A scientist’s musings at the Global Innovations for Children and Youth Summit

By Sean Powell, a full-time academic at the Queensland University of Technology (https://au.linkedin.com/in/imaginethinkcreate). He spoke at the “Start Up to Scale Up Summit,” organized by UNICEF and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland on 9-10 November. You can read more about the Summit here: http://summit.unicef.fi/

By Subhashish Panigrahi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Subhashish Panigrahi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The weather wasn’t as cold as I expected in Finland – it was cold but not freezing. Besides, everywhere inside was warm (unlike my home in Australia where everything outside is warm and inside is cooled).  Like the weather, the Summit itself was also quite different to what I’m used to – almost completely the opposite in fact. I am normally at scientific conferences where we talk about theory, methods and results – sometimes with never ending PowerPoint slides of formulas and graphs. This Summit, however, was about people and stories, about solving problems through frugal innovation and social enterprise, and about positive change and better outcomes.

There were some really big ideas discussed at this Summit. A highlight for me was on the second day – a robust panel discussion about changing the future narrative. The panel comprised some of the most articulate and thoughtful people I had ever heard. Their ideas were broad in scope: challenging the media stories and stereotypes on disadvantaged and poor communities, and replacing them with a more genuine, positive and representative story. It was thought-provoking and emotive at the same time. I felt a deep sense of optimism.

The Summit also discussed success through collaboration – successes such as connecting a remote village to the rest of the world by dragging a huge satellite dish through the Amazon River on a wooden boat. Other awesome innovations include mobile phone apps and Bluetooth devices for tracking births in India, wearable technologies to monitor health in remote communities, cheap solar lighting to replace dangerous kerosene and charcoal in places far from the electricity grid, and so much more. It was inspiring to not only hear the ideas, but also to see the positive impact of these ideas on people’s lives. The positive energy was ubiquitous. Despite the very real hardships and challenges faced by so many, concrete change is happening everywhere – enabled through human connection and collaboration.

For my own part, I was privileged to be able to participate in a panel discussion on ‘Scaling Small,’ specifically by empowering communities through social enterprise at the local level. I shared my research and our teams’ vision for 3D biofabrication technology to transform global healthcare. 3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. Our goal is to 3D print customised replacement tissue and organs to completely restore biological functions for patients.

This 3-D printed prosthetic hand was printed and assembled by FDA researchers in their CDRH laboratory. Similar devices are also available on the internet and are typically used for children born without fingers. Credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
This 3-D printed prosthetic hand was printed and assembled by FDA researchers in their CDRH laboratory. Similar devices are also available on the internet and are typically used for children born without fingers. Credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

I am privileged to work in an incredibly well-resourced university with access to some very awesome medical technology. Through the panel session and by meeting others at the Summit, I have gained a greater awareness of the diverse healthcare issues faced by those in poor communities. Despite the many operational challenges and poor resources in many countries, I realize it’s important to bring sophisticated medical technology to the most disadvantaged.

I think the transformative impact of platform technologies such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence (AI) will help achieve equitable global healthcare in ways we can only begin to imagine. These technologies will not only effectively improve the health of those most in need, but will also empower those in developing communities to create their own solutions. For example, 3D printing will enable enterprise innovation at the local level and bypass the limits of the traditional supply chains – those that favour developed economies. Technologies such as AI systems on mobile phones will give everyone access to the very best expert medical diagnosis and advice. Low-cost 3D medical imaging techniques such as ultrasound on mobile phones will significantly improve diagnosis in remote areas. And the convergence of these platform technologies will lead to novel systems to bring the very best of modern medicine to the most disadvantaged.

There is enormous scope for innovation to transform healthcare around the world – but for us in research, the challenge is to integrate this goal into our everyday research programs. The key is to remain aware of the issues, foster connections and friendships, and collaborate on solutions – to hear and feel the stories of others and contribute however possible.

Finally, after too brief a time, the Summit was over and I found myself at the closing ceremony. This was particularly moving, both physically and emotionally – physically because it involved everyone playing a musical instrument in a group orchestra – emotionally because it brought everyone together through movement and song. It reminded me that collaboration, creativity, authenticity and optimism are key to help solve the problems of the most disadvantaged children and youth. I made many friends and hope to stay inspired, connected, and do what I can to contribute to an amazing future.