Guest Articles

June 1

Khanjan Mehta

5 Trends Accelerating the Acceptance of STEM Professionals in Sustainable Development

Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series exploring careers in social innovation and global sustainable development for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals. You can read the other posts here. The author discusses the issue in more depth in an ebook, available for free download here, and in his recent TEDx Talk.

STEM thinking and doing has always played a pivotal role in catalyzing the creation of new ideas, industries and jobs that improve the quality of life for people around world. In fact, STEM innovation has led to many of the biggest social impacts in recent human history: chlorinated drinking water, oral re-hydration therapy, solar energy, and many more that we often overlook or underestimate. Yet the world continues to change around us, and there is an urgent need to train and engage STEM professionals in every kind of organization and sector in the sustainable development space. As we discussed in part two of this series, efforts from finance to healthcare to human rights can benefit from STEM-inspired mindsets. Fortunately, as STEM professionals forge their way in the social innovation space, there are five major trends accelerating their acceptance as sustainable development practitioners.


1. Globalization of Talent and Services

Societies, and therefore our problems, are becoming increasingly interconnected: environmental, agricultural or economic decisions made in China or Brazil can affect Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Practitioners need a global mindset: innovation is needed everywhere, so innovators are needed everywhere. STEM thinkers are answering that call, and we have already seen a steep rise in “reverse innovation.” For example, GE Healthcare has an arm in Bangalore where they expect to produce most of their game-changing innovations for the future. One strong forerunner is GE’s Mac 400, an electrocardiogram machine that is fully conceptualized, designed, sourced and manufactured in India. And today, Indian STEM professionals who originally designed for the needs of local customers are seeing their low-cost and ultra-portable medical devices embraced in hospitals across western markets.

Like all of us, STEM professionals from every corner of the globe are becoming more accessible and mobile in today’s world. As visa regimes relax, people can move internationally with greater ease. Improved access to the internet is accelerating the democratization of knowledge. Freelancing platforms like Upwork and Toptal allow organizations to find the best talent across the world. With improved education systems in developing countries, organizations are able to source human capital locally. Instead of sending ten Americans to Zambia to improve local sanitation infrastructure, an NGO may now employ one American and nine Zambians to do the same job. This is doubly beneficial, as locally-trained STEM professionals can often leverage their life experiences to better grasp the problem and its context. They can innovate insightfully, gain trust easily and deploy solutions quickly – at lower rates.


2. Convergence of Sectors

Innovations come from startups, large corporations, nonprofits, governmental agencies and, increasingly, from the intersection of these entities. According to 248 thought leaders from around the world that IBM brought together for Global Innovation Outlook, innovation is increasingly multidisciplinary, collaborative and “results from people working together in new and integrated ways.” The trend of different types of organizations working together has helped many STEM professionals see beyond their traditional industry roots and appreciate other sectors. In turn, public and social sector organizations have seen more of the successes, skills and mindsets of STEM professionals. STEM thinking has thus diffused, empowering many more sustainable development organizations with technological support, systems thinking, problem-solving and rigorous evaluation, among other STEM talents.


3. Increased Private Sector Participation

Most people equate social impact with nonprofits but, in reality, every type of organization has a role to play to advance humanity. There are many nonprofits that do an excellent job delivering health care services in developing countries—and there are also those that do more harm than good by perpetuating dependency. Some of the biggest players in socioeconomic development are actually corporations that prioritize financial returns, but balance them with environmental and social bottom lines. Large corporations have the human, financial and knowledge capital to not just identify gaps and opportunities, but to quickly design products and services that fill the gaps. Compared to nonprofits that rely on charitable donations or social ventures with limited resources, large corporations can leverage extensive resources and networks to quickly achieve economies of scale, often to the benefit of under-served customers. Needless to say, the larger resources lead to competitive salaries and potential for impact – and attract STEM professionals.

Corporations today are increasingly embracing their unique role in international development, and in turn are shaping the development landscape and society as a whole in important ways. What’s more, social ventures are increasingly being run like for-profits to make themselves economically self-sustaining. One classic example is Aravind Eye Hospitals, which works to eradicate cataract-related blindness in India. It now includes five hospitals, a research institution, a lens factory, an eye bank and a training facility. Aravind even subsidizes its services, products and related travel for poor customers—all by turning a profit. They have managed this because their unparalleled efficiency and sterling reputation in eye care also attracts India’s more affluent customers, who subsidize similar services for poorer patients. These sorts of “fourth sector” organizations that function as both mission-driven nonprofits and economically shrewd institutions have further drawn STEM talent out of traditional corporate pools.


4. Professionalization

Over the past few decades, the trend among nonprofits has been to hire the cheapest workers to keep overheads low and pass more value to beneficiaries. This trend owes its genesis to the misguided notion that the overhead ratio is the ultimate barometer of the organization’s performance, efficiency and effectiveness. (See Dan Pallotta’s brilliant TED Talk: “The way we think about charity is dead wrong.”) Thankfully, organizations, especially those with more hard money, are gradually leaning toward finding the best professional talent to solve problems and effect change. In particular, they are learning to invest in professionals who bring data- and evidence-based approaches and rigorous validation and implementation methodologies. This opens doors for STEM thinkers and doers.

STEM professionals can indeed be paid competitively while applying themselves to grand challenges. Take, for example, Alison Padget, a nutritionist by training, who makes six figures designing programs, developing grant proposals, and providing technical oversight as Vice President of Programs for World Hope International a faith-based non-profit. Her work spans many levels of abstraction – directing field staff, coordinating with project leaders and grant-writers, hiring consultants, reporting to funders, and staying abreast of relevant scientific and technology breakthroughs. A growing number of progressive organizations are realizing that such experts are necessary to find new resources, optimize those resources, and maximize the net impact, regardless of the sticker price for professionalization.


5. A More Diversified, Educated Donor Community

The donor community has traditionally been focused on activities, but as it matures, it’s leaning toward outputs and outcomes instead. In other words, instead of counting, say, the number of community health worker (CHW) training classes they’ve funded, donors want to know how many CHWs are deployed in the field, how effectively they are sharing their knowledge, and how exactly these activities are improving community health. The educated donor community is demanding that organizations hire professionals with the expertise to demonstrate and improve the impact of their dollars. These quantitative, evidence-driven approaches mean STEM-style thinking, and STEM professionals are ready to step up and help. Take for example Andrew Means. As co-founder of The Impact Lab, he uses his expertise to provide a wide range of analytical services that help organizations make better decisions and improve their operations. Experienced and diverse donors now understand that hiring the best talent will return the highest impact, and this goes hand-in-hand with the drive toward professionalization.

The donor community has also become more diversified with the integration of constructs like impact investing, patient capital and crowdfunding. Platforms like KickStarter allow projects to raise funds from a variety of people with diverse ways of thinking beyond that of a few philanthropists. This diversity in thinking has led to a wider variety of sustainable initiatives, many of which are accelerating the demand and acceptance of STEM professionals.


Khanjan Mehta is the Founding Director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program at Penn State.


Top image: The GE Healthcare Mac 400 is an affordable electrocardiogram. Credit: Amit Verma.

Homepage image: A photovoltaic solar panel up close. Image credit: Knut-Erik Helle/Flickr

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