Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Global Good Awards Honors Innovators

GREATER GOOD: The Tech Interactive's annual awards show innovators whose projects advance humanitarian aims. Photo by Eloisa Tan

Even though the Tech Museum of Innovation recently rebranded as The Tech Interactive, what hasn't changed is the old-fashioned Silicon Valley optimism exemplified by the institution's primary annual event: Tech for Global Good.

Many moons ago, in what now seems like the vanishing Wild West, Silicon Valley produced technologists, entrepreneurs and humanitarian thinkers who really wanted to improve the world. Last Saturday, Tech for Global Good brought us back to those days. As always, the most inspiring and optimistic vibes one could ever want just seemed to flow from every direction.

Tech for Global Good is the current incarnation of The Tech Awards—the museum's signature annual event, a pure-positive endeavor selecting a handful of "tech laureates" whose projects show great promise in addressing a predetermined humanitarian theme. Last year, for example, the theme was Technology and the Environment. This year it was Technology Empowering Women.

"In the past we've phrased the theme in terms of a problem statement," said the Tech's CEO Tim Ritchie, as we spoke at the reception. "Now we're framing it in terms of a human empowerment statement. How can we give women tools to succeed in the world? And it turns out that when you empower women, you improve everything."

The goal each year is to support and inspire the next up-and-coming generation of inventors, engineers, physicians and scientists to implement technology in useful, humane ways. But rather than spend a zillion dollars on a lavish high-end banquet ceremony blowout with massive audio/video accompaniment and the whole nine yards, Tech For Global Good strips down the celebratory excess and instead presents a more intimate evening in the Montgomery Theater, after which everyone then migrates to the Tech, where the winning laureates answer informal questions and attendees nosh at food stations. Interactive videos of the laureates' projects are then installed inside circular booths that remain in the museum until next year, where any visitor can sit down to learn about the problems addressed, plus the solutions, the impacts and whatever else can be done to help. All in all, it's a great way to highlight the laureates and their stories.

This year, as always, the winning laureates inspired tidal waves of optimism. From Sweden, the company Solvatten built portable devices that use solar energy to purify water in developing countries where millions of women and underserved communities don't regularly have access to safe drinking systems. Zipline International built drones to fly blood samples and other supplies to women during childbirth in Rwanda and Ghana. On the artificial intelligence front, AI4ALL aims to remove the implicit biases in AI by including more children and women of color in the research, development and policy stages. In South Africa, where many marginalized populations don't have web-based internet access, Amandla.Mobi built a text messaging platform that transforms a cell phone into a civic engagement tool, empowering locals to become politically active.

In addition to the laureates, Tech for Global Good also includes the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award. This year, legendary ocean conservationist Julie Packard, who founded and still runs the Monterey Bay Aquarium, took home the award.

"Julie Packard has always been one of my personal heroes and a mentor," Ritchie told me. "And she's so intensely local. And global. And I can't think of a better person, so I'm thrilled."

Even though Tech for Global Good has only a few years under its belt, one can already see how each annual event inspires the next one. Last year's Global Humanitarian Award went to the ecological activist Paul Hawken, whose effort, Project Drawdown, is an elaborate and rational roadmap toward reversing global warming. At the 2018 event Hawken illuminated how the empowerment of millions of marginalized girls around the world in terms of educational attainment, gender equality and reproductive health will help contribute to the reduction of global warming. That discussion directly led to this year's theme, Technology Empowering Women.

In a time when so much of the world has been plunged into darkness and despair, the laureates continue to ring the bells that still can ring, providing just the kind of hope we all need right now.