THE BLOG
07/31/2015 03:32 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2016

Go Large: The Power of Exponential Thinking

For lovers of exponential thinking, the best place on Earth - and so by default the solar system - to immerse yourself in such ideas might be Silicon Valley. Those in the know make a beeline for Singularity University based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View - a stone's throw from Google HQ. You wouldn't even have to be a good shot.

Each year, the university, which is more like a think tank or incubator than a traditional university, scours the planet for the most inquisitive risk-takers with plenty of smarts who combine entrepreneurial zeal with a flair for creativity. Eighty extraordinary people are thrown together for a long hot summer of ideas and innovation on the 10-week graduate studies program, sponsored by Google. What unites them all is a desire to develop ideas that can improve the lives of one billion people.

Exponential thinking is still a relatively unknown concept. It is not just about thinking big, it is about the steps to go from small to big. The leading evangelizers are Ray Kurzwiel, an expert in artificial intelligence and director of engineering at Google, and Peter Diamandis, the author of the books Abundance and Bold and founder of the X Prize. In 2008, they co-founded Singularity University. Diamandis explains the difference between linear and exponential thinking: "If I were to take 30 linear steps, I'd end up 30 paces or 30 meters away. But if I said to you take 30 exponential steps, one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two and said where would you end up?"

The answer is a billion meters away, or twenty-six times around the planet.

Most people struggle with exponential thinking and the huge difference between linear and nonlinear change. So do most businesses and even whole industries. Look at the publishing and music industries now and a decade ago. Diamandis argues businesses now live or die based on their understanding of exponentials. If you don't want to be the next Kodak or Blockbuster or conversely, if you want to be the next Amazon or Google, you need deep immersion in the wonderful world of exponentials. And this is precisely what the Singularity University provides.

I was invited to the campus as one of the dozens of experts from a range of fields to provide intelligence briefings to the students on the most important developments in our fields. I presented the grand narrative of global change and the big ideas in environmental science: The Great Acceleration in human activity in the last few decades and its impact on Earth's life support systems; the concept of the Anthropocene - that humans have pushed Earth into a new geological epoch; the planetary boundaries framework, which identifies a safe operating space for humanity; and Future Earth, the new ten-year international research programme to develop solutions for global sustainability.

What hit home was the low awareness of the scale at which humans can now change the planet. Sure, climate change and environmental degradation are discussed in the media. Everyone in the room is aware of the environmental crisis. But the profound risks of nonlinear change are not permeating through.

The concept of the Anthropocene is as profound as they come. It is up there with Copernican heliocentricity and Darwinian evolution in terms of the cultural impact this idea is destined to have. At its core is the fact that the stability of the Earth system over the last 10,000 years, which has allowed agriculture to flourish leading to a single integrated global society, can no longer be taken for granted. If we are not already in the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth, then we are approaching rapidly. There are exponentials we need to avoid.

There is a rule of thumb - let's call it a law - that all innovations have at least one unintended consequence. These consequences can be good, bad or entirely neutral but the point is they are unforeseen. Given we are now a global human society where innovations spread like wildfire and impacts include altering Earth's life support system a greater degree of thought towards unintended consequences is probably in order.

Humanity has already had one lucky escape. Chlorine-based chemicals - CFCs, or chloroflurocarbons - were developed for use in refrigerators and aerosol sprays but in the 1970s scientists discovered CFCs destroyed ozone. Not a good idea given ozone prevents harmful UV rays hitting Earth. In the nick of time we had a ban on ozone-depleting substances.

Global scale exponential impact is going to be part of life in Anthropocene. Technology is an essential component of the transformation to a sustainable society and certainly we need to get on exponential curves for renewable energy, food security, disaster risk reduction and poverty alleviation. This is why Singularity University is so important. We need the next generation of innovators to tackle the global grand challenges and be cognisant of the risks of unintended consequences. This is what SU provides and every speaker I heard included this important caveat.

As you'd expect, the impact of the program is rapid. Maja Brisvall, a serial entrepreneur from Stockholm and graduate from 2014, has already launched her next venture, Quantified Planet, a non-profit organization to make it easy to share data, to make open data more useful and to link personal health to the health of cities and the health of the planet. This initiative will capitalize on the exponential rise of the so-called Internet of things: by 2020, according to the World Economic Forum, it is estimated that there will be 50 billion devices connected to the Internet generating unprecedented amounts of data. Even though this future is just five years away, it is difficult to predict the profound social, political and economic consequences. Unless, of course, you get with the (exponential thinking) program.