On Sept. 14, Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) launched a new, five-year strategy focused on innovations in human flourishing. The first step in this strategy is an open call for ideas to identify Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing and scientifically tractable ways to address them. This process will provide at least $40 million to fund interdisciplinary research as part of a larger multi-part strategy to translate breakthroughs into practical tools. Here, Andrew Serazin, President of Templeton World Charity Foundation, discusses this strategy and how the Grand Challenges in Human Flourishing fit into it.
What is the new strategy for Templeton World Charity Foundation?
AS: Our five-year strategy is all about innovation at the heart of human flourishing. At a basic level, flourishing is really about the conditions under which human beings can be at their best. We think that human flourishing obviously includes domains like physical and mental health, but it also includes other important dimensions like close social relationships, character and virtue, meaning and purpose, and spiritual well-being. Fundamentally, our strategic vision is about raising the aspirations for humanity. We can do better than just survival. We can flourish.
How do we get there?
I hope we can bring a level of scientific rigor to the conversation on flourishing. I believe we can achieve these goals by using the same processes that have impacted almost every other area of human endeavor — namely the methods and tools of innovation. This means using data and committing to experiments. It also means being humble about changing our approaches when the data says they don’t work, as well as being bold and taking risks. All of those processes and practices have transformed many areas including technology, commerce, healthcare, environmental management. There is absolutely no reason they cannot be applied to the sorts of habits, behaviors, policies, and tools that enable human beings to flourish.
Implicit in this is an understanding of what it means for humans to be at their best.
That’s right. I think that every culture has embedded within it a perspective on human nature and by extension, how people can be at their best. Aristotle cast a vision for ‘the good life’ in terms of the cultivation of virtue. In the United States, it’s the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is a testament to self-improvement and growth. At the same time, the cultural value of Ubuntu (loosely translated from Swahili as ‘I am because you are’) has emerged as a central concept in Southern and East Africa.
What is an example of an innovation directed at human flourishing?
The modern mindfulness movement is really a product of the Zen Buddhist way of thinking about the world. The core insight about being present was subjected over about 30 years to an innovation process. It started with developing candidate interventions, prototype testing, trials in multiple human populations, replication, and meta-analysis. Now you find mindful interventions in almost every single aspect of our culture — from church to school to smartphones. It took a long time, and it may not have been perfect, but the point is that mindfulness innovations have made a big impact.
How will this strategy work in practice?
Over the next five years we will be assembling a pipeline across Discovery, Development, and Launch of innovations that will help us organize the process. It starts with Discovery, which includes bold, interdisciplinary and experimental work where the benefits may not be obvious. In the Development phase, it’s the testing of interventions using trials and statistics. And then there’s Launch. The strategy is really just a tool to manage the process of finding and testing innovations in human flourishing.
How does the Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing Request for Ideas fit into this strategy?
The Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing is our way of harvesting ideas for the discovery phase. It is a time-bound activity to put a stake in the ground and raise awareness. We know ideas are distributed around the globe. Our funding shouldn’t be particular to any region or location, instead it should go to the most speculative, bold, high risk research projects related to human nature and human flourishing. The Grand Challenges are our way of signaling to the world that we want ideas, and we’ll formulate future grant-making activities on the basis of the ideas that are submitted.
How does this differ from what other foundations do?
I hope that what makes us particularly unique is that the outcomes we hope to achieve for society are going to be at the cutting edge of disciplines where we need new conceptual models. We’re going outside the realms of traditional research. There’s inherently more risk involved in tackling goals that are not just about physiological states or wellbeing, and it requires a level of interdisciplinary collaboration that is unique.
Where does this unique perspective come from?
Part of it is definitely from our founder, Sir John Templeton. First, he believed that humanity was on the beginning of this long and grand journey and was quoted that ‘Now is the blossoming time in the creation of man.’ Second, the time frame that we’re willing to operate on is going to be beyond the quarterly earnings report and beyond any election cycle. The big, existential questions that we ask will be with us as long as human beings are around. Third, we also have a fundamental belief in the goodness of human beings and that flourishing is possible. It’s not always assured, and we need to work for it, but it is possible. We have an orientation towards the positive that can far outweigh any kind of setbacks or skepticism about the fundamental goodness of humanity.
Is there anything else people need to know about the strategy?
Philanthropy literally means ‘love of humans’ and by focusing on flourishing we are challenging researchers and innovators to deliver much-needed breakthroughs. We want to think beyond near-term considerations and towards a future that is filled with more creativity, dynamism, progress, and opportunity for all.