The University convened entrepreneurs, legal experts, and luminaries to discuss how to harness the power of technology to strengthen democracy, especially in the Americas, in a conversation co-hosted with the Knight Foundation ahead of eMerge Americas 2022. University leadership later participated in various panels on the first day of eMerge.
As eMerge Americas, a two-day industry conference held on Miami Beach, prepared to open the expo floor for the first time since 2019, University of Miami President Julio Frenk hosted a moderated discussion on Monday titled, “Miami at the Intersection of Tech and Democracy,” which examined ways to utilize technological innovations to strengthen democracy worldwide.
Frenk explained that the discussion topics stemmed from a concept paper generated by University authors together with a wide range of partners. The paper aimed to produce proposals to sculpt the framework for the Ninth Summit of the Americas, which will take place June 6-10 in Los Angeles, for which the United States is the chair and host.
The central proposal is to create a coalition to champion “computational democracy” as opposed to “computational autocracy,” a concept that recognizes technology’s potential to serve either democratic or oppressive ideals.
“It’s the moment to act decisively and create a coalition that proposes the use of technology unleashed with respect for human rights,” said Frenk, “so that it strengthens, elevates, and empowers and becomes a means to solve the complex challenges humanity faces rather than a tool for exacerbating divisions of disinformation, oppression, and inequality.”
Rony Abovitz, tech entrepreneur and double alumnus of the University, was a major contributor to the paper.
Abovitz suggests that the first step to reevaluating tech’s role at this junction is to convene a gathering that mirrors that of the founding fathers who spent months in Philadelphia in 1787 debating and writing the US Constitution, the foundation of Western democracy.
“We need to convene hundreds of the brightest minds who believe in democracy, in the same way that in the late 1700s when we were building this country we convened the greatest minds,” Abovitz said. “Something like that is deeply needed right now—to bring together the people who are the smartest at technology and the philosophers of democracy.”
Andres Oppenheimer, syndicated foreign affairs columnist with the Miami Herald and CNN en Español anchor, moderated the discussion that, in addition to Frenk and Abovitz, included the participation of Carlos Trujillo, former US ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS); Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Florida congresswoman recently named as a special advisor for the Summit of the Americas; Yelena Yesha, University professor and chief innovation officer of the Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC); June Teufel Dreyer, University professor of political science; and Jaret Davis, an alumnus and co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig and a legal expert on the tech industry.
Yesha highlighted the tremendous acceleration of technology and said that 80 to 90 percent of those developments have been positive, promoting advances in health care, in homeland security, and other areas.
She emphasized the need for a better educated workforce that understands how to harness these new technologies and called on universities to play a more active role to “train the trainers” to help make the technologies more accessible to all and therein seed more positive change.
Dreyer, an expert on China and senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, detailed the country’s strategic advances throughout Latin America over the past decades and its approach to wielding influence that sometimes constitutes “economic warfare” and the sale of technologies such as the “ carnet de la patria,” a national card adopted in Venezuela for access to health care and a range of other services.
“ZTE and Huawei [Chinese multinational technology companies] have taken over the technology in Venezuela, and the carnet lets the government and thereby the Chinese government track everything about you,” said Dreyer, noting that Chinese companies are compelled by law to share their information with the Chinese government.
“Through the Belt and Road Initiative much is promised, but little seems to materialize,” Dreyer noted. “What is proposed as a gift turns out to be a loan. China provides infrastructure that is good for China, but not necessarily for the country.”
Murcasel-Powell emphasized that in order to strengthen democracy in the region through technology it would be critical to engage all sectors of society.
“This will not be a summit of only bringing together government officials,” the special advisor to the OAS Summit said. “We have a strong commitment to partnering with the private sector, the chambers of commerce, and all aspects of civil society. To ensure the summit’s success we have to bring together everyone to participate and to bring their solutions.”
In opening the forum at the Miami Beach Convention Center, Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, announced that the Miami Herald would provide 2,500 digital subscriptions to its full capacity of English and Spanish-language content to university students and researchers who are part of the 13-member Hemispheric University Consortium, which includes institutions from Canada to South America and was launched by the University of Miami in 2018.
During a mid-day session on the first day of eMerge, Jeffrey Duerk, the University’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, presided over the inaugural “Hemispheric University Consortium Social Ideas Challenge,” a new component of the initiative co-hosted by the Miami Herbert Business School.
Teams from six consortium member universities, representing Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and the United States, participated. Students shared their entrepreneurial projects developed within the UN Sustainable Development Goals framework.
Laura Hopman, a University junior majoring in legal studies, and Alison Granirer, a sophomore majoring in economics and legal studies, presented on “Kickback UM,” a startup geared to spread awareness for the scourge of human trafficking and to provide self-defense skills to women who are victimized.
During a panel, “The Future of Education is Being Shaped by Tech and Innovation,” Frenk recalled that when the University shifted to a hybrid learning model during the COVID-19 outbreak, the move was done more out of necessity than as a strategy to redesign the college experience.
“It was an emergency response, and it’s not what higher education should look like after the pandemic,” Frenk said. “What I prefer is blended education.”
In the hybrid model, he explained, the institution separated students depending on their needs. “Blended education,” he said, “achieves the optimal blend between in-person instruction and online and other forms of technology-driven instruction depending on pedagogical imperatives.”
During the panel, Frenk shared the eMerge main stage with Kenneth A. Jessell, interim president of Florida International University, and Madeline Pumariega, president of Miami Dade College, offering his insights on everything from “lifelong education” to the ways institutions must help students adapt to an ever-changing environment.
With Davis, from the law firm Greenberg Traurig, moderating the forum, Frenk delved into the concept of education for life, explaining that it entails more than learning that lasts for an entire lifetime but also education that “prepares students to lead meaningful and rewarding lives ,” he pointed out.
“Our graduates are graduating into the most dynamic labor market in history, thanks to technology,” he said. “Whatever you learn while you’re at the university is not going to be enough.” While he will enable students to be creative and to work in teams and appreciate different perspectives, students, he said, also need a “foundation that allows them to adapt and fly in a changing labor market.”
On Tuesday, Joe Echevarria, UHealth chief executive officer and executive vice president for health affairs, will take part in the Main Stage Founder’s Factory panel, “Founder’s Factory Makes Its Big Bet on Health in Miami.”