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Miami's Continuity Forum, Ashoka highlight ideas that can change the world

By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

Peter Diamandis believes we are heading toward the most extraordinary time in human history.

Peter_Diamandis“That’s the world we live in today, a guy or gal in a garage can really start a company that can touch the lives of a billion people,” Diamandis, the CEO of the X Prize Foundation, told the social entrepreneurs and enthusiasts at the Continuity Forum, the Americas Business Council Foundation’s annual conference held Thursday and Friday at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami.

The reason this can happen is because the exponential growth of technology. Take the transistor, he said. “There’s been a 100-billion fold price-performance improvement over four years and it’s rocking our world.”

But it doesn’t stop there, said the CEO of Singularity University who studies artificial intelligence. In the future, sensors will be molecular in size and woven into everything that is produced. “Technology is that force that takes what is scarce and makes it abundant,” said Diamandis.

The X Prize is currently offering a $15 million challenge to build a piece of software to bring a child anywhere from illiteracy to basic reading writing and numeracy in 18 months. “My goal is that it goes on every single device manufactured, so every device going out there in the world is a teacher,” said Diamandis, the author of Abundance.

All kinds of big ideas were in abundance at the sold-out conference, attended by about 400. The event brought together a diverse lineup of speakers, including a Nobel prize winner in economics, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a world-renowned neuroscientist, a 20-year-old shark advocate, authors, environmentalists, political activists and artists.

Along with the thought-provoking TED-style talks, 23 fellows from Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs, gave short presentations on their scalable companies and nonprofits that take aim at poverty, environmental challenges, healthcare, education reform and economic development. The abc* Foundation, through a partnership with Ashoka, will select three and give them $100,000 grants and two years of support.

The fourth annual Continuity Forum was produced by the Miami-based Americas Business Council Foundation, an organization that identifies and supports high-impact projects in the Americas striving to promote peace, sustainability and prosperity. “We believe that organizations have the greatest impact when everyone works together — from corporations to nonprofits to individuals. That’s why we are so excited about bringing together brilliant business, political and media experts with grassroots leaders to identify and implement substantive solutions to some of the most pressing issues we face,” said Emilio Azcárraga, CEO of Grupo Televisa and co-chair of the abc* Foundation, about the forum, which is also supported by Ashoka and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Exploring the best ways to stimulate a new creative generation globally through technology was a theme throughout the conference, through inspirational stories on stage as well as in networking in the hall and at exhibit tables.

Kanophoto (1)Kano created a computer kit in a box that makes building a computer as fun as LEGOs, said Yonatan Raz-Fridman, co-founder and CEO. The team launched the company on Kickstarter earlier this year with a goal of raising $100,000; they raised $1.5 million. Since then they have shipped 20,000 computer kits to people in 86 countries.

He said in many countries half the population of 15- to 24-year-olds is unemployed because society is not equipping them with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. “If we can introduce technology as a form of creation in which young people all over the world can make, learn or play with technology instead of just consuming it, well, maybe we can inspire a whole new generation to create a new future for themselves no matter where they are, their age, their gender,” said Raz-Fridman, adding that his oldest customer is an 81-year-old woman in Switzerland.

Part of Kano’s success is that the kids can also share their creations, and Martin Hollinetz, who presented OTELO — or Open Technology Labs — to the audience is all about collaboration. Hollinetz is from the Austrian countryside, a country known for its beauty and music, but not innovation, said the Ashoka fellow who presented his venture to the crowd.

While innovation centers, like The LAB Miami in Wynwood, are proliferating in big cities, bringing the concept to rural areas is a challenge, Hollinetz said. Still, the mission is the same: bring together like-minded people to share expertise, resources and connections, allowing good ideas to take root, grow and provide economic prosperity for villagers. OTELO developed a simple, low-cost but effective organization structure to do just that.

Lumni is developing a global market for human capital investments, so students living in poverty can get a higher education, said Felipe Vergara of Colombia. Other Ashoka fellows presented companies that leverage technology to produce solar-powered hearing aids, an Uber-like transportation network for the elderly and a way to make early diagnosis a reality in every home.

Another theme was bridging the worlds or getting the message out through art. Azcárraga led a conversation with artist Vik Muniz, for instance, who wasn’t a soccer fan but created installations with 10,000 balls for the World Cup, about the social phenomenon of soccer and his journey into public art. Two musicians, Israeli David Broza and Palestinian Mira Awad, talked about when they made an album (including Wyclef Jean, Steve Earle and others) from East and West Jerusalem, singing about peace.

MadisonStewartYou’ve heard of the Save the Whales movement. Well, Madison Stewart of Australia was disturbed by the diminishing shark population and at age 14 quit school to devote her life to trying to save sharks from extinction. At times that has meant breaking laws of her own government. Now 20, she and her team have made a documentary called Shark Girl to call attention to the plight of the shark, and try to undo almost 40 years of damage from that movie called Jaws.

“I truly believe the way to save the environment in this day and age is not to do what is required but to do what is right,” said Stewart, who received a standing ovation.

NicholasKristof (1)While technology makes it easier than ever to research and replicate what works, to move forward society needs to chip away at “the empathy gap,” said Nicholas D. Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and co-author of the new book, A Path Appears. Why do the top 20 percent of the wealthiest people give less than the bottom 20 percent? They are in a cocoon in their fancy neighborhoods. “We have to get better at telling the stories.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.