambo Ngcuka. "We cannot have an open-ended struggle as far as women are concerned. There has to be an expiration date."
Youth will lead sustainability
Bill McKibben, environmentalist, founder of 350.org and the man behind the massive People's Climate March held Sunday where 400,000 people turned out in New York City, said that he's not optimistic about government leaders making change in the environment.
"These guys (national government leaders) have had 25 years to respond and they've essentially not responded," said McKibben, who sat on a panel with executive director of Greenpeace moderated by Mashable climate reporter Andrew Freeman, Monday. "The thought that they're going to start doing so now in some significant way seems fairly slim to me."
Climate change and extreme weather were addressed as a "moral obligation" Monday. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges to ending poverty — exposing millions to hunger, disease and disaster. Although poor countries have played little role in creating the climate crisis, they are hit hardest by it. From Hurricane Sandy to the Sahel drought, the poor are hit hardest and have the least resources to recover.
There will be "pious rhetoric around climate change with very little action," but it doesn't deter the movement, says McKibben. Especially because so much of the power behind 350.org and Sunday's climate march comes from young people. High school and college students poured out for the event, even busing in from other cities like Boston.
The last few days has brought "great news" because of the sheer numbers that turned out, said McKibben. Also, the Rockefeller family — the original oil magnates in the U.S. — pledged Monday to divest from fossil fuels.
Richard Stengel, the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs (the third-ranking position in the Department of State), also hoped to mobilize youth to prepare for the future. At the summit Monday, the former editor of Time magazine said that even media only has a certain amount of power and urged youth to get involved in the public space.
"Instead of being an activist outside the system, go into government. Run for office, work for city council," Stengel urged. "Now is the time to be involved, get involved in activist organizations ... double down."
He urged young people to use social media to create change.
"You're on social media all the time, it's not just clicking that you 'Like' something, it's also registering when you don't like something or contradicting something," he said. "Contest the space."