By Dr. David Bray
Back in 1993, I had the opportunity to travel to the International Science and Engineering Fair. At the time I felt like my project involving a computer model of ozone depletion and the projected rise in greenhouse gases was basic when compared to the hundreds of awe-inspiring projects I saw at ISEF. Later I would attend the ones in 1994 and 1995 and be sent to the South American equivalent of the ISEF in Mendoza, Argentina. That same year when I had an opportunity to work with Dr. Robert Ballard — the famous oceanographer who found the Titanic — and the U.S. Navy on an effort to map the hydrothermal vents under the Sea of Cortez as part of an initiative known as the “Jason Project”.
All these experiences arose because I went to a public-school system (in this case Newport News Public Schools) that actively encourage students to participate in science fairs. The doors that the International Science and Engineering Fair opened were truly amazing, from a technical-level and because they allowed me to see how science connected with the worlds of international relations. Most importantly, I remember experiencing a sense of awe as we looked to the future (back in the mid-1990s) with hope.
Little did we know all that the next few decades had in store. Some of the experiences I was involved with, including the CDC’s Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program and later time in Afghanistan to help “think differently” back in 2009 (with the note we’re still there ten years later) and then with a National Commission reviewing the research and development efforts of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Recently my work with the People-Centered Internet coalition has focused on different projects empowering Native American communities to decide for themselves how they want to connect to the Internet and employ it for education and entrepreneurship. With Vint Cerf as our Chair, the PCI community also works with different groups tackling the challenges of ‘social wedges’ involving misinformation that seek to divide communities.
One common theme I’ve noticed — in both North America and Europe we’ve lost the “hope for the future” that we used to have. Most folks aren’t looking towards the future with optimism, which is troubling since the best way to help influence the future is to create it, and that act of creation begins with either an optimistic or pessimistic mindset.
Which is why I’m glad to see the documentary “Inventing Tomorrow” air on 29 July. “Inventing Tomorrow” follows innovative teens from Mexico, India, Indonesia, and Hawaii as they combat environmental threats in their communities and prepare for the International Science and Engineering Fair.
In recognizing this documentary focused on the role of ISEF in inspiring hope, I’d also like to give a shout-out to the tens of thousands of alumni around the world who have participated in the International Science and Engineer Fairs throughout the year. The Society for Science has launched an ambitious effort to re-connect alumni from different years. Alumni can sign up here.
Lastly, along the same lines of focusing on the future and investing in tomorrow, in late June of this year I was invited to give a distinguished keynote at the United Nations for UN Charter Day. The title of my keynote was “Where Will We Be in 2045? Leading in Turbulence to Include Artificial Intelligence, the Internet and the Future of Data”.
The keynote I gave on UN Charter Day focused on the people-centered opportunities and challenges occurring around the world. This included highlighting that the further our world gets from remembering what happened in World War II — the more we become divided because we have forgotten just how bad things can be. Even with all the advances in technologies and social progress, we humans are returning to thinking the world is “zero sum”.
In my professional opinion, countries around the world are missing that peace requires something beyond self-interest. If we’re not careful, we’re on the same ramp-up that was either the build-up to 1914 or 1939, though such conflicts will not be tanks, but other forms of harm and “loss”.
In my talk to the United Nations, I emphasized how technology changes impact human societies — and how positive “change agents” can make a meaningful difference for the future ahead. As positive change agents, we can recognize the flaws of existing nation-states and international governance, and critique that they haven’t delivered — and at the same time be concerned that nature abhors a vacuum. Communities around the world need to develop hopeful, non-zero-sum narratives of what 2025, 2030, and beyond will be — and work to ensure social inclusion in delivering those visions.