Moonshot Thinking for Global Challenges
by Gaidi Faraj, Dean of Faculty & Academic Affairs at ALU
Thomas Sankara once said, “We must dare to invent the future.” At ALU, we want students to imagine a new world. Our education focuses on innovative problem-solving in order to transform the continent and the world. “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness,” said Thomas Sankara. “In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas.” We want all students, regardless of their area of study, to see themselves as agents of change. In order to be change-makers, students must break out of always thinking in terms of safe, incremental change. One of the ways in which we teach problem-solving and generative thinking is through the concept of Moonshot Thinking.
Moonshots are ideas that have a low probability of success but that have a high impact if they do work. It comes from the concept of shooting for the moon, as exemplified by U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1969 mission of sending a man to the moon. A moonshot has three defining characteristics: it addresses a huge problem, proposes a radical solution and uses breakthrough technology. X, Google’s disruptive innovation division led by Astro Teller, creates radical new technologies to solve some of the world’s hardest problems. Some of X’s projects include: Project Loon which delivers the Internet to rural and unconnected places via balloon, Project Wing which explores how goods can be delivered via drone and Makani which tackles the delivery of electricity through kites. It is this kind of innovative approach that ALU seeks to foster within our students as we prepare them for leadership roles in the world.
ALU is rethinking higher education by focusing on problem-solving. “We’re trying to create the learning institutions of the future — places that focus on teaching people how to solve problems,” said Fred Swaniker in Fast Company, which named ALU most innovative company in Africa in 2019. This accolade recognizes companies solving tough problems and using high-level creativity to lead their sectors into the future. We are well-placed to meet the demand for future leaders with the education and skills necessary to bring about the continent’s transformation through knowledge, enterprise, and innovation.
Addressing global challenges requires radically new approaches to problem-solving. The next generation of leaders must develop their ability to move beyond conventional modes of thought and move into a mindset that is not limited by the state of the world as it is today. Tomorrow’s leaders need to be equipped with a toolbox of problem-solving frameworks.
Moonshot Thinking is one of the key skills students learn at ALU. It is taught within ALU’s Global Challenges Program. In the course, participants explore new ways of addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges using Moonshot Thinking to create solutions with exponential impact. Students look at issues ranging from terrorism to poverty to the dangers of artificial intelligence and the singularity. ALU’s undergraduate program in Global Challenges creates critical and creative thinkers who are not bound by the constraints of existing knowledge and systems, a program that creates young African leaders who are willing to think outside the box and go against the norms in order to come up with innovative solutions to the challenges facing the continent. The Global Challenges program starts with the question, “Which problem do I want to solve?” followed by the question, “How do I obtain the knowledge and skills to solve this problem?”
Through the facilitated sessions and hands-on activities performed in groups, participants push each other to rigorously apply futuristic thinking, going beyond the limits of the world as we know it today. “I now understand that sometimes the solution is not to re-invent the wheel but instead I can use tools already at my disposal to do extraordinary things. Moonshot Thinking allows me to be creative on a larger scale,” said Jerrylynn Kariuki, a student in the program. “Moonshot Thinking has imparted me with a mindset of not only thinking outside the box but of synthesizing my ideas to come up with something extraordinary. On my mission of providing access to quality healthcare to the people in the marginalized areas, the skill has become fundamental in enabling me to come up with a breakthrough technological solution to address this challenge,” said Jesse Salu, another student in the program.
ALU’s undergraduate program in Global Challenges aims to create leaders who will solve Africa’s problems with homegrown solutions that will benefit African people and communities. Students equipped with the Moonshot Thinking tool will be able to translate their learnings to other contexts as ALU’s interdisciplinary approach is centered on the challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed by Africa over the next 50 years. With a world-class education that focuses on the development of African expertise that is responsive to Africa’s challenges, these future leaders will transform the continent and the world.