Skoll Global Threats Fund Sunsets, Shares Lessons Learned

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In 2008, Jeff Skoll set out to test whether a limited-life organization with $100 million and a band of driven and skillful “threat-ologists” could make progress against five of the gravest threats to humanity — climate change, pandemics, water security, nuclear proliferation, and conflict in the Middle East. After spending down the original $100 million gift, the Skoll Global Threats Fund (SGTF) experiment is now coming to an end. Jeff Skoll’s philanthropy and commitment to global threats will continue, informed by lessons learned at SGTF. The work is being reorganized, spun out, and unified with Jeff’s core philanthropic enterprise, the Skoll Foundation.

  • Our pandemics work has demonstrated what’s possible to improve early detection and response to disease outbreaks. Leveraging strong public interest in pandemics due to Ebola, Zika, and more, SGTF is now taking its Ending Pandemics initiative independent, allowing it to focus exclusively on its mission of detecting, verifying, and reporting potential disease outbreaks faster. For more information, please visit endingpandemics.org

 

  • The Climate Advocacy Lab, rolled out in 2015 to promote evidence-based advocacy, is growing in membership, activities, and interest. We have incubated the Lab to date, but are now shifting the Lab to be community-owned, independent of SGTF, since only broad embrace of evidence-based practices will improve sector effectiveness as a whole. The Lab will become part of shared infrastructure for the climate and clean energy sector to enhance collaborative campaigns. For more information, please go climateadvocacylab.org

 

  • Our resilience and water security work has focused on how climate and water shocks propagate through the international system and how to head-off consequent tensions. We are exiting grantmaking in this space, but have provided transition support to New America, the MIT Co-Lab, and several more groups to build off these efforts going forward.

 

  • On nuclear nonproliferation, we have focused on reducing risk through public engagement and policy innovation. We have also done exploratory work to examine threats from emerging technologies, including cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. This work will continue at the Skoll Foundation (skoll.org).

 

The Skoll Global Threat Fund has done impactful work to advance change on difficult, potentially catastrophic global challenges. We have learned much over these last eight years on what works, and what doesn’t, and have put together a high-level assessment of lessons learned that we hope can be useful. (You can find that here.)  These lessons will help inform Jeff’s philanthropy for the next decade and beyond and are particularly relevant as he brings on new leadership in 2018 to the Skoll Foundation to help lead all his philanthropic work.

There is no straight line for progress on global threats. The threats we set out to work on in 2008 continue to evolve, and new threats have since emerged. While we are proud of SGTF’s contributions, there is much urgent work to do. We sincerely hope we’ve explored some paths for working on global threats that others can build on. That work is risky by nature, requiring novel collaboration, a hardworking and humbly ambitious team, an ability to fail forward, and ceaseless optimism about the transformative potential of solutions despite the daunting scale of the threat. We urge others to take the leap and join the fight against threats to humanity. The risks of inaction are too great to stay on the sidelines.

Skoll Global Threats Fund President Discusses Imagination & Wicked Problems

Skoll Global Threats Fund’s President, Annie Maxwell, returned to her alma mater to speak at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

Hosted by the Josh Rosenthal Education Fund, this lecture is part of series created in memory of Josh Rosenthal, a U-M graduate who died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The fund supports lectures, research, and student internships that encourage public discussion and greater understanding of changes in the world since September 11.

Annie’s talk explores the role of the imagination and diversity when it comes to addressing wicked problems. Often viewed as complex challenges that intersect with one another, wicked problems generally can’t be solved, only improved, and tend to be difficult to even define. In her lecture, Annie provides specific examples on how the Skoll Global Threats Fund uses the imagination to tackle climate change, pandemics, and regional conflict.

You can watch the full lecture here: http://fordschool.umich.edu/events/2016/wicked-problems-role-imagination-and-creativity

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Urgency and Optimism at Skoll-hosted TED Climate Breakfast

The Jeff Skoll Group had the honor of hosting a breakfast event at the recent TED2016 conference in Vancouver, featuring two leaders in the fight against climate change—Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and former US Vice President Al Gore, now chairman of the Climate Reality Project.

Both climate leaders gave main-stage talks at TED. The breakfast, attended by some 90 TED participants was a chance for a more informal exchange.

Christiana Figueres kicked things off with a combination of optimism and urgency. Last year’s Paris climate deal is hugely important, she stressed; it’s the first time that the world has signed on to a common climate goal. We’re finally all rowing in the same direction.

However this is a first, not a final, step. The targets aren’t ambitious enough to get us where we need to be. But the agreement includes provisions to review and ratchet up those targets. The next five years are key, with intermediate steps to strengthen the Paris commitments expected as soon at 2018.

Al Gore followed with a similar mix of urgency and optimism. His arguments are as compelling as ever, supported by a range of data showing the increasingly negative impacts of climate change. But we now have solutions that we didn’t have before. Renewable energy use is growing significantly, in the US, China, and around the world. Continued improvements in technology and falling prices for wind, solar, and battery storage are strong positive signs.

Conversely, fossil fuel exploitation is creating a new pain point beyond carbon pollution: the financial markets. Investors increasingly recognize the risks of significant stranded oil and coal assets, because we can’t burn known reserves and still have a livable planet. Echoing Christiana Figueres, Al Gore reiterated the need to push forward aggressively: we recognize the problem, we have the answers, but whether we have the will to act is still an open question.

The diversity in the room illustrated the value of—and need for—multiple levels of engagement to advance climate action. One participant urged TED, with its unique blend of participants, to consider a dedicated TED Climate track over this next critical five-year period.

The Jeff Skoll Group presence at the breakfast reflected our commitment to this type of multilevel engagement. In attendance were representatives from the Skoll Foundation; Capricorn Investment Group, one of the world’s largest clean tech investors; Participant Media, producer of An Inconvenient Truth; and my group, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which focuses on building public and political will for climate action.

We too work at multiple levels, all rowing in the same direction. We couldn’t agree more with both the urgency and the optimism expressed by Al Gore and Christiana Figueres. We’re also excited that Al Gore will speak at the upcoming Skoll World Forum. His talk will be live streamed, and we hope you can watch.

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Angry Birds Get Angry for Climate

We provided some support for a climate change-focused Angry Birds Friends tournament, which kicked off today. We hope to be able to get good insights from the game about what kinds of climate messages seem to engage players the most. Plus, it’s fun! So we hope you’ll play. The Angry Birds folks were able to enlist a lot of global celebrities in creating the game. Watch the launch video below.

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Innocentive Challenge on Water and Climate Shocks

We live in an increasingly interconnected, interdependent, and complex world where the rapid exchange of goods, information, and ideas has brought opportunities and prosperity to many. Yet this increased interconnectivity has also given rise to a heightened vulnerability to systemic risks.

Skoll Global Threats Fund is partnering with Innocentive in a challenge to identify early indications of when a water or climatic event in one location, such as a flood, drought, or heatwave, may trigger direct and indirect impacts elsewhere in the world (for example: large scale migration, food insecurity, social unrest, infectious disease). This challenge:  “What are the ways in which we can identify early indications and/or patterns of complex events that can have triggering effects elsewhere in the world?” This project aims to contribute to an emerging field of big data and forecasting, and the proposed methodology would ideally allow for near-real time monitoring and a method for triggering alerts when early indications are identified.

We encourage you to look at the challenge and share widely within your networks.

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Skoll Joins White House-Led Public-Private Partnership on Climate Resilience

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The Skoll Global Threats Fund is a founding partner of the Climate Services for Resilient Development initiative, a public-private partnership launched by the White House today to provide climate services – including actionable science, data, information, tools, and training – to developing countries to strengthen their resilience to climate impacts. The other founding partners, in addition to the U.S. government, are the American Red Cross, Asian Development Bank, Esri, Google, Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.K. Government.  Our President, Annie Maxwell, participated on a panel of the founding partners at the launch event held at the United States Institute for Peace. You can read more about the partnership on the White House website here.

Jeff Skoll on Philanthropy on 60 Minutes

Jeff Skoll is featured in a November 17 CBS 60 Minutes segment on philanthropy, which focuses on the Giving Pledge. Watch it below.

Big Data and Resilience

Our Climate Director, Amy Luers, is a Bellagio PopTech Fellow this year. She participated in the PopTech conference last week, and has been working with the other Bellgio PopTech Fellows (photo below, Amy’s 2nd from left) on the question of how big data can be used effectively – and ethically – to promote community resilience. They’ve published a white paper, “Big Data, Communities and Ethical Resilience: A Framework for Action,” that you can download here.  You can read a PopTech blog about the paper here.

 

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(Appropriate) Big Data for Climate Resilience?

This was originally published by our Climate Change Director, Amy Luers, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review here.

Big data—the massive data sets that we collect and analyze to help understand complex systems, and that we mine to reveal trends in new ways and at a scale and speed often impossible even a decade ago—is all the rage. It has transformed how we conduct science, business, public health, and humanitarian efforts.

So can big data help local communities, cities, and nations cope with the disruptions and inevitable surprises from climate change? This is the question I explored while participating in the Bellagio/Poptech Fellows retreat sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Big data has transformed scientists’ ability to understand the climate system and develop plausible scenarios of the future. However, while those roles are important, ultimately society’s ability to cope with climate change will depend less on the accuracy of these projections and more on the level of “resilience derived from bottom-up community efforts.

The answer to whether big data can help communities build resilience to climate change is yes—there are huge opportunities, but there are also risks.
Opportunities

Feedback: Strong negative feedback is core to resilience. A simple example is our body’s response to heat stress—sweating, which is a natural feedback to cool down our body. In social systems, feedbacks are also critical for maintaining functions under stress. For example, communication by affected communities after a hurricane provides feedback for how and where organizations and individuals can provide help. While this kind of feedback used to rely completely on traditional communication channels, now crowdsourcing and data mining projects, such as Ushahidi and Twitter Earthquake detector, enable faster and more-targeted relief.

Diversity: Big data is enhancing diversity in a number of ways. Consider public health systems. Health officials are increasingly relying on digital detection methods, such as Google Flu Trends or Flu Near You, to augment and diversify traditional disease surveillance.

Self-Organization: A central characteristic of resilient communities is the ability to self-organize. This characteristic must exist within a community (see the National Research Council Resilience Report), not something you can impose on it. However, social media and related data-mining tools (InfoAmazonia, Healthmap) can enhance situational awareness and facilitate collective action by helping people identify others with common interests, communicate with them, and coordinate efforts.

Risks

Eroding trust: Trust is well established as a core feature of community resilience. Yet the NSA PRISM escapade made it clear that big data projects are raising privacy concerns and possibly eroding trust. And it is not just an issue in government. For example, Target analyzes shopping patterns and can fairly accurately guess if someone in your family is pregnant (which is awkward if they know your daughter is pregnant before you do). When our trust in government, business, and communities weakens, it can decrease a society’s resilience to climate stress.

Mistaking correlation for causation: Data mining seeks meaning in patterns that are completely independent of theory (suggesting to some that theory is dead). This approach can lead to erroneous conclusions when correlation is mistakenly taken for causation. For example, one study demonstrated that data mining techniques could show a strong (however spurious) correlation between the changes in the S&P 500 stock index and butter production in Bangladesh. While interesting, a decision support system based on this correlation would likely prove misleading.

Failing to see the big picture: One of the biggest challenges with big data mining for building climate resilience is its overemphasis on the hyper-local and hyper-now. While this hyper-local, hyper-now information may be critical for business decisions, without a broader understanding of the longer-term and more-systemic dynamism of social and biophysical systems, big data provides no ability to understand future trends or anticipate vulnerabilities. We must not let our obsession with the here and now divert us from slower-changing variables such as declining groundwater, loss of biodiversity, and melting ice caps—all of which may silently define our future. A related challenge is the fact that big data mining tends to overlook the most vulnerable populations. We must not let the lure of the big data microscope on the “well-to-do” populations of the world make us blind to the less well of populations within cities and communities that have more limited access to smart phones and the Internet.

Trade Offs

The big data revolution is upon us. How this will contribute to the resilience of human and natural systems remains to be seen. Ultimately, it will depend on what trade-offs we are willing to make. For example, are we willing to compromise some individual privacy for increased community resilience, or the ecological systems on which they depend?—If so, how much, and under what circumstances?
From Appropriate Technology to Appropriate Big Data

The opportunities and risks around big data for climate resilience reminds me of the dormant “Appropriate Technology Movement,” brought to prominence with Schumacher’s influential book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. In the face of rapid technological growth, the appropriate technology movement promoted small-scale, decentralized, locally controlled and people centered technologies. Is it time for an “appropriate big data movement”—one that considers the needs of communities, captures the broader context in which they exist, and pushes society to confront the trade-offs in the decisions (or non-decisions) we are making?

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