Humera Khan does not do things by halves. Following her grandfather’s advice that “education can never be taken away,” she earned four degrees from MIT: a bachelor’s degree in art and design, a bachelor’s and a master’s in nuclear engineering, and a master’s in technology and policy.
Likewise, in dedicating herself to detecting and preventing terrorism and violent extremism, Khan is all in. She served until the beginning of this year as strategic advisor to the Assistant Secretary General of the U.N. Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate.
And she co-founded and is now president at Muflehun, a think tank that designs solutions for complex social problems, including violent extremism. Khan also designed and launched the Viral Peace program used by the U.S. Department of State to train youth leaders to use social media to build communities and counter extremism.
We asked Khan, who also holds a master’s degree in Islamic studies from an affiliate seminary of the Washington Theological Consortium, how she works with ideas to solve one of the world’s most intractable problems.
What inspires you?
I truly believe that every human has the responsibility and the capacity to leave the world a better place than how they found it. We each have different roles to play in our stewardship of the planet, and we all have a role. This hope in all humans inspires me to do my part in building a more just and equitable society.
Who inspires you?
I'm inspired by my late grandfather. He was a humble self-made man who started with no assets other than his education and the clothes on his back. When he retired, he was the president of a multinational investment bank on a different continent. He gave back by paying for the education of hundreds of students around the globe. He often said that money can come and go, but education cannot be taken away.
When I got my first job, he gave me the following advice: “Always be grateful for what you have, never give up your principles no matter how hard things get, and always put in your best effort even if no one else is contributing to it or expecting it.”
Where do you get ideas?
Everywhere! I read books, watch movies, travel extensively, observe people and nature, have spirited discussions with strangers and friends, and connect dots across disparate landscapes. My reading genres range from serious work-related tomes to fluffy brain candy, young adult fiction, crime, fantasy, and sci-fi. And I watch movies in all those same genres. Sparks of ideas percolate through exposure to different worlds, real and imagined.
How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?
At Muflehun, we work on designing practical solutions for problem spaces in complex social environments, like preventing violent extremism.
For our organization, new ideas are discovered and developed through discussion and brainstorming, after plenty of background research. It necessarily takes multiple diverse minds working together to scope the problem and look for solutions from multiple perspectives to find something worth exploring. We draw out our ideas on white board walls so we can “see” the ideas evolve — and they can be quickly changed, erased, moved, and kept.
With whom do you share new ideas?
It depends on the idea. If it’s related to work, it joins a sandbox with a small inner circle of trusted individuals who will constructively critique without criticizing and help enhance and improve the emerging idea without judging it. If the idea survives the battering, it can take on the world! If it’s about anything else, my husband hears it first, usually endlessly.
When do you know it is time to abandon an idea?
If an idea sits on the shelf too long without action and/or is no longer relevant or useful, it’s time to leave it behind. It hurts sometimes, and yet there is no value in holding on too long.
How do you know an idea is a good one?
Any idea that can help solve a problem, meet a need, or fill a gap, without compromising principles, ethics, and without trampling on human rights and justice, is a good one. The bar is simple in many ways, yet high in other ways.
What's the biggest idea you are working on right now?
Currently at Muflehun, we are building a Community Resilience Early Warning System to help prevent domestic terrorism and targeted violence in the U.S. It’s a technology-based approach to preventing community vulnerability to white power movements.
Today, most state and local officials have a limited understanding of domestic violent extremist threats emerging from their municipalities, and few options for preventing them. Resources are concentrated on law enforcement and not on building societal resilience to resist violent extremism.
CREWS is a data-driven analytic system to help state and local governments anticipate emerging hot spots,and generate need-based local prevention priorities — such as redirecting resources towards education, social services, and mental health resources instead of focusing only on law enforcement to deter attacks.
Ultimately the approach will help steer local and federal resources towards effective preventative programming to build social resilience.
This approach has not been tried before, and the stakes have never been higher. There are plenty of challenges, including the ethics of using artificial intelligence in this space, the need to avoid repeating the injustice and abuse in the current counter-terrorism space, and the inconsistency of political will to address the problem.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
What guides my organization, and myself, is the idea that we all have a responsibility toward the world to help solve complex social problems. Our world is too entangled to think that human security is only a law enforcement problem.
We will not have long-term impact if we are not thinking about the intersections with climate, food security, migration, inclusion, criminal justice reform, and governance. Policy must be informed by what happens on the ground, and not just by politics.