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  • Matthew Bauer

As Sci-Fi Becomes our Reality, A Pathway to the Future

Having been a Sci-Fi fan since my early days, I’ve pondered humanity’s future since viewing my first Star Trek episode back in the 70s. One wonderful thing about Sci-Fi is that we are able to imagine various outcomes for humanity; do we evolve towards our better nature and avoid damnation or sink into a post-apocalyptic future? On this tilt, I’ve always enjoyed even bad Sci-Fi, as its fun to just imagine the possibilities, which helps to shape and tone one’s perspective on this big topic.

As we pass into 2019, our fragile and amazing world finds itself on the precipice of some issues on a scale our species has not before faced, realities that have been predicted by the Sci-Fi prophets throughout the decades. Two prominent examples are a growing, immense economic gulf between the power structure and the rest of humanity to levels not seen before (see Hunger Games) and the quickly accelerating destruction of our ecosystem, which took billions of years to evolve and just a century-ish to bring to heel from our carbon-based economy (see the book 2312).

At the same, arguably humankind’s greatest breakthrough of the past 50 years is the Internet and all its connective tissue (hardware, operating systems, mobile, etc.). In much less than the span of my lifetime (52) we have imagined, created and built an interconnected global machine so powerful that it has affected or infected, depending on how you look at it, every corner of modern life. Many writers even as far back as Mark Twain foresaw the Internet coming from over a 100 years ago and its benefits have had an outsized affect on the haves, with the have-nots getting a taste but nowhere near the levels of innovation applied to Uber, Netflix, the plethora of social media, Amazon, on and on.

It’s when we start imagining the Internet and its mobile access on-ramps as less of a self- promoting and commercial engine, but rather, as an evolution towards a biosphere consciousness, where things get really exciting. Add in the promise of health-care, banking, identity, learning, and gainful employment via the web and we start to view the “machine” in totality as a potential equalizer, one where all the basics are there and access to all these elements is more egalitarian and widespread.

And now for our story…

One of the most prolific examples of collective human suffering, displacement and disconnection today is the global refugee crisis, which also has massive political, economic and security implications. According to the UNHCR, nearly 70m people have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, or generalized violence. Humanity has on its hands the highest number of refugees in history, even more than post WWII and over half of them are children under 18.

As the crisis was reaching critical mass, Sparrow was launched in 2014. Our goal from the outset was to create a for profit and for good social enterprise, combining a mainstream impact brand connecting consumers’ mobile services to the impact they are helping to fuel. After switching and each month they are on Sparrow’s network, our customers help someone in digital poverty gain access to mobile devices, training and services, which we distribute through structured and measured programs with partners on the ground serving women and youth, refugee families, homeless and veterans. One example is our RefugeeMobile project, which was formed in 2016 and has blossomed into an incredible cross-sector mosaic of companies, NGOs, funders and academia.

RefugeeMobile is a cross-sector partnership creating digital inclusion for displaced people via smartphones, tailored apps and wireless connectivity. After a successful 18-month demonstration pilot in Texas, RefugeeMobile has entered its second phase; creating a scalable platform that can be delivered by multiple agencies in additional localities.

RefugeeMobile was created by sparrow in partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, Refugee Services of Texas, the Tableau Foundation, Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunity (LEO), and backed in part by a MacArthur Discovery Grant. The results of Phase One, conducted as randomized control trial by LEO in four Texas cities involving a few hundred newly settled refugee families, yielded several encouraging and statistically significant results for participants who received smartphones.

Highlights include:

- 15% more likely to own smartphone; - 28% more likely to have Internet at home; - 45% more likely to interact with someone from a different culture on a weekly basis; - Potentially more likely to be employed and have higher earnings.

Building on the success of the demonstration pilot, Phase Two is focused on applying insights and developing a scalable platform with easy access for case managers and enhanced technology for participants, including new smartphones, more data and refined apps. Phase Two funding was led by Vodafone Americas Foundation, as well as geographic diversity through new on the ground partners Catholic Charities of Forth Worth and Jewish Family Services of Seattle (via HIAS).

Underlying the success of RefugeeMobile is a high functioning partnership with distinct benefits brought to the table by a diverse set of organizations. Sparrow brought speed to market and focus, helping get the project quickly off the drawing board and into production in less than six months from funding. In addition, Sparrow brought its commercial mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) wireless carrier into the mix to help design specific mobile services as well as our Mobile Mentors who provided in-community front line client care backed by our traditional commercial call center, as well as network/device-based measurement tools.

The social service agencies provided the experienced voice, clients and on the ground process to ensure service delivery and gathering of measurement data, with measurement and evaluation handled by a seasoned academic organization with procedures honed over years of similar projects.

As a result of our work via RefugeeMobile, sparrow was nominated in 2016 to be a founding member of the TENT Corporate Partnership for Refugees. The Partnership now includes over 100 members, from Fortune 100 companies Unilever, MasterCard, Microsoft and UPS to Silicon Valley stalwarts LinkedIn, Airbnb and Google, as well as start-up social enterprises Newton Supply and Sparrow. The roundtable, convened and hosted by President Obama (pictured here shaking hands with yours truly) and Hamdi Ulukaya (founder of TENT and CEO of Chobani), also included Amal and George Clooney, V.P. Joe Biden, and the CEOs of MasterCard, TripAdvisor and Western Union and other dignitaries. The companies and individuals in attendance that day committed over $650 million in support for the refugee crisis and continue to work together through TENT.

In the larger context, we see as critical the massive adoption and participation of companies big and small as a keystone towards achieving the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. In particular the $2T plus telecoms sector has an outsized opportunity and responsibility to act on their original charters as a public benefit (See U.S. 1934 Communications Act as one point of reference). Now we have the wires laid, the towers built, advancements like 5G on the way with all the innovation our species can muster poured in, its time for telecoms to get off the relative sidelines and go all in.

On a more general scale, one prescient piece of advice Pres. Obama passed on to the group assembled at the end of our TENT roundtable in 2016 was to go out and activate our respective customer bases. This is another dimension that other sectors do not have the possibility to engage. Companies have been putting much of their energy towards their internal operations and footprint, but the opportunity to engage the public to take billions of little steps is an undiscovered country and win win that will be also key towards achieving the SDGs.

So, it’s time to face our destiny, which Sci-Fi movie or story do we want to emulate? Do we want a post-apocalyptic future, with zombies crossing the earth looking for their next meal or one that, while not waxing Pollyanna, the possibilities for a more egalitarian playing field and carbon-less infrastructure is not a matter of science fiction anymore, its just a matter of choice.

Bringing it home with a quote from one of my all-time heroes, Carl Sagan, his practical and amazing perspective influenced so many, and he created one of the best Sci-Fi stories of all time, Contact. “You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

For Additional Information:

- sparrow Website

- TENT Website

- RefugeeMobile Microsite

- RM Press Release

- RM Fast Company Article

- Inc. Magazine Article on Digital Poverty and Sparrow

- The Carl Sagan Portal

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