A few months ago I received an e-mail inviting me to come talk to the Provost Council at St John's University. St. John's "is one of America's leading Catholic universities – recognized for its superb academic programs, diverse student life, BIG EAST excitement and New York vitality." The talk would be in their main campus in Queens, so it would be easy for me to drive there from my home. Given that I like to visit and give talks in universities, I quickly accepted and we settled on a late February date.
They wanted me to talk on the applications of technology and innovation for social action -- in particular, how technology and innovation might be leveraged to eradicate poverty and to help those who do not have the basic needs of life. St John's, they explained, was founded by the Vincentian Community in 1870. The Vincentian Family is known for championing the needs of the poor. They take their name and inspiration from St Vincent de Paul, a priest who lived during the 17th Century in France. After learning of the hunger and the plight of the poor in the French countryside, he devoted himself to ministering to their needs. He died in 1660 and was canonized in 1737.
St. John's has launched a new initiative, the Vincentian Institute for Social Action (VISA). They are reflecting on what it means to be a Vincentian institution in the 21st century. They want to "become known worldwide for addressing issues or poverty and social justice." They want to do so through "innovative teaching, research and service in a distinctively Vincentian approach, i.e., action and service with impact.”
As I have been repeatedly writing in this blog, I really believe that technology and innovation are now enabling us to address the most complex problems in science, business and society. What is more complex, - and more important, - than to consider how to best leverage technology and innovation to address the critical issues surrounding poverty and social justice?
So, I put together a talk on Social Action Innovation in the Knowledge Age. After first discussing the new technologies and capabilities we now have at our disposal, I talked about their potential applications in four key areas that I have been writing about in this blog - lifelong learning, social business entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility and soft power. I will focus this blog on the first area – learning, - as I have recently posted entries on the other three and drew heavily on those entries in my St John’s talk.
A recurring theme in this blog is the increasing importance of talent in the knowledge economy. We know that literacy and education were critical in the transition from the agricultural to the industry society in the 19th and 20th centuries. That is why public education and community libraries were introduced in the US and other countries. Today however - in our transition to the Knowledge Age, literacy and formal education, while still absolutely necessary, are no longer sufficient. Success in the 21st century requires sophisticated information analysis and problem-solving skills. And it requires us to keep learning new skills throughout our lives.
But if literacy, information skills and lifelong learning have now become basic needs in society, what happens to those who through no fault of their own do not have the ability to learn? Recent research using sophisticated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown that if a young child does not receive the proper verbal stimulation - as is often the case with children from poor and disadvantaged environments - his or her brain will not develop properly. Language development must be fostered early in children or it will be seriously impaired.
Recent research provides additional evidence. At a February 15 news briefing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) said that " . . . impoverished conditions early in life could have dramatic affects on the brain's development and function. Children who grow up in environments with family stress, negative social and environmental characteristics, and little cognitive stimulation may not fully develop brain areas critical for learning, memory, and language abilities, the panelists said. Because poverty is generally associated with lower performance on many cognitive diagnostics, the researchers said poverty 'presumably plays a role in the persistence of poverty across generations.'"
Effectively, these new findings are saying that the brain of these disadvantaged little children has not been able to develop to properly process language and learn. Yet, we are sending them to school where they will be taught via the classic verbally oriented mechanisms that teachers normally use. Is there any wonder that so many of these poor children will not do well in school?
How can we apply technology to help address these problems? Language-based approaches are important, but they are only one channel into the brain. At MIT's Media Lab, for example, there is considerable research underway to try to help people communicate through all the channels to the brain – channels with which new information technologies are now enabling us to experiment. Let me give a few examples of work with which I am personally familiar.
The Affective Computing group is exploring the development of personalized tools that would enable those who have difficulties communicating verbally to interact better through a variety of visual and other nonverbal mechanisms. This could include many people with autism, and perhaps many children coming from disadvantaged environments. The Sociable Media group is conducting research on how to create better social and visual online environments and interfaces for human communication. And the Personal Robots group is developing social robots that interact, collaborate and learn with people as partners.
Projects like these and quite a number of others going on in universities and research labs around the world might come up with innovative breakthroughs that would give poor children a better chance to learn and thus escape poverty.
After discussing the three other areas, I concluded my talk by proposing some potential ways of bringing technology and innovation to bear on social action.
- Focus on technology-based innovations to help address the impediments for people to live a better life.
- Bring a more balanced approach – beyond a pure focus on profits - to business and business education, based on open, market principles; and
- Leverage new social, collaborative technologies to help people around the world become better educated, integrated into global communities, and have a more hopeful future.
I think that Vincent de Paul would approve of such a plan of action.