Breaking Down Barriers and Finding New Solutions




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Jun 03, 2019
by Martin Silva Rey
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Breaking Down Barriers and Finding New Solutions

Co-founder and CEO of citiesRISE Moitreyee Sinha on collective, community-based action Moitreyee Sinha is a physicist by training and spent her early career in global research at General Electric Company (GE)

“We’ve kind of forgotten what it is to be human, so in the sense that society is so fragmented. Each of us… in terms of how our lives are, how the world around us—there’s so much fragmentation that it’s hard sometimes to remember that in the end, everything is interconnected…,” said Moitreyee Sinha, co-founder and CEO of citiesRISE.

Sinha grew up in India, and when the time came to choose a profession, she says the options in front of her at that time were limited. “You were either a doctor or engineer, and if all failed, you were a teacher and an artist. Those were the only career paths, and I chose to study physics because I was always drawn to more fundamentals,” she said. “And I felt like physics had the answers to the universe. That was only until later on when I realized that science models the truth, so in the sense that it’s only to the extent that your own knowledge is.”

She longed to see the world outside of India, so the young physicist crossed the world to start a life as a Ph.D. student in the United States. But Sinha did not want to remain a witness of innovation – she was ready to work where she could be part of the changes. Digging into unsolved problems in science and technology, Sinha understood soon enough she needed to bring together disciplines that usually would never mix. She said, “I’ve always been fascinated about partnerships – people just working together. And so I feel like a lot of the innovation happens at intersections…”

After years working on the problems that fascinated her, like merging health care, energy, and aviation to design the next-generation aircraft, Sinha’s journey changed course – the physicist became a philanthropist. Surrounded by refugees and their poignant life stories during her childhood, she wanted to come behind the issues of humanity. Social impact work was the new chapter of her life, where she led the General Electric Foundation’s Global Health portfolio in 22 countries. There, she developed critical care programs for children, maternal child health, clean water, ICT, humanitarian relief, and education.

“I was very shocked when I moved from research and innovation… because I felt that there was no customer focus in philanthropy,” she said. “So, in the private sector when you’re looking at markets and when you’re looking at products and services, it’s all about understanding your customer. Whereas in social impact, it’s so often because it’s about social good people think that they know what answers are. So, it’s not really designed around what the community’s own needs are sometimes.”

For Sinha, the biggest challenge was to find the answer to the question, “How do you flip the model upside down?” Her commitment was to establish a bottom-up system in her organization – listening to the people.   

She said, “Instead of going into countries and looking at solutions, it’s more like figuring out what are the ideas and the energies of every community, and then how do you connect them to learn from each other? That was pretty challenging, but it was also, I feel, very rewarding. Because I think that some of the kind of changes we were able to do – so for instance when we looked at child survival – we were able to in countries like Kenya… look at more local solutions, rural entrepreneurship, start working with the government, start creating new markets. So, it became much more sustainable and scalable.”

Sinha helped launch citiesRise to empower cities to take a leadership role, as places of innovation and to address challenges in mental health through collective, community-based action.     

When asked to describe herself, Sinha said, “I feel like I’m constantly learning, and I feel that there’s so much untapped wisdom, experience in communities, insights in people, and civilizations, and cultures. And I feel that so often that everything is so hectic – that we are not thoughtful enough. So, I feel like I often play this kind of a role of a catalyst… where I don’t necessarily know the answers, I don’t know the solutions, but I feel that when people come together, many things are possible...”

The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Partnerships for Urban Wellbeing and Resilience: Harnessing Nature and Protected Areas for the Sustainable Development Goals, is part of the Parks for the Planet Forum. This program is supported by Future Cities Forum, ICLEI CBC, IUCN Urban Alliance, Learning Economy, National Park City Foundation, The Centre for Conscious Design, World Urban Parks, and 21st Century Trust.