Photos courtesy of Marcus Shingles
“The metaverse is an opportunity to upskill economically stressed individuals into relevant new economy careers.”
Marcus Shingles has always been a step ahead of everyone else. He started his career at the Kellogg Company. He quickly got into management and consulting, where he became an executive and partner at Deloitte, and Bain & Company, where he led practices that focused on business innovation and emerging disruptive technologies. Recently, Marcus was the CEO of XPRIZE, a nonprofit organization that uses incentive competitions to solve the world’s most complex problems. He currently sits on the board of a host of mostly educational nonprofits like Stanford University’s Disruptive Tech and Digital Cities Program and the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network. He also is collaborating with the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) agency on its Metaverse for SDGs Global Prize and VR Competition.
What he calls his current “day job,” Marcus is the Chief Innovation Officer at MultiCORE International, where he is responsible for leading initiatives to design and build “smart cities” in Chiang Mai, Thailand; Cambodia, and other regions of the world. In the last seven years, Marcus has focused on what may be his most important job yet: mentoring youth and adult learners from primarily low-income and under-resourced communities. His educational nonprofit Exponential Destiny–a team of youth leaders from South Los Angeles-is preparing students for another disruption that is happening right now, the “metaverse”. Marcus and his co-founders at Exponential Destiny believe the metaverse—an immersive 3D experience using augmented, mixed, and virtual realities —is a positive innovation that can be used to create a more immersive and experiential learning environment. This learning environment incorporates educational pedagogies around “edutainment”.
Marcus and his leadership team at Exponential Destiny have been working with school administrators and underserved students in the public school systems of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Florida to experiment with leveraging this new technolgy.
Recently, Marcus Shingles took the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his nonprofit work, the metaverse, and what he hopes he and his team can accomplish within the next few years.
How did you get into working with and supporting young people in under-resourced communities?
I thought the education system was not contemporary and progressive. It was very linear versus thinking exponentially and staying up to date with what was relevant. My daughter was a biology major at a private university and I remember asking her if the professors had introduced the notion of CRISPR gene editing and she said they hadn’t. I was just astounded by that. I didn’t understand how you could get a degree in biology without an understanding of genetic engineering, especially CRISPR gene editing. If my own children are having challenges with getting current science through their paid education, then I wondered what an under-resourced kid in South Los Angeles was getting.
I went to Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles, which I originally read about in an article in the Los Angeles Times. The school got so scorched earth that they literally put out a request for proposal to get bids from people who could help reinvent it. The team that won the bid for the proposal was actually a group of parents and teachers from the community. They created the Nava College Preparatory Academy within Jefferson High School.
I said that I was consulting Fortune 500 corporate teams on the type of labor they would need down the pipeline; I was interested in sharing topics that would be relevant in teaching students how to be, what I called, “exponential entrepreneurs.” The principal was receptive. So long story short, I went down and met with him and the superintendent and we bonded. They were completely enthusiastic. We took what was a business elective and designed a curriculum that focused on upcoming technologies and innovations like AI, robotics, blockchain, 3D printing, and biotech. This was in 2015 and most of the students were sophomores. I am happy to say that the students who started the program have graduated and several are now running their own businesses. They are very successful. So much that I co-founded Exponential Destiny in 2020 with one of those students, Marco Vargas, to do something similar but at a grander and broader scale.
Exponential Destiny presenting at the UN Global Youth Summit in Kigali, Rwanda.
Can you tell us why you are so excited about virtual reality and the metaverse as a potential leapfrog opportunity for schools, particularly those in under-resourced communities with limited budgets?
A little back story – I had the opportunity to speak at an executive summit with Fortune 500 executives. I was paid to talk about spatial web (what we now call the metaverse) and suggested to this community of executives that I would help advise them on a proof of concept for their business using virtual reality. We would then show the other executives their experiences in virtual reality at the summit three months later. The point was to see if we were able to create value.
I had my team at Exponential Destiny sign NDAs and had them on every call with the CEOs. These were twelve-week projects. After about week eight, the young people were the ones leading the projects. They realized they didn’t need to be experts in business. They just needed to ask the right questions and be experts in how you build out these environments.
That is amazing. From a technical standpoint, how easy was it for your team to learn the software?
This group wasn’t the most technical group. Out of the twelve members of the team, maybe only three were somewhat technical. They were mostly liberal arts majors. The kicker was that the software was like learning Powerpoint in 3D. You didn’t have to code anything.
Think about what that means. It doesn’t matter what skill set you have. If you are determined and want to learn and have a creative mind, you can go into these spaces and build. This was like teaching someone how to build a website back in 1991 when the demand for building a website became part of every organization’s internet and broader business strategy. This is history repeating itself, but this time we have an opportunity to upskill individuals from low-income public school communities. We must do so proactively, versus teaching them how to code websites 30 years too late.
After we were finished with the first round of projects, we realized we were on to something and I said, “Let’s do another seven projects. But this time you guys aren’t shadowing me. You guys are the leads.” And so we did another seven or eight projects. So at that point in early 2021, these young people were the most qualified metaverse designers probably on the planet, in terms of having projects under their belt that helped companies create value. You couldn’t find a lot of examples back then because we were on the leading edge. We were giving software requirements for the leading software players, too.
Exponential team on an “Adventure Trip” in Wyoming.
And then there was a pivot.
We decided that this software is so effective that we thought it was best to bring it to schools. We started seeing statistics from an efficacy study by PwC in 2020 that showed how VR could help in not only learning hard skills but soft skills as well. Employees were divided into a classroom cohort, an online learning cohort, and a virtual reality cohort for training. The results of this study were significant. VR learners were 3.75 times more emotionally connected to the content and said they could act on what they learned.
There is no surprise that there is a positive effect when you are experiencing it versus just reading about it. This doesn’t mean VR replaces other methods. It just means you can do so much more.
Can you give an example?
When you are in these environments, you are dealing with digital real estate. If teachers want to talk to kids about how to live, eat, and stay healthy on a budget, they can build an entire supermarket, gamify it, and have kids walk through the store and purchase items virtually. This eliminates teachers from spending money out of their own pockets by bringing groceries into a physical classroom.
What was the first school district Exponential Destiny worked with after this pivot?
The first school district we worked with was Broward County, Florida, the sixth-largest school district in the United States. We worked with the chief administrative officer, the teachers, the principals, and the students on a six-month project that was funded by Verizon. I did the work pro bono and used the funding to pay the young people on the team a respectable $45-60k per year. They were the ones delivering these projects. We could have done this in two months, but the schools were busy. The students were busy. The teachers were busy. We really wanted them to commit to one hour a week. And if we spread that over six months, we could do a lot. We created educational pedagogies that the schools could adopt to improve learning and education around topics that were not successfully taught with traditional techniques, whether classroom or digital.
Exponential team with Los Angeles High School for Metaverse Transformation.
What other school districts are you working with?
We just finished a big project on the Westside of Chicago, in a school that is dealing with significant urban trauma and other social issues. We are fortunate to have worked with an exceptional principal there. The school chose Social and Emotional Learning to Cope With Urban Trauma as their topic in VR. We also just finished a project with two schools from South Los Angeles.
When we work with a school, not only do we help the school to be self-sufficient and have this built into their curriculum as a new way of training and education, but we also deliberately try to attract any graduating senior into this project. They get upskilled and then our goal is to hire these seniors as one of the leads for our next school project. It is a way to get people employed but also into a professional salary.
What advice would you give to young people who would like to be entrepreneurs?
My advice to entrepreneurs, especially those in an economically stressed situation, is to find a technology that is starting to emerge and one that doesn’t require a significant amount of technical degree to master, like the metaverse. It is not as technical as it sounds and it is something that is going to be in high demand. If you want to be an entrepreneur, there are going to be plenty of opportunities for you to be entrepreneurial in this space, especially if you adopt early.
I would also suggest learning all the tools in your toolbox. You don’t have to be an expert at AI or robotics or quantum computing or biotech or 3D printing or virtual reality. But if you generally understand these innovations, as well as crowdsourcing or the sharing economy, you have a much broader mindset about what adds value to a business or a nonprofit organization. Most people can’t speak that language yet. Most people can’t walk in and have a general understanding of what all these technologies do. And if you know all that, you are going to be more equipped to connect the dots and figure out the solution to problems.
Where do you see all of this work going and what are the team’s ambitions?
This year my team and I were asked to do a keynote at the United Nations’ ITU in Geneva. The ITU is the specialized agency of the United Nations that focuses on information and communication technologies. We did a 30-minute keynote on how the United Nations’ sustainable development goals—zero poverty, economic stability, good work for everybody, and so on—can be affected by web 3.0 (the next version of the internet) and the metaverse. There is some real potential here.
I poked fun about how the metaverse is getting hijacked by commercialism and hype. You see NFTs being sold for $25 million at auction. With all of these headlines, it is really going to overshadow the real potential of the metaverse, which is to drastically transform how we educate and teach our citizens, and how we get people into a new skillset from every community.
With the support of the ITU and United Nations, we announced the Metaverse for SDGs Global Prize and VR Competition.
Exponential team at the United Nations in Geneva demoing the Metaverse for SDGs Global Prize and VR Competition.
How can people sign up? What can they expect?
Teams can sign up at SDG Metaverse Prize. Teams of 2-6 people have 10 months to pick one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). We will coach them over the next six to seven months on how to get into these environments and create spaces that bring empathy and awareness to these SDGs. We are raising money from different groups. In June of 2023, we will fly in the 17 top finalists and will have an overall best of show award at a United Nations’ ITU collaborated summit for the Metaverse for SDGs Global Prize and VR Competition.
You have a lot on your plate. What is relaxation to you?
I recently bought a place out in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I spend the majority of my year there, where I am kayaking down the Snake River, mountain biking or snowmobiling or snowboarding with a little bit of fishing here and there. That is how I find peace and tranquility—when I am just pausing for a minute.