VIEW: Solving simple problems —Q Isa Daudpota
Education can be a means of producing creative minds when it is intimately linked to the environment of the learner. A major transformation in the thinking of our planners is needed to realise this ideal and release the creativity of the people
One is sick of hearing ex-pat Pakistanis demanding that a nano-tech lab or a state-of-the-art genetic engineering facility be provided them before they contemplate returning ‘home’. Seemingly helpless without the tools they trained on for their PhDs or post-docs, they have becomes slaves to the technologies that earned them their degrees and bought a few years of hassle-free life away from Pakistan.
Unfortunately, they do not realise that appropriate training overseas ought to have imparted an attitude of flexibility and inventiveness that would help them solve longstanding problems back home. This, rather than carrying homework from their western supervisor to be done in Pakistan! Sadly, the research work done by our students overseas does not have a close connection with the country’s problems. Our planners, who are currently flushed with funds, have paid inadequate attention to this issue.
Dependence on high-tech tools is a disease that has already infected students before leaving Pakistan. It can be traced to their schooling and the cultural and social conditioning, which has its origin in the inferiority complex that we developed during colonisation. True, certain things just cannot be done without sophisticated equipment, and when those things need to be done you just got to have the right gear. The oft-unrecognised fact is that an awful lot can be accomplished with sharp thinking and clever methods. Many pressing problems have been and will be solved through this realisation.
The reward system in place, and overseen by those whose interests are served by it, elevates high-tech research done abroad or nationally as more honourable than what may be done simply and which leads to solutions to our own problems. One is here naturally talking about applied scientific and technological research which is what the overwhelming majority ostensibly end up doing. (The freedom for the exceptionally bright — say top 5% — to do blue-skies research using high-end equipment, still not outlandishly expensive, should of course be protected, in addition to them doing pure science and pure mathematics).
Targeted programme of research for the 95% others should focus on specific nationally significant projects: technologies and products that would improve the lives of the vast majority of our poor. Excellent research publications in international journals can result from such work.
If this isn’t convincing just look at the Rolex Award for Enterprise (www.rolexawards.com) many of which are given to innovators who have been successful in using, simple, beautiful ideas and solutions that have transformed countless lives in the developing world. This was largely done with modest financial resources but with a lot of brainpower.
A literature survey will show how clever ideas and technologies are being used to help provide clean drinking water and economical solutions to sanitation globally. Some of these we have adapted somewhat blindly. Serious work of proper adaptation and for original work on similar projects would need to be done in our science and engineering departments in universities and research institutions. These unfortunately continue to be bogged down in the old rut.
The unconvinced need to look at credible models of scientists and engineers who have blazed the way in doing work as suggested. Scientists and engineers need to solve problems and there is no shortage of them in any society. Further, the particular optimal solution may depend on a mix-and-match of existing solutions from elsewhere. Additional ideas, when needed, can be generated locally.
Then there is the issue of managing the process or product that comes out. For this, innovators, integrators or people in business schools willing to get their hands dirty in the process of increasing acceptability of these solutions need good management skills. This, naturally, has significant implications for change in the curriculum of our business and management schools as well as the engineering faculties.
Before I point to two remarkable persons and their projects that have succeeded in the way suggested, let me recommend an outstanding resource for management, science and engineering schools to dip into — there are the publications of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales (www.cat.org.uk) which are waiting for adaptation in the developing countries. Vast numbers of them have already been field-tested. Even replicating the work described in the publications could keep thousands of our engineering students and faculty involved in truly creative and socially relevant projects.
Now to the remarkable Amy Smith. She is an MIT mechanical engineer and a former Peace Corps worker who got the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant for designing cheap, practical fixes for tough problems in developing countries. Smith, working with her students at MIT, has come up with several useful tools, including an incubator that stays warm without electricity, a simple grain mill, and a tool that converts farm-waste into cleaner-burning charcoal. It is best that readers convince themselves of the success of this model of doing research by listening to her inspiring presentation on the Internet (www.tinyurl.com/2hgf26). ‘Development, Dialogue and Delivery’, a yearlong course (www.tinyurl.com/3bvh3p) she runs at MIT, is worth adapting by every engineering school here.
Let me assure you that if aspiring engineers get to see her talk they will choose their life’s work differently.
There are things that management types can do which one normally wouldn’t attribute with them! One such person is the charismatic Anil Gupta, professor at the reputable Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. In 1988 he launched the Honey Bee Network, an organisation that champions “knowledge rich, economically poor people”.
Here’s a sampling from tens of thousands of innovations that have surfaced through Gupta’s effort: an amphibious bicycle that is handy during flooding, a bicycle in which, every time there is a bump or ditch on the road, the energy is transferred to the rear wheel to make it go faster, a tool to climb a coconut tree, a micro-windmill-driven battery charger, use of Tamarind and lemon for pest control, a shoulder rest for women carrying water, sculptures made from the secretion of Termites...
These are some of the innovations of grassroots inventors. The Indian Institute of Technologies studied and improved on them and a few have been patented in the US. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (the equivalent of our PCSIR) and the National Innovation Foundation have established links with the Honeybee project. See www.tinyurl.com/322lnj for an article by Gupta that also provides links to the organizations mentioned.
If introduced here our engineers and scientists — particularly students — would be inspired by extending our indigenous knowledge. I rest my case.
The author is an engineer and physicist with an interest in education, science and environment.