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TechCon 2014: Mobilizing the Energy of a New Generation of Innovators

TechCon 2014: Mobilizing the Energy of a New Generation of InnovatorsSeveral young professionals, students, and technical experts from many sectors and University Labs across the U.S. and overseas came together during the first week of November to collectively share new insights into solving some of the greatest development challenges facing society.

TechCon2014 was setup by the United States Agency For International Development (USAID) as part of the Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) to mobilize the energy and ingenuity of a new generation of students, inventors, and entrepreneurs that live to transform science, technology and innovation into new solutions for global development.  

Participating in TechCon2014 was a unique way to learn about the most recent advances in agricultural water technologies and innovations that are having the greatest impact around the globe. As an AgWater Science consultant with the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA), I was most interested in product ideas that could be applied to issues related to water availability and urban-ag water efficiency themes with SFUAA. 

Here are some highlights from TechCon2014:

  • Conference Theme - “Connecting to Accelerate Global Development;”
  • TechCon was part of HESN, a program set up by USAID;
  • In three days, over 50 technical sessions and 25 plenary sessions/TedTalk/DevTalk sessions;
  • Over 175 speakers shared their visions, failures, successes, ideas and science and technology solutions for development.

Forming Partnerships with Academia & Innovation Ventures

Joining the gathering of young innovators was a great way to be a part of the new partnership approach that USAID is implementing to accelerate innovative solutions across a network based framework.  Some leaders in the agency realized that solving some of the ongoing major global issues will involve linking up with the interconnected youth based networks with expertise across a wide range of disciplines within global development.

So TechCon 2014 was convened to connect over 400 engaged attendees, comprising investors, academics young innovators, government leaders, field practitioners, and more to focus on creative approaches to solution ideation, testing, and scaling for international development.

It reunited a broad range of sectors with specialists in many fields to communicate new discoveries that will help to progressively reshape solutions to global challenges related to poverty, disease, and a host of water and sanitation issues. 

The speakers ranged from Mike Safyan, ‎Director of Launch and Regulatory at Planet Labs, who as a team is deploying satellites with the goal to digitally scan the earth once a day, to Lynelle Cameron, President & CEO at Autodesk Foundation who motivated young innovators to use human-centric design in innovative ways through the lifecycle of their innovations. Additional participants included representatives from Apple, Facebook, Living Goods, MercyCorps, further by design, Lemelson Foundation, VentureWell, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and HP.

Exploring High Tech Innovations

During the conference, many young scientists were involved with the technology demonstrations, where I enjoyed learning about PhotosynQ. A technology from Michigan State University that provides an online platform with data sharing and analysis tools, an extremely high tech but low-cost handheld kinetic photo-spectrometer and environmental monitor that can take measurements of a plant’s health soil moisture and nutrients.

I found this technology to be extremely interesting for the urban agriculture sector seeing a lot of people in San Francisco are interested in growing their own food yet few have training or appropriate tools for plant care and cultivation. Some of the other inventions included some interesting hydroponic systems production units and a radio communication systems built on renewable solar energies.

For the unconference sessions, I co-hosted a group discussion focused on agricultural technologies for innovation in urban agriculture, with another student host who was focused on landslide emergency relief systems in Uganda. Several of the youth that attended the session hailed from New York University,  Makerere University, Texas A&M University and a professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During the talks we exchanged ideas on the ways ag-technologies could potentially assist urban growers who lack sufficient information regarding the water and nutrient needs that go into growing food in urban spaces among other interesting topics.

Filling GaPS in the Global Development Processes

TechCon is a unique event that is working to change the framework for global development via a networking based innovation framework.
This is unique because the traditional approach to development that has been going on for many decades has involved a single lab or individual scientist working diligently to come up with a new discovery such as a vaccine or new water purification device that would potentially save lives - yet these innovations rarely make it to the communities most in need.
In reality, many great technologies in today’s marketplace have been designed by brilliant minds yet these products are overlooked or remain undiscovered due to a host of barriers that keep them from being scaled. Without the appropriate scaling support many new inventions and products that could potentially have wide-ranging impacts go unnoticed.

Scaling with the Innovation Marketplace

To address the innovation scaling dilemma, USAID along with several HESN development labs convened TechCon as a way to showcase the innovations emerging from the eight HESN Development Labs and the broader development and higher education communities focused on innovations for social good. 

The Innovation Marketplace provided an opportunity for attendees to then “invest” in young Innovator teams their concepts, innovation and research. Next years conference is likely to involve many new partnerships and innovations. It will be a great way to connect with the thriving ecosystem that encompasses nearly 250 partners across 42 countries and spanning multiple sectors and alliances. 

If TechCon2014 and international development themes interest you... you may enjoy this report that was released during the conference to address the problems facing the global poor and the pivotal role technology plays in finding solutions to these challenges.

Special thanks to staff at USAID’s Global Development lab for support with conference data and information applied to this article as part of the online YPARD blog .