By Becca Bayham

What will the world of 2050 look like?

Popular fiction tells us we’ll have hoverboards, spaceships and artificial intelligence. According to USAID advisor (and Duke alum) Alex Dehgan, we’ll also have new ways of addressing humanitarian challenges — and we’ll need them. Dehgan kicked off the Student International Discussion Group‘s Water & Energy Symposium, Feb. 10.

“We know that climate change is going to affect the U.S., the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. This is actually a national security issue for us,” Dehgan said. “One thing that I think has been forgotten is, it’s not just climate, it’s climate times the environment. It’s the interaction of these two pieces.”

Dehgan described a patch of tropical forest where all the trees had been cut down. Trees send moisture back to the atmosphere via transpiration. No trees, no rain. The ground dried up, and the area is now 30 degrees warmer than it was before.

The world of the future may look different in other ways. According to Dehgan, 51 countries will lose population between now and 2050, largely due to declining birth rates. Other countries such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Uganda, Ethiopia and the U.S. will experience massive population growth. Some of those countries already face problems providing their people with sufficient food, energy and clean water.

“[USAID] sees the developing world as the future of the U.S. economy,” Dehgan said. “Many of these challenges aren’t just bad news. They’re challenges we can take on to develop our markets.”

To that end, Dehgan cited five trends that will help organizations tackle humanitarian challenges in the future:

  1. Democratization of Science
    It took researchers 13 years and 2.7 billion dollars to sequence a single human genome for the first time. Now a company can sequence 100 genomes a day for less than $100 each. Lower costs allow humanitarian groups to deploy innovative technologies (such as vaccines) on a large scale.
  2. Increase in Computing Power
    “The power of computing is increasing exponentially, while the cost is decreasing exponentially. This provides us with exceptional ability to use computer power to help understand and solve problems,” Dehgan said.
  3. Data, Data, Data
    “A kid in Africa has more power and knowledge in his hand with a smart phone than President Clinton had 15 years ago,” Dehgan said. Technologies such as remote sensing, crowd sourcing and bioinformatics will add new types of data to our pool of knowledge.
  4. Connectivity
    Cellphones act as gateways to human knowledge, providing people with access to information they didn’t have before.
  5. Decentralization of Manufacturing
    Certain 3D printers, for example, now have the ability to produce 70 percent of the parts needed for another 3D printer. Online course materials such as iTunesU and MIT OpenCourseWare help support individuals that are trying to solve their own problems.

Dehgan also says he hopes that a sort of “humanitarian X Prize” could identify solutions to our changing world by catalyzing new research.

In 1996, the X Prize Foundation announced a $10 million reward for the first group to launch a manned, reusable vehicle into space twice within two weeks. The foundation hoped to spur innovation that would make low-cost space flight possible, and they succeeded. The winning team claimed the prize in 2004, after investing $100 million in new technologies.

“With grants, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Dehgan said. “If you have a prize, you only win the prize once you’ve actually solved the problem. And one of the great things about it is that you get more than one solution.”