A Year of Forward Thinking

Dec. 8, 2020

A Year of Forward Thinking was first published in the December 2020 Issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

This fall, Princeton launched A Year of Forward Thinking, a community engagement campaign that invites alumni and others to join in a conversation focused on responding to the challenges facing our nation and our world. One of the campaign’s signature events, a series of virtual conversations called Forward Fest, debuted on October’s last full weekend. Less than two weeks later, that initial round of panel discussions had already attracted tens of thousands of viewers from throughout the world.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of appetite for forward thinking in 2020! It has been a year unlike any that most of us can recall. We have been tested severely by a global pandemic, a painful national reckoning with racism and injustice, catastrophic fires and natural disasters, and a presidential election marked by bitter political polarization.

Princeton has been tested as well. We are grappling simultaneously with how to press ahead with our educational mission in the midst of COVID-19 and how to address the University’s history and responsibilities with regard to race and justice. Rather than be bowed by these challenges, we recognize that we can thrive by tackling them together in a way that brings to bear our talents, our dedication to truth-seeking, and our commitment to service.

This University aims to produce high-quality teaching and research that will fortify the world’s capacity to meet the challenges that face it today and those that will come tomorrow. In departments and programs across the University, Princeton’s “forward thinkers” are pushing the boundaries of knowledge across a wide array of disciplines.

Forward Fest conversations throughout the coming year will provide opportunities for alumni to participate in discussions about some of the most exciting work taking place at the University. Monthly online programs will engage scholars with expertise in the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences, and engineering to explore issues such as access, affordability, and equity in higher education; the promise of bioengineering; the role of AI in society; and the future of democracy.

A Year of Forward Thinking aims to find opportunity amidst challenge. Its spirit was well expressed by Professor of Anthropology Laurence Ralph, who in a Forward Fest panel about justice observed:

“Right now is a moment to seize. I don’t think it’s an accident that this consciousness-raising is happening right now… We need to see how we are connected to each other, through problems that we once thought were isolated to certain groups. They are not.”

To envision possible futures clearly—and steer toward the best of them—we need to understand how problems are interrelated and how people are interconnected. Princeton’s interdisciplinary approach and emphasis on the free expression of ideas makes it possible to engage in the in-depth inquiry that leads to creative and collaborative solutions to these problems.

For example, by seeing our current public health crisis through the lens of both epidemiologists and economists, as we did in October’s Forward Fest, or probing the impacts of artificial intelligence with the approaches of sociologists and engineers as well as data scientists, as we did in November, our perspectives become broader and potential solutions become more powerful. Throughout the year, alumni can expect our faculty members and students to share their “forward thinking” on a variety of pressing questions, including:

  • In what ways can unlocking the understanding of cellular structures inform new life-enhancing therapies?
  • How will understanding biodiversity loss and human behavior lead to innovative conservation and restoration strategies?
  • How can we improve modeling of Earth and climate systems to allow for more confidence in predictions?
  • How does our evolving understanding of resiliency provide tools for the full flourishing of humanity?
  • What role can the arts and humanities play in helping us understand the challenges and benefits of humanity’s interconnectedness and how can their work provide solace and perspective in these trying times?
  • What is truth and how do we seek and interrogate it?

These are but a few questions that Princeton’s students and faculty are tackling today. We invite you to participate in discussions on these topics and more. On the website forwardthinking.princeton.edu, you can read articles about Princeton’s forward thinkers in a wide range of areas, find out more about participating in the next Forward Fest online event, download resource guides on each festival theme, and add your perspective.

I encourage you to be part of this important yearlong conversation, and I hope that, even in this hardest of years, it inspires in you the optimism that I draw from Princeton’s remarkable students, scholars, and alumni.