Humanity needs new solutions

Every year the planet carries more and more people. We need new solutions and science can provide us with them. People in change is one of the three main themes of this year’s science based idea competition Helsinki Challenge.

The global population grows by approximately 75 million people each year. The population growth is especially remarkable in developing countries, thanks to progress in food production and health care. The improved technologies and medicine have helped save almost 37 million tuberculosis patients’ lives. Children’s HIV infections, that have been the bane of especially African countries, have decreased by almost 60 percent since the beginning of the 2000’s.

However, population growth brings pervasive challenges to both less developed parts of the world and wealthier western countries. The need for equal education and medical breakthroughs will become even more crucial, yet there are still huge strides to be taken. Over a 100 million people are illiterate, more than a half of them are women. 57 million children remain out of school.

In 2016 the UN launched the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It’s a universal action plan that consists of 17 goals aiming at reducing poverty, increasing equality and stopping climate change. People in change is one of the three main themes of Helsinki Challenge inspired by the 2030 Agenda goals.

Aging and diseases of affluence trouble the west

Whereas the population grows in developing countries, in Europe it diminishes and ages. Aging brings along challenges like loneliness and its different byproducts, says Satu Pajanne-Alanko, group leader and psychotherapist from Finnish social NGO Helsinki Missio.

“Loneliness can spur depression, memory related diseases and conflicts with relatives. Even if elderly people were surrounded by others, they might still feel lonely”, she says.

According to Pajanne-Alanko, senior citizens should receive more group support for example in the form of group therapy. Many seniors suffer feelings of loneliness that cannot be fixed with pills, but with social contact. Elderly people carry with them extremely valuable life experiences, which should be taken better into account. Groups could provide a low threshold transition back to society to those at risk of becoming marginalized.

Aging is a challenge typical for western countries. While basic problems in developing countries are being solved, new challenges that need solutions emerge in western countries. In addition to aging, cancer and health problems related to higher life standards (such as obesity and type two diabetes) pose big threats.

On top of these, there is antibiotic resistance. Bacteria become more and more immune which is why even the most harmless of infections can’t soon be tackled with antibiotics. This phenomenon is especially relevant right now in Southern Europe and the United States. “Hundreds of thousands of people a year die of infections caused by resistant bacteria. We can’t resolve antibiotic resistance by coming up with new medicines. We have to figure out how to make use of the drugs we have now and develop new ways of preventing and reducing infections at hospitals”, says Harri Saxén, University of Helsinki professor of children’s infection diseases.

Education becomes more and more unequal

The third main drawback in our changing world is inequality. Whether we are talking about education, gender or health, the increase of inequality is a massive hinderance for a sustainable future. Social inequality goes hand in hand with inequality in education, says Jouni Välijärvi, researcher at the University of Jyväskylä’s Finnish Institute for Educational Research.

“Students who have weaker support systems have worse learning results. The changes in our society’s structures, such as growing unemployment rates, reflect on students’ negative attitudes and weak engagement with school”, Välijärvi says.

In recent years Finland has been known as the shining example of high quality education even though our PISA scores started to decline already back in 2006. Illiteracy is a problem in Finland as well: an increasing number of elementary school students remain under the minimum level of the PISA scale in literacy skills. According to Välijärvi the reason behind this is that a growing portion of students has lost interest in reading during their free time.

“Especially boys and those who come from lower social classes don’t read much. Technology plays a big role in this. There’s a lot of competition for young people’s interest and time and the school is not winning the race.”

Both Välijärvi and Saxén emphasize the importance of information technology in the future. It will help map out new skills of young people that will be crucial in tomorrow’s world, such as navigating different information environments. In medicine virtual clinics and other applications could change healthcare as we know it.

We will not reach our full potential as humans if half of the human race lacks basic human rights and the prerequisites of a meaningful life. Without the basic building blocks people will not have many opportunities for social and cultural interaction. Helsinki Challenge is an opportunity to create solutions that make the world a bit more equal.

Helsinki Challenge call for applications is now open and it is the time to put your team together, since registration for the competition closes on 31 October. The final competition proposal must be submitted by 15 November.