Around the World in Six Ideas

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Dickey

Feeding Africa

In ferocious cycles worthy of the Old Testament, Africa continues to face years of plenty and years of famine. But over the past decade economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin has worked to solve that problem in her native Ethiopia, and she's now extending her activities across the continent. The key concept: a commodities exchange that allows farmers--even those in a "frontier economy"--to track prices, warehouse their products safely, and get guaranteed payment. "How do you trust people in a market that's like the Wild West?" says Eleni. Farmers were unsure they'd ever get paid. Buyers had to worry they'd get bags filled with sand and rocks. And who knew what a fair price might be? Now scores of tickers have been installed across the country to give farmers current prices on the exchange in real time, and dial-in quotations are accessible over the country's ubiquitous cellphones. The price line gets more than a million calls a month. Commodities are weighed and graded in exchange warehouses, so buyers no longer need to be so wary. Farmers get their payment within a day of sale. And surpluses can be stored today to feed the hungry tomorrow.

Art and Innovation

One definition of art is that it shows you something you hadn't quite imagined but can't quite forget. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, believes that art is an essential component for innovation in this digital age. You may not be Van Gogh or Beethoven (and might never want to be), but learning the way artists perceive--and change--the world around them creates mental and intellectual agility. Students of art and design are often innovators, says Maeda, "people that can see differently, that can solve problems differently." Maeda should know, having gone to art school and MIT at the same time. He also understands that the impact of art is hard to measure. But that shouldn't be a negative. Precisely because the effect of art is not quantitative--it is so un-digital--it is the human element that's vitally needed as people and machines work ever more closely together. When art is integrated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--think STEAM instead of STEM--you get "new ways of knowing and new ways of thinking." In fact one thinks of Steve Jobs, whose innovations were quite remarkable works of technology, of design, and, yes, of art.

The Absent Professor

At one panel during the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, the star was 12-year-old Khadija Niazi from Lahore, Pakistan. She was only 10 when she first took an online course about artificial intelligence taught by big thinkers Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig from the Google firmament. And she now says she intends to be a physicist. The audience was so charmed by Khadija that when she gave up her seat on the panel to Bill Gates there was an audible sigh of disappointment. In fact, Khadija is more than precocious; she's the prologue to a future. Innovators such as Daphne Koller, cofounder of Coursera, which launched a year ago and now has 33 university partners around the world, are transforming higher education. Online learning is disrupting one of the last bastions of true traditionalism, challenging its assumptions, breaking down its structures. What's the role of professors teaching courses that are just as easily taught online? What is the function of a lecture hall? A classroom? A campus? All of those questions are now up in the air -- along with the stunning cost of tuition. Once again, this is a story of adapt or die.

The End of Workers?

At least since the early 19th-century Luddites, workers have raged against machines that took their jobs. …