SAN FRANCISCO -- After months of buildup, a British Airways jumbo jet carrying more than 100 Silicon Valley emissaries lifted off Wednesday on a mission to change the world.
During the 12-hour flight from San Francisco to London, participants in the "UnGrounded" initiative were charged with coming up with ways to address the global disparity of science, math and technology education.
"We need to have a society that's literate, mathematically and scientifically," Penny Abeywardena, head of women's and girls' programs at the Clinton Global Initiative, said before she and others in the program boarded the plane.
UnGrounded is part of a bigger initiative by the airline to tighten the relationship between London and the valley.
The 130 participants -- who ranged from an Internet icon (Craigslist founder Craig Newmark) to a college student (Cassidy Williams, who just finished her junior year at Iowa State) -- were hand-picked for their tech expertise or track records attacking the digital divide.
A few, including British computer scientist and activist Sue Black, were brought over from the U.K. to accompany the valley denizens across the pond. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom also was slated to be on board but, he apologetically told other participants, had to scrub the flight because his wife could go into labor any minute.
Design firm IDEO helped come up with ways to foster creativity among the passengers, most of whom were strangers.
"We had so many ideas of what we were going to do with this plane, little of which actually ended up being possible," said Fred Dust, a partner at the Palo Alto-based firm.
Plans for whiteboards on the bulkheads and beanbags in the aisles were scrapped for safety reasons. But to keep things lively, IDEO split the passengers into four teams, focused on areas such as encouraging women to study science and increasing tech jobs in developing countries.
One perhaps-counterintuitive rule for a bunch of techies: no Wi-Fi on board. Organizers didn't want participants to be checking their email with the clock ticking.
The four concepts judged best by those onboard will be presented Friday to the head of the International Telecommunication Union, which advises the United Nations on information technology.
The geeks from the plane also will share their ideas at the DNA (Decide Now Act) Summit, featuring an assortment of celebrities, CEOs, philanthropists and politicians, and the G8 Innovation Summit, which precedes next week's G8 Summit of global leaders.
"As soon as I heard about this, I wanted in," said Williams, the student, who's spending her summer as a software development intern at Intuit
"Working with leaders in a small space to make something to change the world?" she asked. "Sounds incredible."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
WHO'S ON BOARD?
The 130 people chosen for a special British Airways flight that left San Francisco Wednesday for London include:
Kimberly Bryant, founder, Black Girls Code
Van Jones, activist and former environmental adviser to President Obama
Duncan Logan, RocketSpace founder
Jamis MacNiven, restaurateur, Buck's of Woodside
Craig Newmark, Craigslist founder
Damien Patton, CEO, Ban.jo
Ben Rattray, CEO, Change.org
Tiffany Shlain, founder of the Webby Awards
Megan Smith, vice president of the "Google X" think tank
Brian Wong, CEO, Kiip