October 30, 2015

Now is the Best Time to Work in Technology for Global Development

Excerpted from Solving Problems that Matter (and Getting Paid for It): STEM Careers in Social Innovation and Global Sustainable Development and reprinted with permission

We’re living in a unique moment in history in which the problems of poverty have solutions. For the first time, humanity is lifting everyone out of economic degradation. And we are doing it with the extraordinary tools, resources and culture of collaboration that are hallmarks of our age. These are ten reasons why now is the greatest time to work in technology for global development.

#1 The Problems Are Entrenched, Systemic, Life-Threatening, and—Yes, Solvable

Consider the lowly cookstove. Cookstoves are the poster children of design for global development, and they are among the first things that come to mind when the topic is mentioned. Aid organizations have distributed cookstoves to almost one billion people around the world, and there is no sign of slowing the pace.

The stoves save money, trees, and lives, making them a no-brainer for development organizations. But there is one glaring problem. They are meant to replace open cooking fires, but the number of fires worldwide has not changed. In fact, the number of fires is projected to stay the same for the next fifteen years. That is an interesting puzzle, and as you begin to place the pieces, you will see that it intersects with other puzzles in the field of technology for global development. They are the kind of problems that are exciting to the right kinds of scientists and engineers. And now, more than ever before in history, we have the tools to solve them.

To start, we need to know more.

#2 You Can Have a Truly Global Career

In 2009 and 2010 Nathan Johnson, an assistant professor of engineering and computing systems at Arizona State University, set out to learn about cookstove usage. He made four trips to a tiny village in southern Mali called Nana Kenieba, where about half the residents were using stoves. He reported his findings in 2014 in Demand, and I will mention a few of them.

But first, let us let Johnson’s work inspire us for a moment. His commitment to solve the cookstove conundrum took him across the world four times. He has stories, and he has data. The facts he gathered in Mali have spanned the globe through publication in online journals so that the cookstove troubles in a small village can influence research and design worldwide. Johnson has a truly global career, and now is the best time to have one. Travel is cheaper and faster than ever before in history. So is communication. Today, more than ever before, problems are not constrained by geography—and neither are solutions. You do not even have to travel far. Your technical skill and creativity can serve people right in your own country. Good design can serve homeless people, community associations in impoverished neighborhoods, school kids, and even marginalized groups that might be off your radar. For example, the San Francisco–based design firm Catapult leads projects around the world, and they also work right in their home country on Native American reservations that have water shortages.

There are opportunities to get involved all around you, which is another reason that now is a great time to take advantage of it.

#3 You Can Apply Engineering Skills in Tandem with Other Disciplines

Engineers are taught to think in systems, and the interesting problems in global development are embedded within complex systems. Cookstoves can represent the best and worst of global development efforts: the best when stoves are designed and distributed with the cooks and their families in mind, the worst when they are stripped of context and dropped in people’s laps.

Johnson’s work restored context to a flawed cookstove program. To do it, he had to cross disciplinary borders and work as something of a social scientist. He conducted interviews, watched people cook, noted cultural habits, and so on. He learned that cooks preferred open fires more than stoves because the fires burn for a longer time unattended. If the cook stepped away for a few minutes, the stoves went out, and it was a hassle to light them again. To a social scientist, that might sound like an opportunity for a public education campaign to promote cultural change and save money with proper stove use. But to an engineer, stoves going out sounds like a design problem. As you are reading this, you might already be thinking of ways to keep stoves burning longer—and that is why your skills are sought in global development. You bring to the table the unique, powerful ability to build something useful.

#4 We Are Awash in Data

Mali is not the only country with a cookstove mystery. Each culture, economy, and ecosystem adds nuance to the ways that people cook and the reasons that they do not use stoves the way we expect them to. To solve the mysteries, we need to know more. Fortunately, we are awash in data. At no other time in history has there been so much information available, and new data is flowing in at what must be an exponential rate. The last few years have seen the rise of monitoring sensors that report on the usage of stoves and just about any other device. And new sensors in development can do things like wirelessly transmit air-quality data from inside kitchens. They test whether the stoves are doing what they are supposed to do, which is to make kitchens less smoky for the cooks.

The data is not just limited to stoves, of course. The surge in mobile phone use worldwide has enabled tools like mobile digital survey platforms, data hubs that you can update with text messages to alert people when, say, a water pump is broken; social media mining to track disease outbreaks, natural disasters, traffic, and so on. In fact, just managing the data has become a problem in this field, and software engineers should take note. Engineers should be excited about how cheap sensors are and how easy they are to use. We may not have the time or money to send cookstove investigators to stay for weeks in every village, but we can ship stoves with built-in sensors. And we can equip test kitchens with air-quality sensors to find out if the stoves really are working the way they do in the lab. We can, and we do. We know more than we have ever known before about what is working, why it is working, and what we need to improve. And we will only get better at it.

#5 There is a Convergence of Sectors

Nonprofits, industry, and governments are coming together to take on big hairy challenges. There are more employment opportunities, more resources, and new approaches. A maxim in world travel is that wherever you go, there is a Coke. Coca-Cola appears on shelves in some of the hardest-to-reach corner stores in the world. Social entrepreneurs, charities, and even governments look on the company’s powerful supply chain with envy. And Coca-Cola is not stingy with its secrets. The company puts its drivers at the service of government medical suppliers in three African countries and offers advice to startups like Cola Life, which distributes antidiarrheal medicine in sub-Saharan Africa sandwiched between the bottles on Coke crates. The world is coming together to solve poverty. Poverty’s roots span sectors, and so does its solutions.

#6 Abundant Resources Are Becoming Available

It is easier than ever to raise money for a startup, a product launch, a prototype, research, or even just a good idea. Impact investing is a new thing. So is online crowdfunding. Design contests and grants abound, with money available from governments, universities, investment firms, businesses, and nonprofits. E4C hosts a continuously updated list of design contests, humanitarian technology development grants from the US government, and a short guide on crowdfunding device development.

#7 It Is Easier Than Ever to Learn What to Do

If you do not know what you are doing, you are in luck. Now it is easier than ever before to learn something new. Johnson and his colleagues in academia around the world take a leading role in building new technology for global development. They represent a growing number of universities that offer degrees and individual courses in the field. E4C hosts a list of dozens of relevant academic programs. But you do not need to take the formal route through academia. Instead, you can learn by doing. Your skills will be useful as a volunteer with a local Engineers Without Borders chapter or a trade organization, a church, a school, or other groups. You can also learn at home. Ivy League and other credible universities put their engineering and science courses online for free or reduced costs. The list above includes online education and publications in this field, and E4C also has a quick guide to a free online education in STEM.

#8 You Can Make Your Own Job

In fact, it is recommended. If you are looking for paid work, those who have jobs in this field often suggest that you make your own. As you become familiar with the space through the educational tools you choose and the organizations that you work or volunteer with, you might think about which idea of yours deserves a shot as a startup.

#9 The Momentum Is with Us

The things we have done seem to be working. People are living longer worldwide, and economies in low-income countries are growing. From 2005 to 2012, the life expectancy in low-income countries increased from fifty-eight to just over sixty-one years. And in that same period, the gross domestic product of low-income countries grew by 5–6. 7% while the world’s GDP grew at 2.2–3.6% with a dip down to -2.1% during the recession in 2009. Poverty might be a problem that we can solve in our lifetimes, and now is the best time to help out.

#10 A Technological Future Could Be a Beautiful Thing

The often-quoted fact that more people in India have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet might sound like an indictment of Indian infrastructure shortcomings, but it is also a testament to the head-spinning proliferation of cheap communication tools. Another frequently overheard fun fact about mobile phones is that they are a leapfrog technology. They skipped over the need for laying landlines to give telecommunications to impoverished communities in hard-to-reach corners of the world.

Now other technologies are coming online that inspire hopes for similar leapfrogging. Things like 3-D printers and cargo-carrying aerial drones might someday help a village manufacture its own goods while skipping over the need for roads and rails from city factories. In the future, a cookstove might be designed on a laptop in Nairobi, emailed to a village in southern Mali, printed in a community workshop, and delivered by drone to a family of farmers that had ordered it from a mobile phone. That kind of thing might be a key way to catch everyone up economically. If we ever get there, it will be the engineers who guide us. And that is why now is the greatest time to work in technology for global development.

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