Singularity University and the Shelter Global Grand Challenge

Darlene Damm
Jul 29, 2019

Shelter is one of Singularity University’s global grand challenges. In particular, we believe in creating a world with secure, safe, and sustainable shelter for residence, recreation, and industry for all people at all times.According to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, over 828 million people are estimated to live in slums. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, nearly 71 million people are currently displaced from their homes, with over half from conflict-torn areas in Afghanistan, Syria, and South Sudan. In addition, urbanization is increasing at a fast rate, much of it in low-income countries. Currently, more than 4.2 billion people live in cities, and an estimated 6.5 billion people are estimated to migrate to cities by 2050. Despite these challenges, we are seeing a number of exponential and digital technologies revolutionize the shelter sector, and I believe shelter will be an especially active area for technological innovation in the next few years.

Convergence among multiple industries is enabling progress

One of the areas where we are seeing significant innovation is in the digitization and convergence of the multiple industries that create new types of shelters. Currently, architecture, construction, vending and supply, and real estate are all digitizing and connecting their systems. In some cases, this can mean engaging robots and 3D printers to literally build houses, such as ICON New Story’s project to build affordable homes in Central America and the world’s first 3D printed community. In other cases, the innovation involves creating digital platforms or visualization technologies that allow different industry members to collaborate more fluidly and efficiently. My colleague, Aaron Frank, for example, recently wrote about a $1 billion real estate company that operates entirely in virtual reality.One company I also enjoy following is Katerra, a building company that focuses on bringing breakthrough technologies and innovations into the building industry. The company noted that the multi-trillion-dollar global construction industry historically only invested less than 1% of revenue into new technologies, and Katerra is aiming to change that. In fact, although Katerra focuses on building, it self-identifies as a technology company.In addition to construction and building, I also follow the work of New America and its Future of Property Rights Initiative. The organization recently published a primer on property rights and technology, sharing how exponential technologies can help some of the world’s most vulnerable people secure identity and property rights through new types of credentialing. And while the organization focuses on applying new technologies to help the world’s most vulnerable, it’s also keeping an eye on the future and has even started researching the future of off-planet property rights.

3D Printed House

Our Faculty share compelling visions of the future of shelter

As our Vice Chair of Global Grand Challenges, I am also proud that many of our Faculty and innovators are working to help solve the Shelter global grand challenge. One SU Faculty member, James Ehrlich, has been pioneering a vision, ReGen Villages, for off-grid, tech-infused communities that are energy-positive; use renewable energy, water management, and waste-to-resource systems; and produce food to feed the community. Even more interestingly, he has developed an abundance-based business model where surplus resources can be sold outside the village to pay down customer mortgages. One of the most important questions innovators must consider as they use technology to innovate is: Who will benefit from the gains produced by technology? Will the innovator, investor, employee, or customer benefit? James is showing that you can create a win-win model where all can benefit, which could dramatically protect economies from the extreme income inequalities that exponential technologies can sometimes manifest.We also have a number of Faculty members who are working on smart cities. SU Nordic Faculty member, Kim Escherich, focuses on smart cities and the Internet of Things. Melba Kurman covers smart cities and autonomous vehicles and their implications, including who will control the data from these devices, how new technologies can solve social problems in cities, and their effect commerce and movement.

Cities of the future

Our startups and ecosystem are working to solve the shelter challenge

SU Portfolio Company Deepblocks was created during our 2016 Global Solutions Program (now Global Startup Program) and is digitizing the real estate development industry. The company’s software allows people to better understand future scenarios for property they might develop and predict return on investment by integrating data and streamlining communication between stakeholders. Check out our case study about Deepblocks for more information.SU Portfolio Company billionBricks has created a number of innovations to end homelessness including weatherHYDE, an award-winning, life-saving extreme weather shelter; Urban Crossover, a research and advocacy think tank to address homelessness in 20 cities; and b8 Studio, which co-designs scalable, high-quality shelter and infrastructure with key stakeholders. In addition to our startups, SU alumnus Kevin Adler is the founder of Miracle Messages, which uses technology to reunite homeless people with their families.If you’re interested in some thought-provoking visions about the future of housing, be sure to check out this comic by Amy Kurzweil, outlining her future vision of a self-driving house, and this Singularity Hub article that suggests our houses may be “living” in the future.Are you working on solutions to address global shelter issues? Join our community and start logging your impact goals. While there, connect and start conversations with others who share your interests.