Developing a New Generation of Global Problem Solvers

The challenges confronting our world are complex and can’t be solved by a single government, industry or organization. But these problems aren’t insurmountable — if we connect the social mindset of young workers to the power of technology.
Feb 1, 2016 7:35 AM ET

We now live in the age of digitization. Connected technologies can monitor everything from our bodies and cars to factories and businesses. Unprecedented amounts of data are being collected and analyzed to solve real-world problems as personal as asthma attacks and as complicated as car accidents, pipeline ruptures and supply chain breakdowns. This is happening today. And it’s only the beginning.

At the same time, the world faces a growing litany of complicated challenges. There are doubts that enough water and food can be distributed to growing populations. Job creation appears insufficient to narrow the widening gap between the rich and poor, further driving social and political instability. These are just a few of the known problems today.

While the challenges may seem insurmountable, there are reasons for optimism. The Internet of Things and other technologies that link people, data and devices can provide the tools for confronting economic inefficiency, climate change and more. Companies are also more focused on the issues beyond the bottom line, and a new generation of workers is ready to take action.

With the confluence of grand global problems and digital transformation, the world needs individuals who not only have the desire to make the world better but also the knowledge and skills to do so. A new generation of problem solvers must be discovered, prepared and engaged.

Positioning for the Future
Never before have people and companies been so motivated to help the world. A growing number of today’s new workers believes that work and social responsibility go hand in hand. In fact, a global survey of 8,000 people by MSLGROUP found that many millennials expect employers to address the myriad global problems facing the planet today. A large majority of respondents — 82 percent — believe that business has at least as much potential as government to solve society’s problems.

Companies, meanwhile, are moving in the same direction as CEOs are demanding more sustainable and socially conscious practices. “Everyone’s making an effort to do a little bit more,” says Allie Williams, executive director of the Corporate Responsibility Association.

That’s a change from a generation ago, when most people and companies were concerned about themselves and their profits. “People are much more connected to each other today,” says Anita McGahan, a professor of strategic management at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. 

Education — the key connection of young people to their careers and the future — is also changing. Today, professors are teaching students to solve problems, become social entrepreneurs and to think critically. “We can’t afford to simply teach our students how to advertise toys and bubble gum,” McGahan says. “Social consciousness and social entrepreneurship are at the heart of the biggest business opportunities for this century.” 

But traditional education may not be evolving fast enough to keep pace with either technology or global problems. In one survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 39 percent of employers said they could not fill vacant entry-level positions because candidates didn’t have the right skills, while 72 percent of educators believe their students are prepared for the job market. This disconnect is happening as the world grapples with unemployment. The International Labour Organization says more than 200 million people are without jobs — a number that is expected to climb another 11 million by 2020. Of those, 74 million are youth.

The McKinsey study traces the problem to the fact that major stakeholders are not engaging with each other. A third of companies say they never work with educators. Of those who do, fewer than half said the communication was effective. Meanwhile, fewer than half of the youth surveyed said they had an understanding of what to study for a profession with openings and decent wages. 

Empowering People through Technology
Billions of connected sensors and other devices are collecting unprecedented amounts of data that can be analyzed and acted upon by people or computers. The Internet of Things, the connection of people, data, and processes, is transforming how we do everything. Patients wearing connected watches can send their heart rates to their doctors; sensors on store shelves can tell store managers when to restock; cars can now tell you when you get too close to a car or that you’re steering the wrong way. Every industry will operate differently in the future than it does today. To work with such rapidly evolving technologies, students need to learn how to solve problems that they don’t even know exist yet. 

This technology will only become more powerful in the future. People will be able to predict when they’re about to have a heart attack, sensors will be able to monitor minute changes in global temperatures, devices will stop pipeline leaks or bridge collapses before they happen and much more.  

There is no question IoT will play an important role in solving global problems. Even today, it’s being used on smaller-scale global challenges such as clean water and agriculture. The not-for-profit organization Living Goods, for instance, deploys a small army of door-to-door entrepreneurs to villages in Uganda and Kenya to dispense drugs and advice on improving health and generating wealth. All transactions are done through a basic smartphone, which serves a tool for collecting health data and distributing information to people in need.

In areas where it operates, Living Goods has reduced childhood mortality by more than 25 percent, while also pushing drug prices down 17 percent and cutting in half the prevalence of counterfeit drugs. “What's the most powerful tool in their bag?” asks Living Goods CEO Chuck Slaughter.  “A simple, feature-free mobile phone.”

Sensors are also being put to use to help some of the 800 million people — or one-ninth of the world’s population — who don’t have access to clean water. The international development organization Water for People uses the technology to collect and analyze data in India, Bolivia, Uganda and other clean water-starved nations. Thanks to its work, nearly 200,000 people gained access to improved water in 2014.

The Internet of Things is also beginning to help address hunger in a world where roughly 805 million people consume less than the recommended 2,100 calories per day. In Africa, a network of inexpensive sensors was installed for a small farming community. Radio towers built by the Hershey Company collected the data, which was analyzed by sophisticated software that told the farmers when and where to plant their crops to maximize the yield.

“The farmers made money and in turn that made their community stronger and more vibrant,” says Williams of the Corporate Responsibility Association. “A great deal of education was needed to use the technology, but that resulted in more meaningful decisions and more meaningful ways for people to do things.”

Maximizing the benefits of IoT on a global scale will require skills that traditional educational institutions haven’t traditionally taught in the past. Workers will need a breadth of knowledge across a number of high-tech fields, including data analytics, security, programming and infrastructure management. They also need to be creative and innovative — and for some entrepreneurial.

By 2020, IoT is expected to become a $19 trillion industry with 26 billion interconnected devices, according to Cisco Systems. It has the potential to be a powerful tool for solving global problems — or a major missed opportunity if there are not enough workers to support it.

Educating a New Generation of Problem Solvers 
While many businesses are focused on social change, Cisco is combining technology and education with the goal of creating a pipeline of global thinkers to tackle the future’s most difficult challenges. The networking pioneer has been educating workers since 1997, when it started the Cisco Networking Academy, as a set of courses and certificate programs. 

Today, the Networking Academy partners with more than 9,500 institutions that teach one million students each year in over 170 countries. Between 2005 and 2014, more than 1.3 million students have started new jobs as a result of the program. 

The Networking Academy is about far more than helping workers fix network problems — it’s giving people the chance to be on technology’s cutting edge and to contribute to society and business in more meaningful ways. Students learn from instructors with diverse backgrounds and do hands-on work that can be applied in real-life and unexpected situations.

“You can’t anticipate everything,” says Amanda Cumberland, a research and evaluation specialist with Cisco. “If you teach someone a coding language, for instance, then that could become obsolete. But teach them how to think about coding and to understand the principles of it and they can apply it to whatever new skill is coming out.”

As many skills as people learn at the Networking Academy, it’s the program’s focus on problem solving that’s benefiting these future leaders the most. The world is changing so quickly that today’s workers will have to be able to think quickly and creatively.

“We are harnessing the power of technology to launch a generation of problem solvers,” says Tae Yoo, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Cisco.  “They are being taught to innovate like technologists, think like entrepreneurs and act as social change agents.” 

Connecting Future Problem Solvers to Global Issues
Networking Academy students are challenged in hackathons and problem-solving contests to find solutions using Internet of Things and other technologies. They’re connecting their skills and critical thinking to real-world problems big and small. 

One group of French students wanted to solve a problem for the uncle of one of its members. The uncle was blind and using an old walking stick to get around. The group thought that there must be a better way. After speaking to organizations for the visually impaired, an idea hit them: Build an Internet-connected device that would harness data to help people get around. The walking cane built by the team of students accesses the Internet via a 3G connection and can relay information, such as when a stoplight is red or green, GPS directions, street repair details and more to a headset worn by the visually impaired user.

In 2014, the team won a competition run by Cisco and used the prize to get Handisco, a company that’s developing and manufacturing these canes off the ground. 

The team is proof that smart problem solving, when combined with technology, is making the world a better place and creating jobs as well. “A lot of people haven’t had access to what we have today,” says Florian Esteves, the team member who now leads Handisco. “But it’s important for me and my team to give people that technology, to give it to the people who really need it.” 

Another student, Zoe Rose, also sees her future connected to bigger global issues. The 26-year-old IT staffer says her Networking Academy experience helped her understand the important role people like herself play so that technology can solve the world’s most important problems. 

While at the Networking Academy, she was part of Cisco’s Dream Team, a group of 10 Networking Academy students who are tasked with setting up 1,000 network access points at a major conference in San Francisco. Working with fellow students and mentors, she learned the importance of creative and critical thinking to solve real-world problems — and that’s stayed with her. 

“We’re superheroes,” Rose says. “Technology is going to help solve many of the world’s issues, and we’re at the forefront of that change.”

Much like how networks become more powerful as the number of sensors and other connected devices grow, so does the impact of the Networking Academy as more students pass through the program. Esteves and Rose are just two examples of what will become the new generation of global problem solvers.

“We’re creating people who see, right away, that they can make an impact,” says Jackie Barker, a senior program manager for the Networking Academy. “They can change not only their own lives, but those of their families and, in turn, their communities and the world.” 

Rose and Esteves — like all of us — live in a time of extraordinary change and challenges. But they didn’t just desire to improve the situation: They combined their social mindset with technology, creativity, critical thinking and an entrepreneurial spirit to find solutions. Imagine what problems will be addressed and what new opportunities will be built by a whole generation of global problem solvers. Are you ready to join them?

Read more about Cisco's Global Problem Solvers