Philanthropists must follow the governments lead and take a moonshot approach

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James Chen, a philanthropist, discusses how philanthropists can follow the governments lead on addressing moonshot issues

In a year where much has been made of the ambitious approach to vaccine development and distribution, the value of scientific innovation has perhaps been proven like never before. And so, a new high-risk, high-reward research agency announced by the UK government in February – the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) – is a statement of intent fit for the context of today’s world.

Much like ARPA in the US, ARIA’s approach to innovation will ensure that the development of ambitious, cutting edge technology is not prevented by unnecessary red tape or a focus on safe bets. The agency’s moonshot approach will be underpinned by a much higher tolerance for failure than is usual for government-funded research, affording greater creativity and the opportunity to test risky projects with the potential to create a big impact.

This is an exciting step for innovation in the UK, and will help to secure and advance the country’s position as a technology and science superpower in a post-pandemic world.

A moonshot approach to funding and research has long been seen within the science and technology spheres. Google, for example, invests billions into ‘X’, its so-called moonshot factory project, which aims to solve humanity’s great problems through the invention of radical new technologies. Last year, we also saw the announcement of the Duke of Cambridge’s Earthshot Prize, funding the best solutions to tackle some of the biggest environmental challenges of our time.

In a public context, the development of ARIA is a sign that the UK government has acknowledged how powerful a high-risk approach can be if we are to make significant advancements in innovation. But it leaves me to wonder in what other contexts we could see such an approach.

My view is that philanthropists should be taking notes on the value of moonshot thinking. When it comes to driving social change, private philanthropists are uniquely positioned to be able to take risks and invest in moonshot projects. Unlike governments or private companies, who are accountable to the public or to their shareholders, philanthropists can wholly absorb the cost of failed projects, while also socialising and scaling up successful initiatives to create world-changing impact.

Some of the greatest inventions and ideas of the modern world found their roots as philanthropic projects, which when successful, were rolled out at scale. These include technology that today we take for granted, from street lights to telephone lines and municipal sewer systems.

This is not to say that high net worth individuals should fund any project. I believe that a central part of being a moonshot philanthropist is to develop domain expertise, and to truly understand the context and history of an issue to fund and develop the projects which have the best chance of succeeding and making a difference.

Vision research

I have taken this approach throughout my own work in vision. Of the 2.2 billion people globally with poor vision, the sight of one billion could be improved with a simple pair of glasses – technology that has been around for 700 years. Addressing poor vision through glasses is not only cost-effective but can have a transformative impact on people’s lives; impacting productivity, education, gender equality and social mobility.

It was with this in mind that I founded Vision for a Nation, the moonshot programme to bring affordable eyecare to an entire country. Through taking a risk to achieve a difficult goal, we successfully developed a model to bring affordable eye care and glasses to those who needed them in Rwanda, a programme which was then rolled out nationally.

Following the success of this programme, I founded the Clearly campaign, which was launched to raise awareness of poor vision as a global issue. The goal of this moonshot campaign is even more ambitious: that everyone worldwide should have access to a pair of glasses if they need one. My hope is that by the time the first person sets foot on Mars, everyone on earth has access to the vision correction they need to watch that incredible moment.

As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges of our time, we must ask what the role of philanthropy is in creating a better world post-pandemic.

While government initiatives like ARIA demonstrate the power of the moonshot and how attitudes towards high-risk and high-reward strategies are changing in the wake of COVID-19, private philanthropists must also act to use their unique position to create impactful change.

Now is the time for philanthropists to take risks to make a difference, and adopt a moonshot way of thinking to tackle the issues of today and create a better world tomorrow.


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