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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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.

Moving from Response toward Recovery in Nepal

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In April, Nepal experienced a devastating earthquake and series of aftershocks that left more than 8,500 people killed and 20,000 injured. A number of Skoll Global Threats Fund grantees and partners are based in Nepal – they and their immediate families thankfully emerged safe. As the country transitions from immediate response towards medium and long-term recovery efforts, Skoll Global Threats Fund is providing support for our partners’ activities:

Following the earthquake of April 25, The Asia Foundation, in collaboration with 44 local NGOs and organizations, provided rapid emergency relief and assessment. Rapid, catalytic grants and relief materials have been provided to address emergency needs of over 20,000 survivors. Now entering the fifth week of post-quake assistance, The Asia Foundation has begun transitioning from relief to recovery, working closely with Nepali partners to support longer-term rebuilding efforts:  providing legal, dispute resolution, psychosocial, protection and education support services for marginalized/vulnerable communities; collaborating with village and municipal groups to assess and manage local dissatisfaction surrounding relief efforts; and conducting relief impact assessments and public perception surveys to track the public mood, as well as other social and relief-related issues.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is drawing on its technical expertise to create a Task Force on Geo-hazards to assess the impact of geophysical hazards like landslides and avalanches, and monitor potential hazards, including glacial lake outbursts, rivers blocked by landslides, and the threat of landslides in areas where slopes have been destabilized by the earthquake. These studies provide relevant information to government agencies, relief groups, development organizations, and the global community.

Internews/Third Pole Project is working with local radio and media organizations to ensure information is coordinated and reaches all affected communities. Additionally, they are working to consolidate relevant data on locations of affected populations and high damage, map radio stations (affected and non affected), identify areas vulnerable to landslides, and track road blockages for teams doing assessment and response. Such information helps response teams make informed decisions. This information has been placed in an interactive web platform and is publically accessible.

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.

Larry Brilliant Talks Global Threats at the Pentagon

Our Larry Brilliant spoke at the Pentagon last week on global threats, outlining the interconnections between multiple threats and the need for a systems perspective in considering solutions.  You can watch it here.

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Talking Water Security on World Water Day

Today is World Water Day.   Our president, Larry Brilliant, has co-authored a piece with Dr. Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute, on some of the big challenges the world currently faces on water.  This originally appeared on McClatchy News.

Navigating the ‘vast sea of unknowns’ of water risk

We know less about one of world’s most pressing challenges today than we did 10 years ago. It’s no secret that water – or the lack thereof – will be one of the defining issues of the 21st century. And yet, the United Nations World Water Report, in 2009, stated that when it comes to water, “less is known with each passing decade.”

The World Economic Forum recently named the water supply crises as one of the top risks facing the planet – edging out issues like terrorism and systemic financial failure. Water risks permeate almost every aspect of global society. We got a taste last year with crops scorched by drought, shipping lanes threatened and energy plants shut down by low water levels, and coastlines devastated by flooding. Exacerbated by climate change and population growth, such crises will become more common and costly. Yet, the world largely lacks the data we need to monitor, understand, and respond to these water challenges. We are flying blind when it comes to global water issues.

History shows us the power of information to avert crisis. For example, as a result of a dramatic increase in data, the public health community has transformed its ability to identify and respond to a pandemic. Less than 20 years ago, it took, on average, 167 days to detect and verify a disease outbreak.

Today, it takes less than 20 days largely because of advances in data collection and availability, including leveraging passive data through tools like Google Flu Trends and web scrubbers like the Global Public Health Intelligence Network. The health sector has invested in better information to detect pandemics. It’s time for the water sector to invest in better water data to respond to devastating water-related disasters and increasing water risks.

Unfortunately, directly observed data on water is patchy at best, non-existent at worst. The Global Runoff Data Centre is the closest thing to an international clearinghouse for information on how much water is in rivers worldwide. But the number of data collection stations reporting to the Centre has fallen steadily since the 1980s; only about one-third of the observing stations report their data to the Centre. Many stations are no longer being maintained, have been eliminated, or are reluctant to publicly share the data. Of particular concern are the region’s most at risk – the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa – where publicly available water data is nearly absent.

Even in the United States, the story is not so different. The country is still recovering from impacts of Superstorm Sandy, which cost over $60 billion, and the ongoing drought, which may turn out to the be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that between 1980 and 2004, over 2,000 stream gauges to measure river levels were shut down, a loss of more than a quarter of the nation’s total network. These gauges help predict floods and droughts and provide the data needed to monitor changes in water stress. The current budget “sequestration” could force USGS to shut down an additional 375 gauges.

To prepare for an increasingly water-insecure future, we urgently need to bridge this data gap.

The good news is we do not have to start from scratch. Using available data from satellites and state-of-the-art modeling techniques, it is possible to collect critical information needed to monitor and evaluate emerging water risks across the globe.

One example is Aqueduct, the global water risk mapping tool recently released by the World Resources Institute, with the support of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and multinationals like Goldman Sachs, GE and Shell. Aqueduct offers free and open data, across twelve indicators of water risk, ranging from floods and droughts to access to clean drinking water. It also provides the ability to project changes in water risks in the coming years, according to the effects of climate change, and population and economic growth.

While Aqueduct represents an important resource, it is not enough. There is no substitute for directly observed, locally collected data. Bringing together such information can be a daunting task, but there are several important steps that must be taken to improve water data. We need increased investment in gathering local water data; and more stream gauges need to be installed, rather than shuttering those we already have. We need to meter groundwater, so we know how quickly these water suppliers are being depleted. We need to take advantage of new technologies, such as satellite remote sensing and crowd-sourced data, to fill the gaps. And perhaps most important, we need to change the paradigm from secrecy to transparency by negotiating ways to make existing data held by governments, companies and academic institutions freely available.

In 2012, a UNESCO report compared our understanding of water to “islands of knowledge in a vast sea of unknowns.” As we mark World Water Day 2013, it’s clear that this is no way to handle one of the defining challenges of our generation. Now more than ever, we have the capability to address our woeful lack of water data. We just need the will to do so.

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