Six months ago, on a perfectly calm autumn day, I took one wrong step in front of my house in the dark, slipped, and fell. I broke my ankle in a spectacular fashion and my tibia and fibula tore apart. It was the first such physical injury I had ever sustained. I needed immediate surgery and I returned home in a wheelchair.
At the time, it felt devastating—slowing down from public engagements, travel, inability to care for my little ones, and to navigate my own home—a colonial stacked house in Northern Virginia where all the bedrooms were on the second floor. Of course, there is nothing devastating about an injury that eventually can be overcome. But if nothing else, the experience brought to light how easy it is for everything to change in an instance and how unprepared we are to navigate mobility challenges.
That is why the cover story for this edition (launching right before the Global Health Assembly annual meetings at the UN in Geneva) resonated so much with me. Robert Riener, a biomedical engineer and professor for sensory-motor systems in the department of health sciences and technology at ETH Zurich, was moved by survivors of accidents—big and small—whose mobility has been compromised or impaired. As he explains, there are over a billion people in the world that the World Health Organization estimates are dealing with some form of disability—this issue knows no borders. An expert on how to address these issues with the help of the most cutting-edge technologies, he saw a bigger opportunity: societal change that comes from a platform where scientists and citizens can have a dialogue.
This is not a story about gadgetry and scientific breakthroughs—although there is plenty of that to make professor Riener and his colleagues proud. This is a story about coming together as a society and placing people at the heart of the research and technology. That’s what makes Cybathlon a story worth telling.
As I have written before, we live in an age of paradoxes: we produce enough food to feed the world over but people still go to bed hungry every night. We have an abundance of information and learning tools available but we are still grappling with illiteracy in certain parts of the world. And in healthcare, a massively broken industry (especially in the United States) we are on the cusp of witnessing some of the biggest breakthroughs humanity has ever seen.
Beyond the innovation and the tech, the future of health centers on our elevated sense of purpose in life. This is why there is ample room for innovation and science to utilize diplomacy’s toolbox to achieve the nexus of technology for social good.