Gene screening to skills shaping: 5 big ideas for a better world

Food, healthcare and education need to be completely rethought if they are to meet the challenges of a human population racing to 9.7 billion people by 2050. But how? Here are big five ideas that emerged from the recent Ecosperity conference in Singapore.

How the sick are cared for, how we learn, and how and what people eat needs to change fundamentally if we are to create a clean, healthy, and happy future for people and the planet—business as usual is not an option.

This was the main message to emerge from this year’s Ecosperity conference, which focused on the social side of sustainability, and how to turn ideas into action.

What needs to change the most is how we produce and distribute food. The director of the World Bank’s food and agriculture practice, Dr Juergen Voegele, suggested that the global food system is 30 years behind education and healthcare in becoming a sustainable system. Half of the world’s population is malnourished, and yet one third of the food we produce is wasted before it reaches the meal table. With a system like this, how will we feed a population projected to hit 9.8 billion by 2050?

Healthcare is in need of major surgery too. There are 400 million people without access to health services and 100 million people drop below the poverty line each year in developing countries because of the high cost of healthcare. By 2030, another 200 million people in Asia will be elderly, placing a strain on resources, infrastructure, and families. Global healthcare spend is set to rocket from US$8 trillion in 2013 to US$20 trillion by 2040. How can we move to a healthcare system that prevents illnesses rather than treats the sick?

Education is also ripe for disruption. Today’s 20-year olds have a 50 per cent chance of living until they are 100. How will they acquire the skills they need to keep working for 60-70 years—and do jobs that will soon be replaced by technology, or haven’t been invented yet?

The more we have diversity among us, the more capacity we have to look at problems from a different angle – the more incentive we have to inspire each other – the more creative and innovative we are.

Forest Whitaker, artist, UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation

Big challenges call for big solutions. Here are five big ideas to emerge from Ecosperity this year.

1. What are your genes telling you?

If you knew the sorts of diseases you were most vulnerable to, you could change how you live to avoid them. Genetic testing could not only change how people are diagnosed, treated and medicated, but could prevent us from needing to see the doctor at all. It can be done in a matter of hours for as little as US$200.

“Genetics are not your destiny,” said Danny Yeung, chief executive of personalised healthcare firm Prenetics. “Cases of diabetes and other diseases can be prevented with changes to diet and lifestyle. We need to work on what gets people to make those changes.”

2. Skills shaping

Almost half (46 per cent) of companies in Asia say that it’s difficult to fill job vacancies, and only 40 per cent of employees believe that new starters have the right skills to do their job. How can the gulf between education and work be bridged? Employers need to become “curators of knowledge” by training their staff not only for skills they will need now, but honing their skills for jobs that are being reshaped by technology, said Ilya Bonic, president of talent business for health, wealth and careers firm Mercer.

After all, half of everything a student learns during a four-year technical degree will be outdated by the time they graduate. Educators and employers will need to instil what Professor Subra Suresh, president of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, called a passion for learning, so that an appetite for education continues beyond the classroom. “The cure for boredom is curiosity and curiosity itself needs no cure,” he said.

Schools have been designed for the educated. But we need to find jobs for illiterate people too—no one should be left behind.

Lee Sooinn, co-founder and CEO, Enuma

3. Poverty as opportunity

The poorest parts of society are often ignored, and yet they hold rich opportunities for creating a more equal world, for businesses as well as society. “Schools have been designed for the educated. But we need to find jobs for illiterate people too—no one should be left behind,” said Lee Sooinn, co-founder of learning tech firm Enuma. Technology can help, as e-learning, apps and remote learning put education within reach of the poor.

It can also help bridge the health gap for lower income groups, as remote patient monitoring, lean surgery interventions, micro-insurance and medicine vending machine level out the cost of staying healthy. In India, Narayana provides healthcare at a quarter of the cost of hospitals with an ‘assembly line’ approach to surgical operations and bulk buying supplies. Indeed, healthcare innovations like this could provide businesses in Asia with US$670 billion of opportunities by 2030.

4. Looking for icebergstogether

If problems such as a global hunger crisis are to be avoided, then they need to be tackled in the context of other challenges such as water and climate change—otherwise solutions won’t work. For instance, Dr Voegele pointed out, with the 65 million tonnes of soy that was imported by China from Brazil recently to feed livestock, came the need for 65 million cubic metres of water and millions of hectares of land to grow it.

Olav Kjørven, Chief Strategy Officer for non-profit EAT Foundation, said that to approach problems in isolation is like handing out Valium on the Titanic. “You’ll be soothed, but the ship is still going down,” he said. “We need purpose-driven collaboration where we work together across disciplines and different business sectors. If we do that, we might avoid that iceberg.” For example, to keep people healthy in the future will mean engaging with a variety of stakeholders including gyms, bike sharing firms, food companies and tech developers that can detect early signs of illness.

5. The importance of being different

People with contrasting backgrounds and perspectives are critical to tackling big, complex problems, said Oscar-winning actor and UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation Forest Whitaker. “The more we have diversity among us, the more capacity we have to look at problems from a different angle – the more incentive we have to inspire each other – the more creative and innovative we are.”

The star of The Last King of Scotland knows this from experience. “As an actor, I was forced to find empathy. It’s so important to be able to walk in other people’s shoes, to find solutions together.”

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