Author profile picture

Tomorrow is good.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 07.51.59In a weekly column, alternately written by Lucien Engelen, Maarten Steinbuch, Carlo van de Weijer and Daan Kersten, E52 tries to find out what the future will look like. All four contributors are – in addition to their ‘normal’ groundbreaking work – linked to the SingularityU The Netherlands, the organization that focuses on spreading knowledge about technologies that can provide solutions to the problems of our time. This Sunday, it’s Lucien Engelen‘s turn.

By Lucien Engelen
SU Lucien EngelenEarlier this week I attended the Third International German Forum in Berlin. When I received the personal invitation of Chancellor Merkel I had some doubts at first to be honest. It looked real with the embossed logo etcetera, but was it, or was someone pulling my nose ?

A check ( I even checked her signature on Wikipedia ;-)) learned it was real and I signed up for a two day forum on IT & Innovation, the war on infectious diseases and the (need for the) rise of awareness for mental health. Chancellor Merkel is planning to take the threat posed by infectious disease as one of the centerpoints of the upcoming German Presidency of the G20.

brief merkelChancellor Angela Merkel launched this new format in 2013. The aim of the International German Forum is to put in place a network for global learning and to devise common solutions to the issues that will define our future. The First International German Forum was held in 2013 and explored “What matters to people – quality of life and progress”. The Forum continued in 2015, and focused on “What matters to people – innovation and society”.

Over 120 participants from all over the world flown in to discuss, debate, explore and share ideas, thoughts hunches and sometimes also politics in a real forum setting at the Chancellery.

It was a group with great diversity, in geographical, gender, background and organisations. Being the only representative from the Netherlands I had the chance to meet a lot of different people what already invoked tangible action points with some of the other attendees.

The first day had some great presentations from people all over the world i.e. from the ‘Self-employed Women’s Association’ from India, e-health in Canada, Telemedicine in Abu Dhabi and addiction to screens and sugar in South Africa to name few. Next there were 4 working sessions on improving the use of antibiotics, fighting neglect of tropical diseases and overcoming the taboo of mental health. I was assigned to the group about using the potential of ICT in healthcare (surprise ;-)).

Due to its diverse setting and the format (World Cafe) we tried to make a foresight on how the future of health will look like. Here we had great debates like who owns the healthdata, what is the role of trust. I must say I have been in sessions like these numerous times, this one was different. Due to the different backgrounds, expertise and also cultural differences and even religion it was a session with great dynamics and insights. Some of them still boggle my mind and my little computer up there is still busy processing them 😉 Like a discussion we had about the level ‘free will’ to share data if you are ‘forced’ to share data because you otherwise can’t afford your healthcare insurance fee.

Early evening there were presentations of the three finalists of the ‘Hacking for Global Health’ contest all from Kenya: an app-based micro health insurance scheme, a platform allowing young Kenyans to learn about “taboo” topics, and a messaging service to ensure early referrals of pregnant mothers to skilled health care providers. The jury selected the app-based micro insurance scheme as the overall winner. It addresses low-income parents who get together to set up savings groups to pay for health care for their children. The winning team will receive support to help them further develop their software.

The second day kicked of with “innovation spotlights’ from Ghana, the US/Malaysia, Germany and Switzerland.

  • Bright Simons from Ghana, for instance, founded the “mPedigree” network, which fights counterfeit drugs. The network is already active in 12 African states, where it marks drug packaging as “safe”.
  • In New York, Sofia Ahsanuddin heads the MetaSUB International Consortium. It examines microorganisms in local public transport systems in more than 70 cities around the world, in a bid to better understand antimicrobial resistance and to forecast outbreaks of disease at an earlier stage. Its “world map of invisible life” has already rendered visible very diverse resistance profiles.
  • Jonathan Ledgard’s goal is to build drone bases across Africa. Flying robots are to accelerate the transport of medical drugs and emergency equipment. He is currently planning the world’s first base, designed by architect Sir Norman Foster.
  • My friend Dhesi Raja is conducting research in the USA and Malaysia, with a view to using artificial intelligence to predict the outbreak of epidemics such as the Zika virus or dengue fever. The machine he has developed, AIME (Artificial Intelligence in Medical Epidemiology), makes it possible to localise epidemics three months in advance.

Next stop was a great discussion with Angela Merkel, preluded with some insights. – Around the globe, information and communication technology is one of the main drivers of innovation in the health sector. Digital solutions offer a huge potential, for instance to improve health care delivery in remote areas through telemedicine, to analyse data thoroughly, and to train health service staff. Morten Elbaek Petersen from Denmark presented Europe’s largest e-health program, which enables Danish citizens and health service staff to access information and individual health data from any location. The Chancellor was impressed by this pioneering feat. She compared this with the difficulties encountered in Germany with the introduction of a standardised health card on which patient data would be stored.

  • The high and often inappropriate use of antibiotics around the globe is resulting in ever more resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotics are then no longer effective. It is estimated that antibiotic-resistant pathogens are responsible for 700,000 deaths every year. Alison Holmes, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College, London, called for the circumspect and rational use of antibiotics. She urged participants to focus use primarily on hospitals.
  • Fighting neglected tropical diseases. Worldwide more than one billion people suffer from one or more neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), including Ebola. These diseases often occur in tropical and subtropical regions in which medical care is frequently poor. John Humphrey Amuasi from Ghana heads the first purely African research network dedicated to these diseases. He called for sound preventive action, efficient diagnosis and treatment, and more research in order to combat NTDs.
  • Mental health – overcoming the taboo. A large part of the discussion with the Chancellor was dedicated to mental health issues. Around the world, one in four people is affected by mental health issues at least once in their lifetime. But this is a taboo field in many societies and sufferers are stigmatised. Participants considered how societies can achieve a better understanding of mental health and how they can better address mental health problems. Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist from India, is working to overcome the taboos and stigma related to mental health issues. His “Mental Health Innovation Network” provides an international platform for ideas and solutions.

With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international community has set itself “the extremely ambitious goal of giving every person in the world, whatever their age, an entitlement to health care” Chancellor Merkel said. During its G7 Presidency, Germany launched a research initiative to develop vaccines that will give protection against tropical diseases.

Then we went of for the traditional group photo (not yet available) with this extraordinary woman, who’s funny, down to earth and extremely smart.

“We will continue to work hard on this,” said the Chancellor who also elaborates a bit more on global health in her (German) podcast.

All in all a very interesting setting, discussion and network to be part of with lots of new friends, perspectives and approaches. I’m curious to see how this input will play out in the G20 later on.