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Q & A: Catherine Novelli, U.S. Diplomat

As a former Apple executive and U.S. diplomat, Catherine Novelli shares the reasons she’s been such a passionate proponent for increasing connectivity in rural America, protecting the future of our oceans, and promoting the ways technology can be the solution for both.

SF: Why is the Global Connect Initiative you led such an important project ?

CN: A study by the World Bank Group said that for every 10% increase in connectivity in a developing country, there is a 1% to 2% increase in GDP. If you think about all of the things people have tried to do for development, there is no single thing that has that kind of an impact. 

Technology is a huge driver of independence for people, especially in rural areas so they’re not left behind. To me, that’s why the Global Connect Initiative is so important. The goal of the initiative was to connect 1.5 billion more people to the internet by 2020. This won’t take shape by the government doing it. It’s going to be the private sector that actually brings the connectivity. They’re the ones who have the satellites, for example, which are going to be huge in rural areas where you can’t easily install a cable and you can’t necessarily put up towers everywhere.

SF: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing our food system and food production in the U.S. today?

CN: Looking at it through the lens of sustainability, one of the challenges centers on the consequences of food production. As undersecretary, I saw what happens to our waterways as a result of agricultural practices. How do you scientifically apply fertilizer so that you maximize the effectiveness on the plants yet minimize runoff into the streams and ultimately the ocean? It doesn’t have to be one vs. the other. It’s a false choice to suggest that a farmer has to choose between sustainability and productivity. These two things can go hand in hand, and that’s what we need to be heading toward. Technology can and is playing a huge role in helping to achieve that.  

Water use will be another huge question. There is great promise in this area. For instance, I met a young man in France who developed a technology that is able to pinpoint how much water grapevines need at any given moment and then apply only the amount of water needed to those vines. His technology reduced water consumption by 60%. Agriculture needs innovations like this because of the positive impact they can have on food production.

SF: In your mind, is climate change fact or fiction?

CN: I am someone who actually does listen to scientists. They are pretty unequivocal that climate change is happening. If people would simply look around and see what’s going on – the ice caps melting and the sea levels rising – they would come to the realization that climate change is absolutely taking place. 

The U.S. is such a technological leader in renewable energy. There are a number of different ways we can diversify and move away from using so much carbon. Having a seat at the table to determine which products will be funded on a global scale is extremely important not only for our economy but also for the future of the environment.

SF Bio

Name: Catherine Novelli

Title: U.S. diplomat

Background: Novelli served as undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment at the U.S. Department of State from 2014 to 2017. She was also the State Department’s senior coordinator for international information technology diplomacy. From 2005 to 2013, she was the vice president of worldwide government affairs at Apple, Inc. Novelli is a graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts. She holds a law degree from the University of Michigan and a master of laws from the University of London. 

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