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Feasting on Optimism

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What happens when hundreds of optimists get together for three days straight? I found out at The Feast held here in NYC on October 3-5. Attracting innovators in the worlds of social action, technology, entrepreneurship and science, the focus of the conference was: "We are done waiting for the world to change. Start changing it, and the world will follow." The previous month of September I attended The Clinton Global Initiative and the Social Good Summit, both of which amazingly inspiring, but The Feast offered one key distinction the others did not and which I think made it more interesting. The Feast included the participation and ideas of the attendees, not just the speakers. In fact, the speakers joined the attendees as collaborative brainstormers in an exercise to find solutions to some truly big global problems, called "challenges", on the last day of the event. Beyond the confines of the physical event location in NYC, Feast participants around the world joined in via live streaming and participatory dinner parties.

The speakers initiated the flow of ideas. Jim Adams, Deputy Chief Technologist, NASA, told us he "fundamentally believes it is the destiny of humans to ultimately live off planet," but before that happens, there is still much to focus on. He showed us a visual diagnosis tool that can attach to a cell phone, and said, "wouldn't it be cool if every child in the world could read!" Adam Steltzer, NASA, reminded "great works and great folly may be indistinguishable at the outset," and therefore it is the seemingly crazy and impossible projects we must work hardest at. Brian David Johnson, Futurist, Intel, stated "the future is going to be awesome, because we are the ones who are going to build it." Neal Blumenthal, co-founder and co-CEO, Warby Parker inspired us with their goal "to prove a profitable company can do good in the world." Graham Hill, CEO LifeEdited, talked about the fact that, we now know that material possessions + more space do not equal more happiness, so we would be better off living in more environmentally efficient smaller spaces with cooperative areas. Catherine Rohr, founder and CEO, Defy Ventures spoke of finding an untapped resource of entrepreneurial talent in former criminals. And W Hurley from Chaotic Moon said the three key ingredients for success at any project are, "instigation, collaboration and innovation."

It was with this optimistic spirit we entered the next, and most exciting phase of the conference. Everyone split into six teams, which each split into smaller groups each about the size of a roundtable, to tackle "challenges" of their choice in the arenas of data, open design, eco, poverty and global health. I chose the global health challenge sponsored by Partners in Health. The challenge had many dimensions. The first, how to broaden awareness of healthcare as a human right globally? This brought up many questions and discussion. What was a human right? It was unanimous that even in our own country we had not achieved consensus on healthcare as human right. What about a massive public service commercial juxtaposing imagery from the past, when people lived for centuries without realization of what we now undisputedly consider our rights, right to an education, right to vote, right to not be enslaved by another person. Could the creation of cognitive dissonance spark awareness? What would a planet with basic healthcare available to all look like? Would we be, as a community, more productive? less divisive? less unstable? more happy? Was it not all about the dignity of being a human being, and respecting human life?

Our challenge also asked the group to address: How would sources of funding for Partners In Health be sustainable, and abundant? Most agreed that private donation motivated by guilt was unsustainable and undesirable. Private enterprise could and is entering the world of global health and developing profitable models to distribute health solutions. Governments of these countries must get involved. The need to shift perceptions toward the heroism of solving global health problems was identified, and youth must be targeted. They are the only answer, the only hope. A bunch of guys in our group said, we should shift the focus of kids on guns and war, from a war on people to a war on germs! They were very excited about this. A woman in our group from the United Nations did not like the war imagery at all, and suggested we steer clear of this, so we moved along to video games. Let's turn Angry Birds into Angry Germs. A partnership with an existing entity would require less up front cost. A company such as this is always seeking new content. This idea would engage kids, make them heroes for fighting global health challenges from malaria to TB, and channel funding to Partners in Health. We chose that.

When all the health challenge ideas came together, Angry Germs was joined by two others: A social media campaign through twitter and YouTube to engage people to shoot videos of people dancing to express their joy about preserving human life through charitable donations. Another idea was to circulate amazing geographic and cultural photography from the countries Partners In Health is working in, and thereby generate revenue, to showcase the beauty of those regions and not the sad story we often hear. The common thread in every group was a new optimistic solution, to a problem that in the past was often drowning in dreary.

What do I make of all this? The solutions to social problems of the future will be born in the minds of optimists and in settings like this. Some advice: If you can, go to The Feast next year, or some The Feast-related event. In the interim, make the effort to spend time with the most optimistic people you know. From this, great things will come.