Nathan Wyeth

Educational Experiences As If Impact is the Intent and Scale Matters

During the annual conference of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance I sat down with Julia Novy-Hildesley, the executive director of the Lemelson Foundation and a keynote speaker at that event. As the director of one of a very small number of major foundations with invention and entrepreneurship at the core of their mission, Julia has a perspective across a wide range of programs that Lemelson funds in the U.S. and globally. Lemelson’s interaction with innovators spans everything from MIT to rural inventors at the grassroots level in India.

When I asked Julia how she ties these far-flung programs together conceptually, she had an easy answer at hand – she does it with a bow-tie. Not joking, in fact – Lemelson sees their approach to innovation and entrepeneurship in terms of widening a pipeline of innovation (the left side of the bow-tie) which narrows to the best ideas (the knot) and expands to scale these ideas (the right side of the bow-tie.)

Having broken this down so nicely, I wanted to raise some tougher issues – critical questions that occurred to me while listening to American educators and students discuss their work related to the base of the pyramid.

It’s a widely-repeated assertion that the Peace Corps does more to provide life experiences to Americans than long-term positive outcomes for the communities in which they serve. This assertion, right or wrong, raises a very basic question, which I’ll word in a very impersonal way: in a deeply unequal world, what is the optimal way to direct and deploy human capital at scale across borders and boundaries to maximize development and social impact – impact which people across these borders and boundaries all hope to achieve?

This is simple to ask, but difficult to answer. For example, it’s incredibly important that people in the wealthy world understand the living situations of their brothers and sisters at the base of the pyramid. The only way to help someone with technical skills to be an effective innovator for the poor – who has grown up in a place where electricity is reliable, bankruptcy laws protect people from multi-generation debt bondage, and it is uncommon for babies to die – is to provide them with experiential education in places where this is not the case.

But how possible is it to design learning environments in which college students are the guinea pigs and learn from the people they hope to help, rather than vice versa? How can testing a new device, the design process for which is intended to teach students how to be socially-responsive engineers, truly be a test for the students rather than a test on the community in which they are embedded? There are no base of the pyramid Hollywood sets to practice on.

Careful, conscientious professors – which is the only kind I think I saw at the NCIIA gathering – can only be part of the answer. I am talking about how to imagine constructive interaction between tens or hundreds of thousands of idealistic Western young people of all stripes and tens of thousands of base of the pyramid villages. And this is a critical question to answer, if Nick Kristof has anything close to his way, if we continue to see an increase in organizations linking young Americans and Europeans with base of the pyramid communities… If the combination of Millenial idealism, elevated Great Recession youth unemployment, and inexpensive transoceanic airfare continues.

Yet I am not convinced even that this is the axis of interaction that is even remotely most critical when considering how to join the ranks of trained people to tens of thousands of communities in need of technical expertise for customized infrastructure for energy, water, health, education, and other services, as well as adapted and distributed products suited to varied environments and income levels. If our international education experiences are derived from Peace Corps memories, they are sorely outdated.

Tens of thousands of newly-minted engineers are graduating every year from schools just a bumpy bus ride from these villages that American students go to help. These graduates might even call these villages home. This is not only China and India but everywhere from Malaysia to Ghana. You don’t need to cross an ocean to find someone competent to design a sewer system – but our mode of interacting with developing nations is set up as if that’s the case. It may have been true when the British and French packed up five or six decades ago. But it’s not true now.

The leading edge for socially transformative mobile apps lies in rural Kenya, not Silicon Valley. Indian innovation is leading the way in consumer product affordability intended to serve their own base of the pyramid.

And this is not even taking into account the underequipped and underinvested but entirely present human capital in base of the pyramid communities themselves.

So what is the need for American college kids who might not even be able to speak the language?

I was one myself, you know, not too long ago.

I happen to believe that there are enough problems in the world that there must be room enough for everyone to take part in solving them – or we aren’t being ambitious enough about how much can be done, or honest with ourselves about how much everyone has invested in successful outcomes.

Julia Novy-Hildesley had a great answer for me about the role of American students vis a vis the global base of the pyramid, about making sure that if there are guinea pigs it’s students not communities, about how to engage the thousand Indian engineers a hundred miles from an unelectrified village with no clean water as well as the hundred American engineers ten thousand miles away.

Her suggestion was deceptively simple, but intuitive. It’s what you might expect from someone who spends all day thinking about innovators from Cambridge to Chennai: innovators should be working with each other.

If the intention is to help Africa – and if the intention is challenge Americans, not provide a wholesome spring break – the most productive use of American creativity (that vaunted characteristic that is supposed to keep us afloat this century) is to match it with African creativity, not African disempowerment. The best match for access to resources held by young Americans is knowledge of ground-level resource distribution channels held by young Africans. After they have seen the reality of poverty in Kenya, the most important people for American students to interact with are probably at the Nairobi iHub or Kenyatta University’s School of Agriculture and Enterprise Development.

So can we start designing cross-continental, cross-class, top-of-the-pyramid-to-base interaction with this in mind? Can this ethos be brought into the proliferating field of P2P web-based social enterprises and perhaps even spur new setups of P2P interactions?

I will leave it at this point, but with the observation that this is not only a model more reflective of the realities of the 2010’s rather than the 1960’s, it is more reflective of the nature of the development successes necessary in the 2010’s. It is not only more likely to work in a more humane and productive way at scale, but much more possible to scale. For every team of American students that has ever taken an alternative spring break to design a better water purifier, there are a thousand people who don’t have clean water, or whose family at home in the village don’t have it, who could take these ideas and run with them long after American students leave.