In a recent poll from Oxford University’s Our World in
Data, a majority of
Americans said that the share of the world population living in poverty is
increasing—yet one of the trends of the last 50 years has been a huge reduction
in global poverty. In fact, per
World Bank data, the
proportion of the Earth’s population subsisting on about $2 a day or less has
dropped by more than 75 percent over the last four decades—from 42 percent in
1981 to 10 percent in 2015.
Just as remarkable,
annual worldwide deaths of children under 5 have plummeted since 1990. Thanks
to health interventions in respiratory infections, diarrhea, and preterm birth
as well as massive success in vaccinations for measles, tuberculosis, and
malaria—global child death rates have dropped by more than a half. We also are approaching
90 percent adult literacy and seeing large gains in girls’ education.
So why are so
many Americans unaware of these tremendous global gains?
One reason is
that whereas poverty, health, and educational outcomes are improving in
developing nations, in the U.S. poverty shot up to 1960s levels in 2009 and the
cost of health, housing, and higher education is thwarting socioeconomic
mobility for too many Americans. The regional,
racial, and class details of this phenomenon are constantly in the news. In
fact, in America— thanks to our always-on, click bait media—we are drowning
ourselves in bad news.
Yet here on the
UC Berkeley campus and at the Blum Center, we find students are not just well informed—many
are brimming with hope and commitment to continue to fight extreme poverty in
developing nations and to reduce inequality and work for social and economic justice
in the United States. We also finding that in addition to students lending their
energy and intelligence to established organizations, some are seeking to form
news ones through startups and through incubators and accelerators like Big Ideas, CITRIS Foundry, and Skydeck.
There is also
growing understanding among Blum Center faculty, staff, and students that
higher education must adapt to the future of work. As my good friend Carnegie Mellon
University President Farnam Jahanian pointed out in a recent World Economic Forum article, “There
is an undeniable need to train the next generation in emerging digital
competencies and to be fluent in designing, developing, or employing technology
responsibly. At the same time, 21st-century students must learn how to approach
problems from many perspectives,
cultivate and exploit creativity, engage in complex communication, and leverage
With all of the excitement and funding directed at artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and gene editing, it is hard to remember that one of the most consistently innovative and financially robust sectors in the United States is the “creative industry.”
With all of the excitement and funding directed at artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and gene editing, it is hard to remember that one of the most consistently innovative and financially robust sectors in the United States is the “creative industry.”
For Aboubacar Komara, a combination of cultural values inspired the mission behind Kaloum Bankhi–a registered NGO in Guinea that maximizes existing and limited housing space for people in the slums of Kaloum.
Aboubacar Komara, founder and president of Kaloum Bankhi, says his upbringing in Guinea and the United States has shaped how he understands architecture. Born in Guinea, Komara moved to the U.S. in 2013 and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in architecture in 2018. He explains that the combination of cultural values from both countries inspired the mission behind Kaloum Bankhi–a registered NGO in Guinea that maximizes existing and limited housing space for people in the slums of Kaloum, located within the capital city of Conakry.
How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship.
How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship. Potts specializes in resource economics, an interdisciplinary field in which he conducts quantitative analyses of forest management, biofuels, plantation agriculture, land use planning, land use policy, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and tropical ecology.
“In my research group, we ask how interactions among human labor, history, technology, and nature are shaping tropical lands and the well-being of resource dependent communities,” said Potts at a winter Blum Center Faculty Salon.
Much of Potts’ research in tropical forests provides insights into how to sustainably manage these landscapes, which he says provide public and market goods. Public goods include carbon storage and animal habitats. Market goods include raw materials such as timber, land for agricultural production, and gold.
At the salon, Potts highlighted stories of three commodities: the story of oil palm in Pasoh, Malaysia; the story of cacao in Sulawesi, Indonesia; and the story presented by Jimena Diaz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, of gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.
Potts presented findings from fieldwork he conducted in cross-boundary subsidies in a Malaysian plantation landscape, using oil palm as the primary crop in his analysis. (Cross-boundary subsidies are caused by organisms or materials that cross or traverse habitat patch boundaries, subsidizing the resident populations.) Using two decades of ecological data, Potts and his research colleagues illustrated how subsidies from neighboring oil palm plantations triggered powerful secondary “cascading” effects on natural habitats located >1.3 km away. Specifically, they found that 1) oil palm fruit drove 100-fold increases in crop-raiding native wild boar, 2) wild boar used thousands of understory plants to construct birthing nests in the pristine forest interior, and 3) nest building caused a 62 percent decline in forest tree sapling density over the 24-year study period. As described in their 2017 Nature Communications study, “The long-term, landscape-scale indirect effects from agriculture suggest its full ecological footprint may be larger in extent than is currently recognized. Cross-boundary subsidy cascades may be widespread in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems and present significant conservation challenges.”
Next, Potts presented an analysis of sustainable cacao intensification initiatives in Southwest Sulawesi, conducted by his former student Lisa Kelley, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa whose initial research was supported by the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab. Kelley explored how a rapid smallholder cacao boom in the 1980s-2000s produced mixed benefits for farmers and negatively impacted forests. Over the last 20 years, Sulawesi cacao farmers experienced significant yield losses due to the reduced profitability and sustainability of the crop. In one of Kelley’s interviewers, a farmer reported: “When chocolate is young, it produces well and doesn’t require too much work. After it’s mature, it produces little and requires too much work. Meanwhile the price of chocolate goes up and down. As soon as my peppercorn trees yield, I will leave it.”
To improve sustainable cacao production, the Indonesian government, companies like Mars and Nestle, and international organizations like USAID and the World Agroforestry Centre have invested since 2000 half a billion dollars into farmer education and land improvements. Using GoogleEarth to understand land effects, Kelley is working on a study to determine the degree to which the investments have borne results.
Concluding the salon, Potts’ graduate student, Jimena Diaz, presented her ongoing research on the social and ecological effects of small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru. Diaz emphasized that her research explores the intersection between the social relations of gold production, including labor practices and technologies used in mining, and the ecological consequences of these diverse mining production practices. Through her fieldwork, Diaz has found that small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios has grown rapidly in the past 15 years, causing ecological change and rapid deforestation. Mercury is present in almost all gold mining areas, because it is used to bind fine gold particles into an amalgam that is later burned to release the mercury.
“Misconceptions of mercury and mining practices are common in Madre de Dios,” said Diaz. An important finding from her field research is that not all mining areas are contaminated by mercury and that the type of machinery used in mining may help to explain differences in mercury contamination. Different gold production practices also have different impacts on patterns of deforestation. Areas where miners use heavy machinery tend to show more uniform patterns in deforestation and forest regeneration in comparison to those areas worked with suction pump based technologies. Diaz recommends greater involvement of miners in the design of mining regulations and an explicit recognition of the importance of small-scale mining as a livelihood for a large portion of the region’s population.
“Nature is quite resilient and there are ways to mine that are less impactful,” said Diaz. “Miners themselves don’t want to destroy rainforests, but they also don’t have a lot of economic choices.”
When Amy Liu was a master’s degree student in biology at UC San Diego, she met a recently immigrated Haitian refugee who desperately needed a doula. After four hours of waiting for a professional, Liu—who had volunteered as a doula for a year—assisted the delivery of the woman’s baby over a 35-hour period. Inspired to provide pregnant women with the support they need, she founded Junior Hearts and Hands in August 2017, to connect mothers with doulas in a time-sensitive manner. After receiving mentorship from the Big Ideas Contest, she became an Innovation Ambassador for both the 2018-2019 academic year and now the 2019-2020 one. Liu, founder and CEO of Partners in Life, chatted with Big Ideas about how the program has inspired her (and why you should apply).
This winter, the Blum Center was among the many groups in academia and development to celebrate the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT and Michael Kremer of Harvard were lauded for their innovative use of randomized control trials and behavioral economics to evaluate the effectiveness of global poverty interventions—and for a body of scholarship that has transformed the field of development economics.
the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: “This year’s Laureates have introduced a
new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global
poverty. In brief, it involves dividing this issue into smaller, more
manageable, questions—for example, the most effective interventions for
improving educational outcomes or child health. They have shown that these smaller,
more precise, questions are often best answered via carefully designed
experiments among the people who are most affected.”
One of Banerjee,
Duflo, and Kremer’s innovations—strengthened by other leading development
economists like UC Berkeley’s Edward Miguel—is to emphasize the
importance of field work and the contribution of teams. Previously, development
economists worked largely in isolation; today, their studies often include dozens
or even hundreds of people representing government, nonprofits, civic
organizations, and private firms. This approach leads to greater transparency
of both the data collected and the methodology used, as well as a richer
inquiry into which poverty reduction programs and policies should be studied
and whether or how they should grow.
At the Blum Center, we are studying how advances in development economics are part of a new and emerging field, which we call “global problem solving” and “development engineering.” This field is responsive to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the fact that, in many cases, we have the scientific and technological tools to meet the United Nations’ 17 goals but not the financial will or transformative tools for changing people’s behavior to achieve them. Development engineering builds on what development economics has revealed—which poverty interventions are succeeding—and then modifies or scales or re-invents them for implementation elsewhere.
In this way, development engineering is both deeply indebted to development economics as well as a transdisciplinary field for our time. Its rigor is in understanding complex societal challenges—such as the need to build earthquake and typhoon-resistant homes around the globe—and then devising the technological, cultural, financial, policy tools, and work force development to implement these problem solutions.
Elizabeth Hausler, who received her PhD in civil and
environmental engineering from Cal, and went on to found Build Change to empower people to live and learn in safer homes
and schools, is an exemplary development engineer. When she visited the Blum
Center recently, she said her organization’s greatest challenge is not in seismic
technologies but in all that surrounds resilient construction in developing
nations: community buy-in, policy frameworks, government advocacy, financial
product availability and affordability, and ensuring local construction workers
are well trained.
Hausler called her efforts “Money, Technology, People”
or “The Financial, The Technical, and the Social,” describing a kind of holy trinity
of development engineering demands. Another way to describe development
engineering is that it enables iterative problem identification and solution
formulation propelled by interdisciplinary teams. In essence, we are advocating
a transdisciplinary approach that combines the insights-oriented rigor of
development economics with the solutions-oriented rigor of engineering. We also
aim to integrate business,
natural resources, public health, and social sciences into development
engineering in order to appropriately and ethically create, implement, and
scale new technologies to benefit people living in resource-deprived regions.
Over the next year, the Blum Center will
take steps toward realizing the promises of development engineering by
partnering with the College of Engineering and the Haas School of Business to
hire two tenure track professors. One will be an assistant professor whose focus area may include:
engineering better health, the nexus of food, energy and water systems,
accessible low-cost energy technologies, the digital transformation of societal
systems, climate change mitigation, or sustainable design and communities. Applicants will be hired 50 percent into
the Blum Center and 50 percent into a home department in Bioengineering, Civil
& Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering & Computer
Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Operations Research, Materials Science
& Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, or Nuclear Engineering.
The second hire will be
associate, or full professor in Entrepreneurship in Developing Economies who will split his or
her time between the Blum Center and the Haas School and whose research topics
may include productivity, innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises,
financing for entrepreneurial activities, start-ups, venture capital funding,
incubators, and policies to promote new businesses.
These professors will
help us realize the promises of development engineering and be leaders, with
their future students, in the achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC
Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC
Though he admits it is macabre, Joe Leitmann is walking encyclopedia of natural disaster statistics. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami resulted in 280,000 deaths and $15 billion in damages. The Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 led to 68,000 deaths and $20 billion in damages. Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 tear across the U.S. and Caribbean left behind $75 billion in destruction, and the same year Cyclone Evan in the Western Pacific produced a record $180 billion bill.
Leitmann can reel off these statistics in rapid fire, because he has been in attendance at several of these earth-human calamities. Since 2004, when Indonesia was trampled by ocean waters, he has emerged as one of the World Bank’s experts in how to mobilize money, resources, and other forms of assistance to disaster sites as quickly as possible.
Leitmann, who is the Bank’s Team Leader for Resilient Recovery
and Urban Resilience, came to the Blum Center on October 17 not to underscore
the increasing cost and frequency of natural disasters, but to inform faculty
and students about several rapidly evolving innovations, particularly in
digital forecasting and catastrophe financing, that are allowing big
institutions and small communities to save lives and protect livelihoods.
“Disasters are costing us an average of half a trillion
dollars per year, with up to 26 million people annually being pushed into
poverty,” he said. “These costs undermine the World Bank’s twin goals: to
eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 and promote shared prosperity. Yet since
2004, there’s been a shift—we have been focusing on resilience strategies and
results are happening.”
Leitmann has spent most of his career at the World Bank. Trained in development studies and political science at Cal, he went on to earn a public policy master from the Harvard Kennedy School and completed a PhD in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. His first job after graduate school was as a Peace Corps volunteer in the South Pacific working on appropriate technology and agricultural planning. For the World Bank, he has worked in over 40 countries, where he has picked up six languages, including Cook Islands Maori and Turkish.
Leitmann said that if the World Bank had not stationed him in
Indonesia as its environmental coordinator Indonesia in the summer of 2004, his
career trajectory would have been different. However on December 26, months into
his new position, an undersea megathrust earthquake led to a killer tsunami and
his job changed overnight. Asked to fundraise for the recovery effort, he wrote
a memo that became a proposal, detailing how to fill the reconstruction gaps in
Banda Aceh and Nias. Within six months, due to the circulation and approval of
his ideas, he had raised $650 million and was managing a portfolio of 20
Leitmann, who has gone on to serve as a program manager for
the Haiti Reconstruction Fund and as the lead specialist at the Bank’s Global
Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery in Washington, DC, says that over
the past 15 years the World Bank’s portfolio has shifted from a 100 percent
reconstruction to 75 percent disaster risk reduction.
“This is an amazing change for a slow-moving organization
like the World Bank,” he said.
As part of this move from disaster response to disaster risk
reduction, Leitmann emphasized the increasing role of computer modeling of
disaster-prone areas. Digital forecasts of hurricanes and earthquakes now
result in damage estimates within days or even hours. As a result, countries have detailed information
about who is vulnerable and where they are, enabling sophisticated risk
In Haiti, for example, Leitmann said the government, with assistance from the World Bank, readied for the next storm by improving detection through weather forecasting, mapping at-risk communities using predictive modeling, building shelters in safe areas, and developing the capacity to move people into the shelters before dangerous weather as well as a means to finance these moves. Because of these measures, the impact of Hurricane Sandy was relatively small, said Leitmann. He also cited the recent $1 billion retrofit of major public facilities in and around Istanbul funded by the Bank and other donors—as a “great example of getting ahead of the curve.”
“In the 1970s and 1980s, monsoons killed 200,000-250,000
annually in Bangladesh. That number is now down to 50 per year, because people
are being moved out of their homes to safe shelters before they flood.”
Leitmann also sees disaster risk insurance funds, catastrophe bonds, and other financial products as a positive development. In Chile, copper revenues were funneled into $35,000 grants to households affected by the 2011 earthquake; and in Ecuador, increased taxes after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2016 helped to finance the recovery. The Sendai Framework, he said, is specifically oriented to “building back stronger, quicker, and more inclusively.”
Meanwhile, rapid and remote assessment methods—such as social
media analytics and satellite data—are changing the way disaster relief experts
analyze and plan for recovery. In six cities in Syria, for example, Leitmann’s
colleagues are using official reports, social media posts, and data from NGOs
on the ground to determine the functionality of public facilities and
infrastructure. ISIS may report that the hospitals are closed to undercut the
government’s reputation for providing medical services, but the World Bank can
tell from tweets, satellite data and reports from the field that the maternity
ward is open or people are booking appointments for regular services in the
non-damaged parts of the building.
“We can then use these assessment methods to extrapolate how
much it would take to entirely rebuild the facility,” said Leitmann. “We are
doing that with roads in Yemen and buildings in the Boko Haram-affected parts
Big technology companies are also turning to the work of
disaster risk management, helping governments and humanitarian institutions
with a range of digital communications. During the fall 2019 wildfires in
California, for example, Google provided maps not just of fire-affected areas
but of the availability of public services, such as shelters and gas stations
and supermarkets. Devex
reported last December that Facebook’s Data for Good team tripled in one
year the number of disaster maps partners, to include the UN Children’s Fund,
the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and
the World Food Programme.
Daily there are reports of the human-earth consequences of climate
change, such as new
research published in Nature that reports sea level rise and flooding will
affect hundreds of millions more people in the coming decades than previously
forecast. Yet Leitmann remains
a cautious optimist. He believes if the above efforts are implemented by
cross-sector collaborations, we can cut the current half trillion dollar per
year expenditure on disasters by a third and save lives.
“By reducing risks, strengthening recovery systems, and
enhancing preparedness,” he said, “we can protect gains in poverty alleviation
and economic development—that’s true resilience.”
Over the past five years, SOMO has grown from a proposal submitted to the Big Ideas Contest to a viable nonprofit, which receives close to 2,000 applications annually from Kenyan entrepreneurs looking to launch their business ideas. So far SOMO has helped launch 58 businesses, partnering with them for two years through its acceleration program.
Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.
By Jason Liu
In 2002, Suleiman Halasah graduated from the University of Jordan with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to work first as a teaching assistant for the University of Jordan’s Department of Computer Engineering and then as a control engineer for the Jordan Valley Authority on irrigation projects. Yet within a few years, Halasah came to realize the work wasn’t for him. “I would sit in an office all day being totally disconnected from life,” he said.
Halasah was also disillusioned with the impact he was having at the Jordan Valley Authority. “Working with the government is really hard because of one main point: it’s a huge institution,” he said. “Making any change is almost impossible, especially if you’re assigned to a project far from the center of power. ”
Halasah’s frustration came with a silver lining, however. Because of the slow pace of work, he had free time to pursue other passions and became involved in several Jordan-based NGOs focused on peacebuilding, community development, and volunteering.
“One of the main projects I did was establishing a village computer lab that was the only one for 100 kilometers,” he said. “I saw how the lab brought opportunities to change people’s lives, and ever since then I’ve been focused on what I can do to directly help other people.”
Discussant Isha Ray, associate professor at the Energy & Resources Group and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, joined Halasah afterward and highlighted some of the key takeaways: how those working on development often focus on financial and technological solutions, while ignoring cultural, political, and social realities; how patience goes beyond being a virtue in development but is the very key to success; how governments at times track and control nomadic tribes under the guise of development; and how the current push for “scaling up” needs redress as communities are location-specific.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Halasah before the event at Berkeley’s beloved Yali’s Cafe to ask him about his work. While waiting for our coffee, I asked how he would describe his day job. Halasah said:
“My main focus is to bring people together, so that they can get to know each other and discuss hard questions. But if the audience focuses on water, then I focus on how water can do this. If the audience focuses on environmental issues, then that’s how I present work. Ultimately, I use different opportunities for bringing people together to catalyze peace building in the Middle East.”
During his career, Halasah said he was shaped by two factors. The first was his father. When connecting the dots on how an electrical engineer in Jordan ended up at the Arava Institute in Israel, the first thing Halasah said was: “The flexibility my Dad gave helped a lot. My Dad very much believed that I should lead my own direction in life and as long as I felt like it was the right thing to do, he would support me.”
The second shaping factor for Halasah was traveling. Halasah has been to conferences all over the world to share his work in community development, peace building, and how he’s able to transcend the complicated politics of the Middle East. He has also traveled as a tourist to the US, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Uganda, and many other countries.
“When you meet people from other nationalities, it opens your eyes,” said Halasah. “You don’t see yourself as superior to others. You see that everybody is very proud of their culture and the divisive things that separate people from different cultures and nations don’t exist anymore. It’s humbling.”
As I listened to Halasah’s talk at the Blum Center later in the day, it was clear how these experiences were reflected in both his professional choices and his outlook on development.
“The approach today is mainly one-directional. The implementer comes to the community saying, ‘This is your problem, this is its effect on you, and this is how I’m going to solve it.’ The community itself is totally disconnected. As a result, communities don’t take ownership of the solution, they don’t see it as their system. Then comes complications with the system when some part fails and people say, ‘This is their technology. Why should I fix it? How should I fix it? The NGO needs to come to see what is wrong with it.’”
Instead, Halasah argues, we need to “workdirectly with the community on defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and figuring out what assets they have. It should all ultimately come from them.” For Halasah this means conducting interviews, holding roundtables with all stakeholders, and making sure the community has a voice at every step. “It’s their problem; they should know more about it than we do,” said Halasah.
Another topic that Halasah is passionate about is environmental peacekeeping. In explaining how natural resources, pollution, and social spaces can play a role in peace building, Halasah said, “For any conflict, there is a core problem, but there are also so many other things that can be opportunities for peacebuilding and community development. The environmental approach works because it affects everyone. And that’s something that can be used to bring people together.”
Halasah continued: “Once you bring people together people don’t talk about each other as ‘the other,’ as an imaginary person in their head—they realize it’s a human in front of them that shares a lot of the same interests. People ultimately care about their level of living, about securing their food and water. They care about their kids, how their kids are being treated, and the resources they have. I see the environment as not only a tool for peacebuilding but also for community stability as it gets everybody to talk about their shared interests.”
Halasah had a clear answer when I asked what the key factor in making these talks successful is: trust. He said: “There’s high potential for things to be done, but the main obstacle is that people don’t trust each other. With my work, we always have a balanced team that represents different communities. I have an Israeli partner. She brings me to all her community meetings in Israel, and I bring her to all my meetings on the Jordanian side. When people see that there’s somebody from the other side that they learn to trust, there’s more open communication.”
As our coffee cups emptied and Halasah prepared to go to his next meeting, I asked him what advice he would give students pursuing a career in development engineering. Among seeing each moment as a learning opportunity, persevering, and staying positive, Halasah ended with this:
“I would say interdisciplinary projects are the best way to learn and get a full picture about something. If you are an engineer that looks at a technical solution, it doesn’t make sense to be isolated from the community. You need to go out there in the field to meet with people, listen to them, and see what they think. Too often, we think we have the right answer for something, but it might be for the wrong problem. We need to understand what people need in order to understand what the solution is.”
Treating bone fractures in the developing world is increasingly difficult due to the lack of x-ray accessibility. Emily Huynh, a senior at UC Berkeley studying Bioengineering, thought: if bone fractures were diagnosed and treated properly in an affordable way, large populations of people could avoid the chronic pain, disability, and socioeconomic disadvantage that mistreated fractures cause. This past spring, Huynh and her team won third place in Big Ideas’ Hardware for Good category for a medical device that provides orthopedic care in underdeveloped countries and remote settings called Fractal.
By invitation of the AMENA Center for Entrepreneurship and Development, Lim Guan Eng, Minister of Finance for Malaysia, addressed UC Berkeley students and faculty on the topic of “Industry 4.0 and the Extension of Malaysia’s Economic Success” at Blum Hall on October 18.
“It is always energizing to come to the San Francisco Bay Area and its universities,” said Eng. “There is much to learn here.”
Although Malaysia had considerable success industrializing in the 1970s and was among the so-called Asian Tiger Cub Economies in the 1990s, Eng said that since the early 2000s his country’s economy, particularly its electronics sector, has “hollowed out” due to its inability to compete with China.
“We are seeing a premature de-industrialization in the electronics sector,” stated Eng, who noted that manufacturing in Malaysia declined to 22 percent in 2018 from 30 percent in the 2000s.
Eng said other economic challenges include the US-China trade war and the financial impact of Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, the latter of which involved a state-owned investment fund that was supposed to attract foreign investment and instead led to $25 billion of irregular financial transactions.
“How do we overcome the great challenge of turning around Malaysia from a global kleptocracy to a normal, boring democracy?” asked Eng, who has a long history in government. He was elected to Malaysia’s Parliament in 1986 and has served as Secretary-General of the multiracial, center-left Democratic Action Party since 2004.
Eng said that the US-China trade war is upending the economy of Malaysia and other developing nations in Southeast Asia, “permanently reorienting the global supply chain. ”
However, Eng sees this reorientation as an opportunity to spur investment in Malaysia and catalyze its re-industrialization, particularly in the digital sector.
“Various firms today are attempting to circumvent rising tariffs imposed by China and the United States and shifting their manufacturing bases elsewhere,” he said. “Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, have begun to enjoy increased foreign investment resulting from trade and investment diversion caused by the trade war.”
Eng reported that foreign investment across all sectors in Malaysia has roughly doubled from $6 billion in the first half of 2018 to $11.8 billion during the first half of this year. A majority of the investment was in the manufacturing sector. Among the results is an increasing GDP growth, up to 4.9 percent in the second quarter of 2019 from 4.5 percent in the previous quarter.
Yet digitalization, not manufacturing, is at the core of the 2020 Malaysian Budget and central to what Eng calls “Industry 4.0.”
“Unlike 10 to 40 years ago, when industrialization required an ample supply of skilled workers, good physical infrastructure, as well as a set of reliable consistent rule of law, there is a new dimension that needs to be considered today,” he declared. “It is about data and its uses.”
Malaysia has identified five sectors–electronics, machinery, chemical products, medical devices, and aerospace–in which to make its digital investments. Part of the Industry 4.0 plan is a $5.2 billion investment in digital connectivity, with the goal of achieving 5G high-speed Internet throughout the nation by 2023.
Growth incentives for Malaysia’s aspiration to become a digital and entrepreneurial state include: $5 billion in investment over five years to small and medium enterprises, large local companies, and multinationals; a regulatory framework for virtual banking by 2020; and $1.6 billion over five years to develop 350,000 jobs for Malysian youth, unemployed people, and women.
“The digital economy must be inclusive–for the many, not the few,” said Eng.
At the Blum Center, women using their entrepreneurial and
discipline-specific talents to start innovative projects and organizations has
been a goal since our founding. The difference today compared to 13 years ago is
that there are more networks and investment opportunities for female founders.
Yet barriers still exist (to be broken).
At the October 1 CITRIS Women in Tech Initiative “Inclusion by
Design: Practical Tips for Improving STEM Equality,” the Blum Center’s Phillip
Denny was part of a panel discussing ways to increase the participation and
success of women and under-represented people in entrepreneurship.
“Networks and mentors are extremely important for female
innovators, as they are for everyone,” said Denny who directs the Big Ideas Contest.
Recently, Denny documented in a Stanford
Social Innovation Review article that in Big Ideas there is a correlation between
female participants’ success and the number of female judges in the pool. The
researchers also found that women mentors, who advise on project plans, offer
much needed perspectives and networks and have a better understanding of some
of the types of products and services that women are proposing.
In this month’s newsletter, we are
featuring several women
entrepreneurs who have come through Blum Hall.
Maria Artundauga, 2019
winner of the Big Ideas Contest, discusses how her personal and
professional experiences led her to found Respira Labs, a Skydeck startup, and how she
navigates male-dominated spaces as a woman of color and an immigrant.
Also featured is the work of Vicentia
Gyau, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and Global Poverty & Practice alumna,
who co-founded the nonprofit Education
Redefined for All to improve public education and workforce
development in Ghana.
addition, October was another tremendous month for Blum Center Education
her startup Squishy Robotics, which makes shape-shifting robots
for first responders in disaster situations. The Professor of Mechanical
Engineering was named one of the 30 women in robotics by
Robohub, and her invention won the
Grand Winner Award at 2019 Silicon Valley TechPlanter competition in the global
Please join me in the
celebration of these and other women founders and social entrepreneurs at the
Blum Center, at UC Berkeley, and beyond.
And please take a look
at Jason Liu’s article
on the Development Engineering course Design, Evaluate and Scale
Technologies (DevEng200), which is being taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and
social science students, more than half of whom hail from outside the U.S.
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for
Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering
and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.
“Sustainability is something innovators don’t really think about because we are so focused on how our product is going to work, how we are going to market it, and how we are going to sell it,” said Emily Huynh, a senior studying biomedical engineering at UC Berkeley.
Dr. Bertram Lubin’s 50-year career is not coming to a close. Although the former president, CEO, and research
director of Children’s Hospital Oakland—who has served as the principal
investigator or co-investigator on over 30 National Institutes of Health grants,
published more than 200 articles in peer reviewed journals, and co-authored the
first clinical best practice guidelines for sickle cell anemia—is not, as he
put it, “looking for an opportunity to advance my academic career,” and he is
also not interested in retirement.
This fall he joined the Blum Center and the College of Engineering to serve as a senior advisor in health,
where he plans to mentor students and advise interdisciplinary faculty on
health care-related research.
“I’m doing this because I enjoy it, because I see an opportunity to work with students and faculty to
improve the health of children and their families, locally and globally,” said
Lubin. “In my opinion, UC Berkeley is perhaps the best public research
university in the world, has a strong a commitment to its community, and I want
to encourage that with what I do.”
Lubin is in an unusually strong position to make a mentorship and advisement commitment, not just
because of his professional successes, but because he has led a life of
tremendous breadth. Born in New York City, he grew up in a small town outside
of Pittsburgh, PA to parents who ran a fruit and vegetable store and did not
attend high school. He became the first person in his family to graduate from
college and then medical school, and went on to become the first Pediatrician
to run a children’s hospital in California. He plays jazz drums, and once was
asked to play a tune with Thelonious Monk. He is married to a Cal graduate, has
several children of whom he is very proud, started the basic research program
at Oakland Children’s Hospital called CHORI, and founded 40 years ago an
NIH-funded summer research program that has provided basic and clinical
research opportunities to over 1,000, mostly underrepresented, minority high
school, college, and post-baccalaureate students who have used knowledge gained
in the program to pursue STEM-related careers.
Lubin is widely known for advancing the concept of the social determinants
of health and health equity, which can include such varied factors as early child development, food
security, housing, social support, education, housing, and poverty. He concedes
this concept, though now recognized as important, is not financially successful
in the short term, but can improve the health of communities over generations
and result in an enormous return on investment.
Lubin first built his reputation in pediatric hematology, particularly
sickle cell disease. Beginning in the 1970s, he led a California program to
introduce newborn screening for sickle cell disease, an inherited blood
disorder that largely affects people of African descent and can lead to acute
pain and chronic complications. When
he began studying this disease over 50 percent of children with sickle cell
were dying by age 5 from infectious disease complications as their immune
system was compromised.
Lubin, who claims to have inherited a “resilience gene” (if there is one),
was convinced that he could both reduce the suffering the disease causes and extend the life of patients. He
and his colleagues thought that if sickle cell disease could be identified at
birth, they could start antibiotics and prevent early mortality. The problem was
how to convince the community of the value of newborn screening, especially
African Americans, who had cause not to trust the U.S. medical establishment.
“I knew I had to do things
that were widely accepted,” remembered Lubin. “I knew some members of the
community might see the testing as earmarking them in a negative way, so I had
to get them on board, which meant going to every possible community meeting.”
Community permission and
funding came after a pilot project at Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland. The
results were convincing: with a simple blood test, pediatricians knew if an
infant carried the disease. They could then prescribe penicillin to
prevent bacterial infection and affect lifespan.
“Everyone agreed that if the
child had sickle cell, their life would be negatively affected and even at
peril,” explained Lubin. “This then meant that everyone could accept
identifying a child to prolong his or her life and institute prophylactic
antibiotics. What we did in California was adopted across the United States.
Now there isn’t a state that doesn’t screen for sickle cell anemia in the
Lubin went on to start the first sibling cord blood banking program in the
world for children with hemoglobinopathies, which did lead to cures, and
supported the application of gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for
children with sickle cell and related diseases.
Now 80, he looks back at these experiences with satisfaction and pride. He
attributes much of his success to his passion to help others, particularly
underserved children and their families. He believes the salesman ability
he learned as a kid while working at his parents’ store played a major role in his life.
“[Medical research] funding
often requires sales and communication skills,” he said. “As an NIH reviewer at
a study section on a particular grant, I’d often have to convince the 30 other reviewers
of the value of the proposed research. I do feel these skills are important if
they are done in a way that the community respects and trusts.”
The sales boy turned doctor found these skills particularly useful when he
was running Children’s Hospital Oakland. The staff selected him because they
wanted a physician in the CEO position, who was committed to improving the
health of all children.
“They knew that I brought with me the concept of the social value of
children and the importance of improving the health of the overall community.
It was what I believed in, and what our medical staff believed, was of value.
It’s what a children’s hospital should be doing, especially one that serves 80
percent of children covered of Medi-Cal.”
Lubin plans to spend his time
at UC Berkeley working with bioengineering faculty like Blum Center Chief
Technologist Dan Fletcher on lifesaving medical devices with local and global
application as well as emphasizing the importance of the social determinants of
health—of seeing health care as holistic, interdisciplinary, and cross-sector.
He also plans to help foster the university’s commitment to diversity and
“I think we have to have
health care leadership involved in public policy,” emphasized Lubin. “If you
don’t get policy and implementation together, then you’re not going to move the
needle. We need to stop pursuing small economic advantages. We need to focus on
big impacts for society.”
Dr. Bertram Lubin is available to UC Berkeley students, research staff,
and faculty for office hours and consultations. Please contact Yovana Gomez at firstname.lastname@example.org
for an appointment.
Career paths are both visible and hidden to UC Berkeley students, probably because college is both a time to prepare for the workplace and analyze its history. At the Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) Post-Practice Retreat on September 7 at Blum Hall, five GPP alumni shared their experiences navigating work and life after Berkeley. The retreat provides support for current GPP students as they consider their personal and professional journeys at Berkeley and beyond.
Amber Gonzales-Vargas, now a senior program manager at the Latino Community Foundation, said she sought work with an organization whose values aligned with her own and that could allow her to create solutions to systemic problems present in the United States. She also wanted to work locally and serve Latinx communities. At the Latino Community Foundation, Gonzales-Vargas says she is inspired and challenged each day to push through barriers to enact greater change within Latinx communities. She also said she is constantly being challenged in how she approaches problems—learning from which she adopted from her GPP coursework and practice experience.
Similarly, Priya Natarajan says she considers her work with Teach for America a “long-term practice experience.” Since being placed to teach elementary special education at a Voices Charter School in the Bay Area, Natarajan says she has been reminded of the power and the value of community, a theme commonly discussed in GPP coursework. Teaching special education has also made her reflect on the GPP minor’s emphasis on structural and systemic failures and the power dynamics present within the workforce.
Like Natarajan, panelists Jennifer Fei, Ryan Liu, and Alison Ryan spoke about their own journeys after graduating from UC Berkeley and echoed the sentiment that figuring out the best fit professionally requires experimentation and a lot of trial and error.
Jennifer Fei, currently a program manager at the Immigration Policy Lab, shared her experiences working at Berkeley Consulting and Goldman Sachs as well as her decision to get a master’s degree in international policy from Stanford University, which helped her land her current job managing the Lab’s refugee research portfolio. Fei’s advice to GPP students is to never underestimate the importance of putting your best foot forward in every project and professional relationship. Fei said people are willing to advocate for you when they remember your quality of work. Fei also advised GPP students to make space for themselves by attending to their mental well being. Gonzales-Vargas agreed that making space for herself allows her to better serve the communities she represents. She says self care “helps to build my resilience and in spaces where I may otherwise have thought there was no hope.”
Similar to Fei, Liu’s postgraduate experience was not linear. Liu graduated from Berkeley with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, but was interested in finding work outside of what he saw as the rigid structure of the field. As a result, he explored an array of industries—from working at an NGO in Nicaragua to taking on positions in corporations, startups, and national laboratories. He eventually completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. Liu is now a product designer at Fenix International, an energy and financial inclusion company with offices in San Francisco, Kampala, and Lusaka. He says the completion of the GPP minor has allowed him to develop a more critical lens, one that encourages him to question power dynamics and to evaluate his own role within hierarchies.
Like Liu, Alison Ryan says GPP is ever-present in her work and shapes the way she thinks about and interacts with the world. She said that the GPP minor has heightened her awareness of problems with equity and how employers can contribute to making people feel valued. Ryan graduated from Berkeley with a degree in political science, and went on to receive her master of public health in epidemiology from UCLA. Ryan now works as a surveillance officer at the California Emerging Infections Program. Like fellow panelists, she said the trajectory of her career was much different than what she had anticipated during her undergraduate days at Berkeley. “You refine over time what you want and what you’re looking for and that changes as your career develops,” she said.
The Blum Center was asked to replicate the panel for the San Francisco Collaborative on Human Trafficking’s symposium, held September 27, and hosted at the California State Building. The full-day conference attended by representatives of law enforcement, businesses, service providers and volunteers explored best practices and policy solutions for survivors’ protection, restitution, and socio-economic inclusion. Plenary and breakout sessions focused on effective partnerships and innovative programs aimed at addressing the root causes of human trafficking.
During the closing plenary session, “The Role of Data Science in Preventing & Rescuing Survivors of Human Trafficking,” panelists and moderator Chloe Gregori from the Blum Center discussed significant milestones, challenges, and opportunities in the tech field to keep protect people and prosecute traffickers.
Rogers and Thee discussed their work with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which took place when they were working at Intel. Rogers and Thee explained that when a child is reported missing, time is of the essence. Thee recounted that in 2013, NCMEC employed 25 analysts, receiving and disbursing about 500,000 reports to law enforcement. Cases determined as “urgent” were automatically dispersed to a government agency, while others went to a 30-day backlog.
In 2017, through Rogers and Thee’s leadership, machine learning was introduced as a key part of the pipeline. A team of engineers automated the IP addresses and cell phone information of victims and predators. Since then, case turnaround is down to 24 hours, and the time saved has allowed analysts to focus more deeply on specific cases. In addition, the Center for Missing & Exploited Children was able to handle 16 million cases in 2018, up from 8 million in 2017.
“This is exemplary of what AI can accomplish to accelerate analysis of data and allow humans to do work that machines cannot do,” said Rogers. “AI is not going to take jobs away. We’ve shown it can accelerate human work and bolster law enforcement and expertise.”
Although machine learning is being used to assist law enforcement in locating victims, panelists Thee and Martin also noted the importance of using machine learning to prevent children from being trafficked in the first place. They said children are at risk of being “groomed” by traffickers through texting and communications via social media channels.
Thee believes that smartphones, unmonitored by parents, put children in great danger. She recommended parental control and monitoring apps like Bark, where she works as vice president of strategic partnerships. Bark enables parents to monitor children’s text messages, YouTube accounts, and 24 social media networks to flag potential safety concerns. Thee emphasized the crucial connection between child safety and technology in addressing child trafficking, but reminded the audience that parents are always the frontline for safety for their kids.
Holding up her smartphone, Thee quoted John Clark, CEO of NCMEC: “Handing your child a smartphone is like dropping them off in the most dangerous city in the world and walking away.”
Martin, founder & CEO of Humans Against Trafficking, is piloting machine learning solutions at his organization to identify at-risk youth before they are recruited by traffickers through social media platforms.
“We need to understand that predators search the web for public profiles of children to gauge their vulnerability,” he said. “This needs to stop and we can develop the tools to do it.”
How does one bring a social impact idea from conception to reality?
That question is central to DEVENG C200: Design, Evaluate and Scale Development Technologies, a Development Engineering course taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science graduate students this fall.
Because the emerging field of Development Engineering is highly interdisciplinary, DEVENG C200 is taught as a collaboration among Blum Center Education Director and Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, Haas School of Business Professor David Levine, and College of Natural Resources Associate Professor Matthew Potts, all of whom are faculty from the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. Yael Perez, a Blum Center researcher and coordinator for the Development Engineering program, also provides support for the student teams, especially in their project formulation and interactions with local communities.
According to Levine, who specializes in the economic analysis of developing countries, the class is meant to help students practice design thinking and engineering in low-resource settings.
During the first week of class, students participated in a project fair, where sponsors of ongoing Development Engineering projects introduced themselves to the students. Projects included a technology for arsenic removal from drinking water in California’s Central Valley and a community-based enterprise for recycling plastic waste for infrastructure in Kenya. Students were tasked with reconceptualizing the product design for user needs, performing needs assessments for stakeholders, and analyzing the social integration of the projects in their respective communities.
“The goal of the class is for the students to learn how a product evolves through user interaction, how it is contextualized culturally and otherwise, and how to improve a design so it better serves the needs of its users,” said Perez, who completed a UC Berkeley PhD in Architecture focused on collaborative design. “Students will need to think beyond their initial conceptions of the project and seek feedback from stakeholders to adjust their ideas to the users’ needs in a particular place and context.”
Levine, who has taught the course previously, added: “These projects are serving real communities and some will become real solutions that will operate on a real scale. Students will go through needs assessments, use their creativity to find new solutions, develop relevant business plans, and eventually get to see how impactful those solutions actually are.”
When asked what he thought the most important skill will be for the students to succeed in their projects, Levine responded, “Nothing is more important than listening. The world is complicated and we have to try to understand what the problems are on a deep level. Too often we assume that really smart people at Berkeley have all the solutions and too often they’re wrong. Instead, we need to use all the surveys and data possible to understand the potential solutions to a problem, collect feedback, and continue refining the solution.”
While listening is an important skill for DEVENG C200 students, Perez noted that the diversity of students is also an important characteristic.
“Diversity in any company or team improves creativity, brings new ideas, and fosters new ways of thinking,” she said, citing a Harvard Business Review article.
Diversity is indeed reflected in the student makeup of DEVENG 200, in which a third are business students and the rest are pursuing advanced degrees in engineering, education, natural resources, and public policy. More than half the class also hails from outside the U.S.
One of the most popular projects chosen was TakatakaPlastics, sponsored by Paige Balcom, a Mechanical and Development Engineering PhD student, InFEWS Fellow, and advisee of Agogino. The main goal of the project is to convert the plastic waste in developing countries into durable and affordable construction material.
Explaining what excites her about Takataka Plastics, Balcom said, “I saw how [Takataka Plastics] could make a huge impact on the lives of my Ugandan friends. By turning waste into saleable products, we’re creating jobs, cleaning up litter, reducing public health issues, and reducing greenhouse gases released by burning plastic. Takataka is helping change people’s view of plastic waste from dirty, untouchable ‘rubbish’ to an untapped resource and helping them realize the impact plastic has on their environment.”
In 2018, Takataka Plastics successfully tested a prototype and recently received its first order from Uganda. DEVENG C200 students will create a marketing strategy to franchise the project across Uganda, design additional products from the available plastic, and tailor the technical product to better satisfy user needs.
Another project, Air Cathode Assisted Iron Electrocoagulation (ACAIE): Arsenic Solutions, was introduced by InFEWS Fellow Dana Hernandez, an Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Ashok Gadgil and other members of his lab to develop an affordable arsenic removal treatment technology. The technology will provide clean water for communities in California’s Central Valley and has scalable prototypes in development. ACAIE: Arsenic Solution won Berkeley’s Big Idea Contest last year. Students will work with Hernandez to socially integrate the technology into the communities of the Central Valley, scale the project, and create a business model for the product.
DEVENG C200 Students Adrian Hinkle and Soliver Fusi, both InFEWS PhD Fellows as well, are leading the Urine to Fertilizer project, which focuses on converting urine into an affordable fertilizer that increases food production while promoting sustainable sanitation in Kenya. Fusi said, “I’m attracted to the fundamental premise of my work because I’m not creating anything new–I’m just finding ways to make do with what we already have, such as urine.” Previous researchers, working with Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Kara Nelson, have successfully tested a proof of concept in Kenya in 2017 while Fusi and Hinkle will finalize technical research, the needs assessments for their Kenyan stakeholders, and the economic viability of urine-derived fertilizers with the students of DEVENG C200.
Anaya Hall, an Energy and Resource Group Ph.D. student and InFEWS Fellow, is leading the Peel: Scaling Compost for Carbon Sequestration and Community Resilience project, which addresses the inefficiencies and significant greenhouse gas emissions coming from conventional composting practices in California. With the project still in its early stages, students will work on solving operational questions, such as how to scale and where to site the project, while also determining if compost utilization can be turned into an effective, socially beneficial, and environmentally friendly business model.
Another project, Aakar Innovation, seeks to address the dearth of effective menstrual hygiene management in India through environmentally friendly, comfortable, and convenient menstrual pads. Sponsored by Aakar Social Board Members Jaydeep Mandal and Ajay Muttreja, Aakar Innovation aims to destigmatize menstruation and empower females in rural India. Students will work with the Indian nonprofit to conduct needs assessments and create a financial strategy to scale the project.
Meanwhile, the Edu-Comp project is working to find bothsustainable technological and educational solutions to food waste at the Native American Yocha Dehe Wintun Academy, a school for indigenous people located near Sacramento. The project sponsors are Yael Perez and InFEWS Fellow George Moore, a Mechanical Engineering student of Professor Agogino, who are building on the work of students in Professor Kosa Goucher-Lambert’s ME290 class last spring. DEVENG C200 students will work to find educational supplements to technological solutions, customize the device itself to fit the needs of the school, and determine benchmarks for success.
Lastly, Shelby Witherby, an InFEWS Fellow with a PhD in Developmental Engineering, is leading the SAFR: Fluoride Removal project, which addresses the lack of an affordable solution to fluoride contaminated drinking water in rural India. Several field tests for the project have been completed and Witherby hopes to finalize the design of the prototype, address waste disposal, and organize local maintenance for the system with DEVENG C200 students this semester.
By the end of the class, students will have immersed themselves in these projects and, as Professor Agogino stated, will have learned methodologies for working with underserved communities and developing integrated solutions for complex sustainability challenges.
“Ultimately,” she said, “they will have also potentially co-designed innovative solutions for communities in need.
Growing up in Ghana in the 1990s and 2010s, Abraham Martey and Vicentia Gyau understood that the weak educational system in their country was a byproduct of structural failures that were hardest on the poor. At UC Berkeley, where the two Mastercard Foundation Scholars majored in Global Studies and minored in Global Poverty & Practice, they steeped themselves in learning about global powers, structural injustices, poverty alleviation, and humanitarian aid.
One fact the UC Berkeley students noted time and again was that for educational projects to have success, a synergy must exist between development organizations and the communities they seek to help. In May of 2016 while freshman at Berkeley, they set out to create such an organization—Education Redefined for All (ER4All)—as a way to help to improve public school education and give back to youth in Ghana. ER4All received its Certificate of Incorporation in Ghana in June of 2016, and its Certificate of Recognition as a Regional/District Non-Governmental Organization in Ghana November of 2017.
“The ultimate goal of ER4All,” says Gyau, “is to change the face of education in Ghana from a chew and pour system—one that focuses on how well students are able to memorize and regurgitate information—to a critical pedagogy where students are actively engaged in education and where education is made practical, easy, affordable, and accessible to everyone.”
Martey and Gyau say that the Global Poverty & Practice program helped them to gain a critical lens through which to think about how to proactively approach solutions that center on people while acknowledging structural failures. For that reason, ER4ALL works to find effective solutions not just to educational access but to unemployment in Africa by addressing what Gyau refers to as “the root of the problem, not just the leaves.”
ER4All provides its beneficiaries—financially disadvantaged students aged 6-19 and their parents—with school supplies, tutoring in entrepreneurship, leadership, and computer literacy, as well as career coaching to help high school dropouts (one of whom went on to become a Community Police Driver) learn a trade of their choice, such as sewing and driving.
Because access to secondary school education in Ghana is very new—indeed tuition-free high school is only one year old—Martey and Gyau say most parents from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the experience necessary to guide their children through school or help plan for their livelihoods afterward. For that reason, ER4ALL has developed an Empowerment Fund that provides parents with capital to start or invest in existing businesses, offers lessons in entrepreneurship, and engages parents in discussions on how they can be actively engaged in the education of their children. The Empowerment Fund is meant to help parents both attain a higher level of financial security and participate in the education of their children.
Currently, ER4All serves 18 students, 18 parents, and two high school dropouts in Prampram and neighboring towns in Ghana. Martey and Gyau say that the Global Poverty & Practice minor introduced them to the idea that approaches to aid should be analyzed and reassessed to best suit beneficiaries’ needs. As such, they want to apply new methodologies in response to what does and doesn’t work. Says Martey: “We make sure we have the best interest of our beneficiaries in mind, and not impose on them what we think will help—but doing what works best for them.”
Since graduating from Berkeley, Gyau has been selected to be a Student Support Fellow at the African Leadership Academy, a South Africa-based organization whose mission is to develop a network of over 6,000 leaders to collectively address the continent’s greatest challenges. Meanwhile, Martey is enrolled in McGill University for a Master of Education and Society. He says, “At McGill, I am taking courses related to and or in curriculum development to help further develop the Leadership and Entrepreneurship Curriculum we are currently using.” His main focus is on first generation college students, learnings from which he plans to apply to ER4All.
While in Canada and South Africa, Martey and Gyau are maintaining their roles at ER4All and are in constant touch with the teachers and administrators on staff in Ghana. Martey is focused on funding opportunities, budgets, and the further development of the Leadership and Entrepreneurship syllabus. Gyau oversees the staff, helps recruit new students, and further develops guidance, counseling, and study skills to better serve ER4All’s beneficiaries.
Gyau says the long-term vision of ER4All is to catalyze a shift from standardized education in Africa to a focus on the economic and social well being of students and their communities. “Overall, the idea of ER4All is to create an ecosystem in which youth in Ghana are able to start their own trades, create jobs for themselves, and enter the workforce with applicable knowledge and skills,” says Martey.
Although Maria Artunduaga, a Colombian-born translational physician and entrepreneur, says that racial and gender bias has played a major role in shaping her career, she doesn’t view it as an obstacle. Instead, she views such experiences as motivation to close the gender and racial gap, particularly in Silicon Valley.
During his time as an officer for the U.S. Navy, Diptee remembers being told to “color inside the lines and innovate on your own time.” After coming to UC Berkeley in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. in Education, Diptee found himself in an environment that required the opposite.
How do we educate students to become lifelong learners? University
professors are continually grappling with this question, as we aim to spark
students’ curiosity and engage them in thought-provoking coursework.
This fall, I am re-engaging in teaching undergraduates after
11 years, leading a 200-person course on robotics and intelligent machines. Although
I will need to extensively supplement the textbook I wrote more than 20 years
ago for the course, I am excited to connect with students in my field and take
part in a changing undergraduate pedagogy at the nexus of technology, design,
and problem solving.
Students today learn differently than my generation and have
new tools at their disposal. In my class, all lectures will be recorded and
made available online. This allows students to engage with the material in new
ways. If they miss a lecture, they can catch up afterward. If they have
questions or find a topic challenging, they can consume the lecture at their
own pace, pausing to make sense of information or look up answers to questions as
they arise. Indeed, it is common for students to have class-viewing sessions in
their dorms. And if students are familiar with a topic area, they can watch at
1.5 speed or just focus where they need deeper understanding.
This approach is a boon for faculty as well. It frees us up to
answer more substantive questions and workshop homework or challenges rather
than respond to the students’ request “to explain that theorem one more time.”
Giving students the ability to learn at their own pace and in their own style is
one way to make learning more self-directed. It also transforming the role of
faculty from holders of knowledge to knowledge guides and exploration
Another way we are trying to inspire lifelong learners is by
engaging curiosity. For the second time, we are offering a Development Engineering
graduate section of our core undergraduate Global Poverty & Practice class.
By opening up a graduate section designed for engineers, we aim to encourage
engineering graduate students to pursue knowledge they might otherwise not
encounter. The class will connect critical debates around development and
foreign aid with current issues around technology (such as data privacy) and
research (AI and job churn).
Finally, if we are to educate lifelong learners, we must
acknowledge we are aiming not only to expand students’ intellect but also their
life choices. Attending Berkeley is a widely viewed as a catalyst to becoming
an engaged citizen—but only if students have the time to reflect on their individual
motivations and career trajectories. Too often at Berkeley, we don’t create
enough space for students to have conversations about their individual growth
and journeys. To that end, we are developing a toolkit that will help faculty
better facilitate conversations around personal motivations, leadership skills,
and offer student workshops that will help them design (and re-design!) lives
that are purposeful and fulfilling.
The Blum Center reached out to Karla Tlatelpa and Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos to ask how the Global Poverty & Practice minor helped shape their understanding of and participation in the medical field.
Karla Tlatelpa and Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos, UC Berkeley graduates who majored in Molecular and Cell Biology and minored in Global Poverty & Practice, have recently been admitted to the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. They are attending UCLA’s Program in Medical Education-Leadership and Advocacy (PRIME-LA), which enables students to focus on underserved communities. Tlatelpa and Gutierrez-Palominos are both first generation college Latinx women who have defied odds and pushed through barriers to get to where they are now. The Blum Center reached out to Tlatelpa and Gutierrez-Palominos to ask how the Global Poverty & Practice minor helped shape their understanding of and participation in the medical field.
What inspired you to join the Global Poverty & Practice minor?
Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos: I wanted to apply a critical social lens to my understanding of poverty and inequality. I have experienced poverty on a downstream level, but I wanted to learn what upstream factors caused the poverty I had witnessed. My existence in this country, as a previously undocumented immigrant, is inherently political. Thus, I am personally invested in advocacy efforts regarding underserved communities. My clinical and personal experiences have shown me patients’ desire to feel represented and understood, both through language and culture. In addition to having my background drive my passion for addressing inequalities, minoring in GPP provided me with the historical, political, and economic knowledge necessary to analyze and address systemic forces contributing to poverty.
Karla Tlatelpa: Growing up, my family experienced many injustices that, at the time, I thought were only happening to us. As I grew older and learned more about the systems in which we live, I began to understand that our circumstances were not isolated and were part of systemic problems that other families like mine were experiencing. We were a low-income family of undocumented immigrants, so my parents worked two to three jobs at a time to keep us economically afloat. From the ages of 7 to 15, I worked 12-hour days with my grandma on weekends selling candy at the Oakland Coliseum flea market to help contribute to our food budget, especially since being undocumented meant we did not have access to social services like SNAP. With limited access to health care due to a lack of health insurance, my family’s health problems would sometimes go unattended. As I entered UC Berkeley, I wanted to gain a framework that would help me understand the disparities families like mine experience as a result of limited economic and social rights. On orientation day, I came across a student tabling for the Global Poverty & Practice minor and was immediately hooked!
How has the GPP minor changed your perspective on the field of medicine, if at all?
Gutierrez-Palominos: The GPP minor has made me more socially aware and fostered my sense of seeking to serve underserved populations. The minor has allowed me to delve deeper into wanting to understand upstream social determinants of health, which encouraged me to apply to the PRIME program at UCLA. I will be weaving an additional Master of Public Health year into my four years of medical education.
Tlatelpa: GPP helped me understand the role I will have as a physician beyond the clinical setting. I’ve always known that physicians are highly respected members of society, but GPP highlighted the extent of my privilege as a future physician. After GPP, my drive to study medicine shifted from a desire to help individuals in my community to also include a sense of responsibility to use the power and influence that being a MD provides to push for positive social change.
What lessons from GPP will you carry forward into your medical education and career?
Gutierrez-Palominos: Through the GPP minor, I considered the economical, social, and political dimensions involved around engaging in poverty work—which is relevant to my aspiration of providing care in low-income areas as a doctor. The GPP minor focuses on processes, such as the process of grappling with newfound concepts, which helped to further develop my critical thinking skills. Knowing that poverty doesn’t have a simple solution, I remained humble when engaging in poverty alleviation work since I always had to consider further implications, possibilities, and ways to improve. I became more conscientious of the decisions I made in ethical consumption, my support for certain organizations, and evaluating the effectiveness of certain methods/approaches when serving impoverished communities. Lessons of humility and critical thinking is what I will carry forward.
Tlatelpa: One of the greatest lessons GPP taught me was to always ensure I include the community’s voice in decision making that will affect them directly. As a medical student and eventually a physician, I will be regarded as an expert in many situations. However, I will take the teachings from GPP and my practice experience and remind myself and my colleagues that community members are the experts of their own lived experience and should always be included in the decision making process.
What’s the most important thing people should know about you as a Latina entering the world of medicine?
Gutierrez-Palominos: My clinical and personal experiences have shown me patients’ desire to feel represented and understood, both through language and culture. Underrepresentation causes low-income Latino communities to mistrust the medical field and lack mentors they can seek for guidance. Thus, this encourages me to gain more representation for my community and underserved communities like the ones I come from. There are few Latinas in medicine; at UCLA medical school I am not only representing myself, but a greater community—both the village it took to continuously support me on this journey and those who will come after me.
Tlatelpa: There are few Latinx in medicine; this field is certainly not representative of the general population. This meant that when my family had health insurance, we did not usually have medical providers who shared our language or culture. Being a Latina in medicine means that I will have the unique opportunity of improving health outcomes in the Latinx community and relate to my patients in the way my family would have liked to with our own physicians.
What do you hope to accomplish for yourself, your family, your community, or the great world in becoming a doctor?
Gutierrez-Palominos: I hope to have the agency to help in situations where a medical professional is desperately needed. For example, experiencing death and disease in my own family that could have been prevented had there been a doctor. I want to be an advocate for my community and give back to low-income areas like the ones I come from. Due to my background, my ultimate goal is to work in under-resourced global communities involving poor migrants.
Tlatelpa: In the future, I see myself working as a primary care physician in under-resourced, largely Latinx communities. I also see myself working at the policy level to increase access to healthcare for everyone, including undocumented and socioeconomically disadvantaged folks. As part of the Program in Medical Education-Leadership & Advocacy (PRIME-LA) at UCLA, I will take time off from medical school to pursue a Master’s degree in public policy. Through this additional training, I hope to gain the tools necessary to advocate effectively for my patients’ economic and social rights and to carry out policy work that may institutionalize protection for under-resourced communities to access care and other vital social services. As a physician, my voice will carry more weight and increase the impact I could have at the policy level to create changes that will positively affect people beyond those I can reach during individual consultations.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a grant to Berkeley in July 2019 to support the scaled-up production of the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based microscope developed by Blum Center Chief Technologist Daniel Fletcher and researchers in his bioengineering laboratory, to enable mapping of Loa loa prevalence and intensity in Central and West Africa.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1.9 million grant to Berkeley to support the scaled-up production of the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based microscope developed by Blum Center Chief Technologist Daniel Fletcher and researchers in his bioengineering laboratory, to enable mapping of Loa loa prevalence and intensity in Central and West Africa. The LoaScope uses video from the mobile phone-based microscope to automatically detect and quantify infection by parasitic worms in a drop of blood.
Loa loa, commonly referred to as African eye worm, is passed on to humans through the repeated bites of deer flies in West and Central Africa rainforests. Knowing whether someone has a Loa loa infection and the intensity of that infection is critical for mass drug administration efforts to eliminate onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis). There may be more than 29 million people who are at risk of getting loaisis in affected areas of Central and West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Fletcher Lab’s original device was developed with support from the Blum Center, USAID, KLA-Tencor, and the Gates Foundation to enable safe treatment of River Blindness with the potent anti-helminth drug ivermectin in regions co-endemic with Loa loa. The new project will update 30-year-old maps of Loa loa infections in partnership with the Task Force for Global Health. Fletcher, who is UC Berkeley’s Purnendu Chatterjee Chair in Engineering Biological Systems,said the mapping is necessary to identify regions where mass drug administration for River Blindness can be carried out safely and where precautions due to Loa loa co-infection may be necessary.
Among the LoaScope’s proof of impact is a November 2017 New England Journal of Medicine paper co-authored by Professor Fletcher and an international team of researchers describing how the device was used to successfully treat more than 15,000 patients with ivermectin without the severe adverse events that had previously halted treatment.
“This is not just a step forward for efforts to eliminate river blindness,” Professor Fletcher told Berkeley News in a November 2017 article, “but a demonstration that mobile microscopy — based on a mobile phone — can safely and effectively expand access to healthcare. This work sets the stage for expanding the use of mobile microscopy to improve diagnosis and treatment of other diseases, both in low-resource areas and eventually back in the U.S.”
As a freelancer and a master’s degree student at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (M.C.P.), Christelle Rohaut found coffee shops too crowded, co-working spaces too expensive, and her own home too isolating. In 2016, on her daily commute home, she saw rows of overpacked coffee shops.
“I also found it incredibly ironic that my living room was empty all day long,” said Rohaut.
This summer, on the same day that Joy Harjo was named the first Native American Poet Laureate, a delegation of students and educators from the Pinoleville Pomo Nation and Santa Clara tribes of Northern California assembled in Blum Hall at UC Berkeley.
The group came to Berkeley as part of a summer STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) program organized by Global Poverty & Practice students working under Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino and Yael Perez, a Blum Center researcher who with Agogino and the UC Berkeley CARES group has been involved in collaborations with the tribes for over a decade.
Perez read Harjo’s “The Morning I Pray for My Enemies” to the assembled 20 middleschoolers:
And whom do I call my enemy? An enemy must be worthy of engagement. I turn in the direction of the sun and keep walking. It’s the heart that asks the question, not my furious mind. The heart is the smaller cousin of the sun. It sees and knows everything. It hears the gnashing even as it hears the blessing. The door to the mind should only open from the heart. An enemy who gets in, risks the danger of becoming a friend.
These words set the tone for the visit, said Perez, who later explained:
“Over the years of our collaboration with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, there have been several visits to campus. These visits are sensitive and loaded as they make injustice more visible, forcing all of us—the Native citizens, the campus representatives, and the students—to acknowledge it. Similar to previous visits, this tour of the Pomo youth is ingrained in a soil of historic wrongdoing and current injustices, of which the youth are aware.”
Perez, who earned her PhD in architecture from UC Berkeley with a dissertation on a collaborative design for a cultural center to celebrate Pomo artifacts, said that the highpoint of the visit for her was the afternoon at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which houses one of the largest collections of Native American remains and artifacts in the country.
There, museum employees laid out a dozen Pomo objects from Mendocino County—decades-old baskets, necklaces, and musical instruments—which had been brought up from the museum’s closed-off rooms for the Native students to observe and, in some cases, touch and hold.
The students were told there are over 3,000 Pomo objects in the museum. On the TV screens around them, they could see footage of basket making video recorded by anthropologists. One 13-year-old boy asked, “How did the museum get these things?” to which the docent replied: “They were acquired by anthropologists.”
As the youth approached a table that included a small sample of artifacts from his home county, one of the Pomo girls picked up a clapper and started to clap a traditional rhythm. With the rhythm filling the room, another student started to sing a traditional song and one of the boys commenced a Pomo dance circling the room.
“The TV screens and computer stations depicting the rich collection of artifacts preserved in the museum faded away, as the youth took over the room enacting their culture,” recounted Perez. “I felt in that brief moment that the youth experienced their capacity to engage and transform the dominant culture, making the institution adapt to indigenous ways of knowing, as opposed to gazing at a display that encloses the artifact and distances the visitors from it.”
The purpose of the June 21 UC Berkeley visit was not to question the Hearst Museum’s ownership of artifacts per the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Rather, the visit was a means to introduce the Native students what the university might offer them—after a summer of instruction from undergraduate students affiliated with the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice minor, including Derek Cai, Mira Cheng, Chan Gao, Dylan Kennedy, Camille Kuo, Kolbjorn Rehn, Sarah Xu, and Jenina Yutuc.
On the agenda was a visit to Jacobs Hall, where Native students took a tour of some of the maker labs, marveling at 3D printers, laser cutters, wood fabrication equipment, and soldering irons. Mira Cheng, a molecular and cellular biology major and GPP minor, watched with infectious smile as the middle school students oohed and aahed at the equipment. “We’ve all gotten really attached to the students. I just want to mentor them all forever,” she said.
Camille Kuo, an intended conservation and resource studies major and GPP minor, said that beyond co-designing the summer program with PPN educators and managing high-energy middle school students, “I learned about the layers of bureaucracy and logistics, the importance of communication when you’re dealing with three different entities—UC Berkeley, the tribal office, Ukiah school district—and what it means to work in this kind of complex educational space.”
Educational access and exchange are at the heart of the PPN-UC Berkeley collaboration. Angela James, vice chair of the PPN’s Tribal Council, remarked last summer that the days of cultural and educational isolation are ending for her tribe in California. “My goal is to open the minds of youth and introduce them to college and science,” said James, “and teach them how to build positive working relationships with people outside their immediate circle.”
Clayton Freeman, project assistant for the Pomo Youth College Career Success Project, agreed that campus visits strengthen his students’ interest in and comfort level with going to college. Sitting on a bench in the sun outside the Hearst Museum, he said, “Growing up, I never saw the things we saw today—labs inside the university, this museum.”
Another student chaperone, Sparrow Steele, noted that she was 13 when CARES first started working with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. “The STEAM workshops have been intense,” said Steele. “The kids see them as different from school, and it feels like the UC Berkeley people are more connected with the kids–there’s more energy.”
Josephina Spurlock, a 12-year-old member of the Round Valley Tribe who lived with her uncle in Ukiah this summer to attend the STEAM workshops, said she appreciated learning math in a more hands-on way, “which made it easier to understand.” Spurlock, who is a 4.0 student and class president at Round Valley Middle School, said she can see herself going to Berkeley, playing on the basketball team and studying engineering and photography. She would be the first person in her family to attend college.
When asked how she will accomplish this goal, she explained, “I have to make sure that work comes before goofing off. My mom wants me to get a good education. She did not go to college because she became pregnant with me,” adding: “At school, everyone calls me the goody two shoes. That makes me feel proud.”
Esmerelda Castanon, who is also 12 and attended the last two years of the STEAM camp, is likewise aspiring to college. The PPN tribal member said she is aiming for a career as a civil lawyer, because “there are everyday problems with race that the law can help with.”
Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up roughly 2 percent of the population in California and only 1 percent of undergraduate students at UC Berkeley. Among the 8,447 graduate students matriculated at Cal in 2018-2019, only 59 are Native American/Alaska Native.
the role of the university in the wider world? What is the role of scholarship
in an era of vast digitally enabled knowledge?
are two questions we at the Blum Center keep forefront in our minds, as we
pursue forward-looking curricula and solutions scholarship related to
development. During the 2018-2019 academic year, we sought to practice what we
preach by holding interdisciplinary faculty salons on large development
questions, both to bolster what we teach and how we can learn from one another.
faculty salon series was kicked off by Michael Nacht, UC Berkeley’s Thomas and Alison Schneider
Chair in Public Policy. The former Assistant
Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs explored the nexus of national security, diplomacy, and
development—and gave a sober assessment of what that nexus might produce under
the Trump administration. Michael concluded that development in low-income
countries will not come out of the strategic interactions of the U.S.’s
economic and foreign policy positions but likely will be spurred by the
for-profit sector through advances in agricultural technology, artificial
intelligence, and bioengineering.
In November, Robotics
Goldberg and Business Professor Laura Tyson, Blum Center Chair of the Trustees and
Business Professor, debated the effects of automation and machine
learning on employment across nations and economies. Ken, who believes automation
will both eliminate and create new jobs, proposed a “multiplicity movement” to
foster uniquely human skills that AI and robots cannot replicate: creativity,
curiosity, imagination, empathy, human communication, diversity, and
innovation. He recommended the U.S. reinforce creative and social skills in
high schools and universities, so that Americans are in a position to leverage machines
with varying levels of automation alongside diverse groups of people to amplify
intelligence and spark problem solving.
Laura pointed out that the substitution
of intelligent machines for low-cost, low-productivity workers poses the
greatest challenge in Africa, where by 2050 the continent’s youth population is
estimated to increase by 50 percent to 945 million. She said we must focus our
attention on how African countries will fare in global trade and global supply
chains, when the availability of comparatively cheap labor is no longer a
competitive advantage. She advocated that nations develop comprehensive
educational and development strategies that support the livelihoods of their
citizens—and that share the benefits of intelligent machines broadly.
In December, Bioengineering
Professor and Blum Center Chief Technologist Dan
Fletcherpresented on his own solutions science related to the
London Declaration of Tropical Diseases. Nearly a decade ago, the declaration
brought together more than 80 global organizations to control, eliminate, or
eradicate at least ten of the diseases by 2020. Progress has been made on some
of the diseases, but they still affect nearly one billion people, even though
major pharmaceutical companies have pledged to contribute the treatment drugs.
The main problem now, explained Dan, is a health information gap—both in terms
of who has the diseases and where they are located. His mobile microscopy
device CellScope, developed over a decade plus, can fill this
gap because it both identifies the infected through testing and provides effective
treatment and monitoring, even in the most remote areas. Dan has proven his
technological intervention in several
and is now on mission to fund the implementation of this life-saving
In early 2019, we welcomed Joshua
Blumenstock from School of Information, to the
faculty salon. Blumenstock, director of the Data-Intensive Development Lab,
cautioned that even though the application of machine learning to monitor and
alleviate poverty has become a much discussed aspiration, new digital methods
may serve more as a complement than a replacement to traditional approaches,
especially in the area of economic assessment. However, he did point out that satellite
imagery is becoming a key source for development research because it reveals
basic physical infrastructure and quality of life trends. In his own research,
Joshua has shown that by leveraging machine learning to analyze satellite data,
we can draw conclusions about certain aspects of the quality of life with
nearly the same accuracy as traditional, multimillion-dollar field surveys.
Technological interventions are never clear cut. This was
illustrated in the April Faculty Salon by Professors Isha Ray
of the Energy and Resources Group and Alison
Post of the Political Science Department. They shared their analysis
of the effects of the UC Berkeley-incubated social
which designed a mobile phone intervention to alert Indian households via text
when to expect water supply. Isha and Alison’s two-year study found the SMS
service failed to have its intended time-saving effect due to a combination of
oversights by NextDrop in terms of water service provision, mobile phone
ownership, and other information gaps. “It is absolutely essential to understand
the role of human intermediaries and how drastically the conditions and results
of an intervention can change from one setting to the next,” said Isha.
In May, we discussed
Kenya’s rural electrification efforts, studied by Ted Miguel,
Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, and Catherine
Wolfram, Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration.
Although Kenya has received massive foreign assistance to achieve universal
energy access, the economic benefits of rural electrification in the world’s
poorest places are not straightforward. Ted and Catherine’s research team
conducted a randomized control trial to study the effects of electricity
connections in 150 Kenyan communities, and found no
meaningful medium-run impacts on economic, health, and educational outcomes. The
reason? Even when heavily subsidized, the cost of connecting was a significant
burden for many households whose average annual cash earnings were $205. In
addition, rural Kenyans had no money to buy time-saving, productivity-enhancing
appliances like refrigerators or computers.
“Power isn’t like water,” said Ted. “It isn’t like turning
on the tap and getting something that improves your livelihood. Power requires
you to connect to an appliance. But if you are too poor to buy something to
connect to power, the hypothesized effects are not there.”
The last faculty salon of the academic year was led by Dan Kammen,
Distinguished Professor of Energy, and Solomon
Hsiang, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, who engaged in a
wide ranging conversation with interdisciplinary faculty on the economics,
politics, and development impacts of climate change. Kammen has spent much of
his two-decade career at UC Berkeley focusing on renewable energy research,
with a focus on the role of developing economies. He underscored that in Kenya,
which has a robust mobile money system, off-grid solar-generated energy is
becoming the norm in many rural areas. This illustrates, he said, that around
the globe—from California (which will reach its 2025 zero net carbon emission targets
of time) to Morocco (which is the
only country meeting Paris climate accord goals)—solar,
wind, and other renewable energy sources are proving to be implementable and
The problem, of course, is that the transition away from
fossil fuels to renewables is not happening quickly enough. However, Solomon,
Policy Laboratory researches what we need to know to
design global policy, said public interest in climate change modeling has increased dramatically over the last two
years and the conversation among governments is now how detrimental will be the
social cost of global warming, particularly for Southern Hemisphere countries.
“This is where the role of information and academic research becomes
economically powerful,” he argued.
The Blum Center Faculty Salons will continue in the fall. Stay
tuned for more news about how faculty across the disciplines can collaborate on
solutions science and scholarship for global public benefit.
Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC
Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC
How do you become a social entrepreneur? The question has been the subject of many articles, books, and TED talks. For applicants to the Big Ideas social innovation contest, however, the answer is fairly simple: motivation and mentorship.
have the potential to play an instrumental role in helping marginalized
communities improve their living conditions. That is because engineers are
adept at applying the principles of science and math to develop socio-economic
solutions. For much of the 20th century, people trained in history, law, and
sociology were seen as the primary actors for alleviating poverty.
Increasingly, engineers who can assimilate these and other disciplines are
today’s poverty alleviation strategists—aware that today’s technological leaps forward are creating
inequalities that need multiple forms of redress.
The Development Engineering PhD designated emphasis
was launched with this in mind. An interdisciplinary training program for UC
Berkeley doctoral students from any field, the program requires dissertation
research on the application of technology to address the needs of people living
in poverty. Originally seeded by USAID, the
Development Engineering field is growing. During the 2018-2019 academic year,18
additional students enrolled in the program representing a growth of more than
160 percent from the previous year. They include nine students from the College
of Engineering, six students from the College of Natural Resources, two from
the College of Environmental Design, and one from the School of Education.
Beyond this disciplinary heterogeneity, the program attracts a diverse pool of
students: 50 percent of the incoming cohort are women and 25 percent are
its fifth year, the Development Engineering program is producing a wide range
of scholarship and its graduates have gone on to positions in academia,
industry, the nonprofit sector, and their own enterprises. Below are summaries
of recent graduates’ dissertation research.
Author: Ajay Pillarisetti, Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Berkeley Advisor: Kirk R. Smith, Professor of Global Environmental Health Many low-income families in North India rely on solid fuel use for household cooking, heating, and lighting. Use of these fuel sources result in exposure to fine particles (called PM 2.5) and is one of the leading causes of ill health globally (approximately 4 million premature deaths). This dissertation examines the rollout of PM sensors in these environments, the deployment of 200 advanced cookstoves to pregnant women in India, and examines the adoption rates of various cookstoves in rural districts.
Author: Daniel Wilson, CEO, Geocene: Sensors and Analytics Connected Advisor: Ashok Gadgil, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Since the beginning of the modern Darfur conflict in 2003, violence has forced Darfuri families from their homes.The impetus for the Berkeley-Darfur Stove (BDS) is to reduce the burden and danger IDP women face when acquiring fuel in and around the camps. The BDS’s improved thermal efficiency allows women to cook food using less fuel than a traditional three-stone fire. In the Global South, cooking stoves’ contribution to human disease is comparable to dirty water and is responsible for more annual deaths than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. While biomass-burning stoves generate over 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, the shipping of resources to communities often increases carbon dioxide use. Though estimating carbon dioxide use is often a flawed science, quantifying this ecological and health problem is a first step to addressing the solutions.
Author: Angeli Kirk, Affordable Internet Research Manager at Facebook Advisor: Elisabeth Sadoulet, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics This dissertation combines three empirical studies of household behaviors as they relate to investment in health and human capital in developing countries. The first explores how changes in children’s nutrition in Uganda correspond to household income. The second studies measurement activities in a cookstove intervention in Darfur, Sudan, with insights into what may be missed in traditional evaluation approaches as well as how technology adoption may benefit from an unintended “nudge.” The third evaluates the impacts of a conditional cash transfer program in El Salvador, with a focus on how program compliance and benefits change time allocations among household members.
Author: Jessica Vechakul, Designer and Social Innovation Strategist Advisor: Alice Agogino, Professor of Mechanical Engineering In the social sector, programs often fail due to a lack of understanding of the norms, knowledge, and needs of the people who execute and benefit from the solutions offered by those programs. Human-Centered Design (HCD) offers a broadly-applicable problem-solving framework and methods for developing an in-depth understanding of people who are directly impacted by development challenges, generating creative ideas, and rapidly learning from small-scale pilots. This dissertation characterizes two drastically different approaches for teaching and practicing HCD for Social Impact: that of IDEO, a company that pioneered the HCD approach, and that of the International Development Design Summit program, in which students and members of low-income communities learn to design appropriate technologies and launch social enterprises.
Author: Kathleen Lask Advisor: Ashok Gadgil, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Since biomass cookstoves use wood, charcoal, crop residues, and/or animal dung as fuel, emissions from cooking lead to possibly fatal health effects. When researching the effects of the Berkeley-Darfur cookstove, a design said to pollute less, measurement sensors are often designated far away from the source, which miss the cookstove’s combustion efficiency. This dissertation focuses on the pollutant production, measured by the opacity or soot volume fraction of both the Berkeley-Darfur and conventional cookstoves to paint a more detailed comparison between the two.
Author: William Tarpeh, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, Stanford University Advisor: Kara Nelson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Cattle breeding is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions, using about 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface and producing about 70-120 kg of methane per cow. Recovering nitrogen from collected urine can reduce the costs and environmental impact of mass animal raising. Focusing on how to strip nitrogen with 93 percent efficiency, this dissertation examines a new approach that holds promise for creating greener agriculture.
Author: Rachel Dzombak, Blum Center Researcher and Lecturer Advisor: Arpad Horvath, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Sara Beckman, Professor Haas School of Business Climate change and a growing global population are placing considerable constraints on material, water, and energy resources. Tracking the product life of LEDs may provide insights as to how products are managed throughout the lifecycle as well as their end-of-life fate. Primarily, this dissertation examines current end-of-life strategies, how various design choices and failure modes influence a product’s options at end of life, and how economic costs and environmental impacts vary among end-of-life strategies.
Designing a Scalable and Affordable Fluoride Removal (SAFR)
Process for Groundwater Remediation in India (2017)
Author: Katya Cherukumilli, CEO, Co-founder, and Technical Lead, Global Water Labs and University of Washington Commercialization Fellow Advisor: Ashok Gadgil, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Globally, 200 million people are at risk of adverse health effects from drinking groundwater contaminated with geogenic fluoride concentrations exceeding the World Health Organization’s maximum contaminant limit. Although many defluoridation technologies have been demonstrated to work in lab, most have proven inappropriate for developing countries because they are cost-prohibitive, require skilled labor, or are difficult to scale. Activated alumina (AA) column filters are widely used by the upper middle class but production of AA remains costly in terms of money, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions. Eliminating these energy-intensive steps in refining bauxite, a ubiquitous aluminum-rich ore ($30/tonne), to AA ($1,500- $2,000/tonne), has the potential to reduce the annual per-capita material cost of treated water significantly. The purpose of this dissertation is to ascertain the use of bauxite as a potentially inexpensive defluoridation technology through experimental studies characterizing globally diverse bauxite ores and tradeoffs associated with mild processing steps to enhance fluoride removal performance.
Knowledge for Sustainable Decarbonization in Resource Constrained Environments:
Applied Research at the Intersection of Behavior, Data-Mining, and Technology
Author: Diego Ponce de Leon Barido, founder of Three Stone Analytics Advisors: Daniel M. Kammen, Duncan Callaway, and Alexey Pozdnukhov The global carbon emissions budget over the next decades depends critically on the choices made by fast growing emerging economies. However, few studies exist that develop country-specific energy system integration insights that can inform emerging economies in this decision-making process. High spatial- and temporal-resolution power system planning is central to evaluating decarbonization scenarios, but obtaining the required data and models can be cost prohibitive, especially for researchers in low, lower-middle income economies. Among other things, this dissertation investigates the role and importance of high-resolution open access data and modeling platforms to evaluate fuel- switching strategies. Oil price sensitivity scenarios suggest renewable energy to be a more cost-effective long-term investment than fuel oil, even under the assumption of prevailing cheap oil prices.
Author: Tomas Leon, Postdoctoral Researcher at UC Berkeley School of Public Health Advisor: Robert C. Spear, Department of Environmental Health Sciences In northeast Thailand, infection with the Southeast Asian liver fluke Opisthorchis viverrini is a public health priority, infecting over 50 percent of the population in some villages and causing 5,000 excess cancer cases per year. People acquire the parasite by eating raw or undercooked fish, a deeply embedded local cultural and culinary tradition. Health education is essential to preventing and controlling the disease, but the environment also plays a major role in enabling and catalyzing transmission between hosts. An emphasis on disease ecology and the environmental determinants of transmission is useful and necessary for public health understanding and for informing and designing future treatment and control interventions. This dissertation takes that approach, investigating each disease host and linkage for the role of the environment in influencing transmission.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, two out of three people, or 600 million individuals, still lack access to electricity. Given the massive scale of energy poverty, several large foreign aid institutions have launched major initiatives aimed at connecting millions of rural residences to the grid.
In 2013, the United States Agency for International Development commenced one of the largest public-private partnerships in development history, Power Africa, allocating more than $54 billion in commitments from more than 150 public and private sector partners. In 2015, the UK’s Department for International Development launched Energy Africa, an initiative to help Africa achieve universal energy access by 2030 through market-based off-grid energy to rural households. And in 2016, the African Development Bank started the New Deal on Energy for Africa, a partnership-driven effort to increase clean, renewable energy solutions and achieve universal energy access across the continent by 2025.
This massive push in foreign investment dollars is largely motivated by the assumption that rural electrification is a primary pathway out of poverty. However, new research from UC Berkeley demonstrates that, at least in the medium term, rural electrification may not be the silver bullet many think it is, especially if rural Africans are expected to pay a sizable portion of their income to get connected.
At an April Blum Center Faculty Salon, Ted Miguel, Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, and Catherine Wolfram, Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration, shared their findings from a multi-year study in Kenya, funded by the Development Impact Lab.
“We noticed a lack of experimental evidence on the economics of rural electrification,” explained Miguel, founder and faculty director of the Center for Effective Global Action. “We hoped our study would establish rigorous evidence in this space and improve the effectiveness of such massive investments.”
Together with Kenneth Lee from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, Miguel and Wolfram designed a randomized control trial in western Kenya in 2012 with the goal of answering the question: Does electricity help lift households out of poverty? (Randomized control trials, originally used for medical evaluations, are considered the gold standard of evidence for informing development policy.)
In Kenya, the electrical grid is unevenly distributed. To describe households located close to the grid (within a half mile) but unconnected, the research team coined the term “under grid.” The researchers created a dataset of over 20,000 geotagged homes across 150 rural under grid communities in western Kenya and partnered with Kenya’s Rural Electrification Authority to randomly select treatment and control groups from among 2,200 of these households. The treatment group received free electricity service or subsidized service at a 30 percent or 60 percent discount; while the control group households were not given any special incentives and expected to pay $400 per connection. The cost to the REA for the household connections was ultimately over $1,000, an amount subsidized by foreign aid donors.
The research team conducted a pre-survey and 18 and 32 months later a post-survey to collect data on 11 primary social welfare outcomes. Measured outcomes included changes in energy consumption, productivity, wealth, food, health, security, political knowledge, and education. The team also administered detailed English and math tests on children to measure if access to evening electricity improved academic performance, a widely held notion.
“We were very taken aback by the results,” said Miguel.“We found nomeaningful medium-run impacts on economic, health, and educational outcomes or evidence of spillovers to unconnected local households.”
Their results showed that while the treatment group did experience a modest increase in electricity consumption, that group was no better off socioeconomically than the control group, even after nearly three years. Perplexed by these findings, which seem to contradict the rationale for current large-scale rural electrification investment projects, the researchers set out to analyze why those given free electricity did not experience any of the predicted benefits.
One startling finding was an overall lack of demand for household electricity, consistent with the result that demand for electricity connections falls sharply with price.
“We predicted demand would be twice as high as it actually was,” said Miguel. “Yet very few households connected at the 60 percent subsidy rate and still fewer connected at the 30 percent subsidy rate.”
The team, assisted by data and support from the Kenyan utility as well as REA, was able to trace out the demand and economics cost curve to more thoroughly interpret the data.
Wolfram and Miguel found several interacting negative factors in their research results. First, they postulated rural households were too poor to do much with electrical power once connected. Unlike the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems in rural areas of the United States—along with subsidies for productivity-increasing electrical appliances—Kenya’s electrification efforts have not fully been funded by its government or aid organizations. Households still face an upfront cost for rural residential connections, and there are no government subsidies for appliance purchases. In addition, rural Americans in the 1930s were several times wealthier than contemporary Kenyans; in other words, Americans were in a greater position to take advantage of the socioeconomic benefits of electrification, because they were rich enough to make complementary investments in appliances.
Said Miguel: “The cost of connecting, even when heavily subsidized, is still a significant burden for many of these households that have average annual cash earnings of $205 and three quarters of which practice subsistence agriculture.”
Miguel went on to explain that few of the Kenyan households were interested in or able to buying commercially valuable electrical appliances, like welding equipment, that would lead to greater economic benefit.”
Indeed, Miguel and Wolfram’s data found that the connected households used the equivalent of only $2/month on electricity, mainly for basic lighting and to charge a mobile phone. In addition, the researchers found other barriers to rural electrification: credit constraints, bureaucratic red tape, low grid reliability (frequent blackouts), and evidence of corruption such as over-invoicing for service.
“In the first year of our study, 19 percent of village transformers failed with a median repair time of four months. Thus, even if households could afford to pay for electricity, it was not reliable,” said Wolfram.
Wolfram added that unreliable grid quality can significantly inhibit economic growth for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
“Power isn’t like water,” concluded Miguel. “It isn’t like turning on the tap and getting something that improves your livelihood. Power requires you to connect to an appliance. But if you are too poor to buy something to connect to power, the hypothesized effects are not there.”
Wolfram and Miguel believe their research opens the door to at least two main lines of inquiry: 1) the extent to which electricity connection costs are too high and require further subsidization; and 2) the extent to which demand is being suppressed by poor service quality. There is also the larger question of whether, as Miguel put it, “We are too focused on power as a solution for development outcomes.”
“The research to date has been intellectually fascinating but disheartening; we are not maximizing positive development outcomes,” said Wolfram. “The billion people without power are also the world’s poorest billion. These are people who are struggling to meet their daily basic needs. Perhaps, to really benefit from electricity, we need diversified investments across multiple sectors.”
There are only a handful of Autodesk Technology Centers around the world—in the United Kingdom (Birmingham), Canada (Toronto), and the United States (Boston and San Francisco). Each location explores different aspects of the future of making, from construction to advanced manufacturing to artificial intelligence and generative design. And all of the spaces are designed to foster innovation and advance Autodesk’s vision is to help people imagine, design, and make a better world.
Autodesk’s San Francisco location, at Pier 9, serves as a hub for the exploration of the future of manufacturing. Its focus is “configurable microfactories,” also known as iterative manufacturing, and offers a range of advanced manufacturing equipment, robotics, general shop facilities, and workspace to research and develop ideas that push the boundaries of the built environment.
Zoé Bezpalko, who heads Autodesk’s sustainability strategy for the design and manufacturing industries, presented several tools, including CNC machines, 3D printers, woodworking tools, and laser cutters. Autodesk develops the software that runs on these tools and is developing and promoting software solutions and workflows that work either in the design phase, or with these hardware tools, in the manufacturing phase, to reduce material and energy consumption. The result is a reduction in the environmental impact of product design and manufacturing industries.
Bezpalko presented a display of 3D printed objects, including a replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and facial sculptures made from paper. A few highly intricate coral replicas caught the attention of several students. Bezpalko explained the coral model was an output from Autodesk Foundation grantee The Hydrous, a startup that uses reality capture and photogrammetry to create high resolution 3D models of coral reefs as part of a multi-pronged conservation effort. Given the severe impacts of climate change on marine ecosystem health, the 3D printed coral reefs help The Hydrous raise awareness and provide ways to collect data, analyze, and monitor coral reefs without the risk of exposing them to further damage.
The Blum Center group also visited the robotics lab where two large robotic arms were building a tower from Legos. The group discussed the future of robotics and the many challenges in teaching a robot to complete simple human tasks. Bezpalko showed the group a photo of a 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam, called MX3D, which will soon be installed at one of the city’s oldest and most famous canals. The 3D printed MX3D bridge is a fully functional stainless steel bridge, completed in just six months through robotic additive manufacturing technology.
Over lunch, the group was joined by two senior staff members from Autodesk. The first was Michael Floyd, Autodesk’s AEC Sustainability Strategy Manager, who incubates and promotes novel and existing solutions, largely for high performance buildings, zero-waste construction, and smart, resilient cities. Floyd explained that to decrease the environmental impacts of construction, Autodesk is supporting integration of BIM 360, Autodesk’s building design & construction platform, with EC3, an embodied carbon calculator for buildings. EC3 provides data about the “cradle-to-gate” embodied carbon of locally available building materials, providing data on greenhouse gas emissions associated with raw material extraction, logistics, and manufacturing of specific in-market materials. Green building practices, now widely adopted across the United States and European Union, are still nascent in many developing countries. Floyd hopes that by helping building professionals make informed decisions to minimize the embodied carbon of their projects, Autodesk can catalyze green building practices in the global North, and in developing countries alike.
Morgan Fabian, who leads machine learning research and development for Fusion 360 at Autodesk, talked to the Blum Center group about generative design and how it relates to sustainability. The recent Cal Industrial Engineering graduate explained how the fusion of machine intelligence and creative work can maximize innovative design and function. For example, Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software has generative design capabilities allowing designers to explores alternative design permutations. By providing designers and engineers with a wider array of options, they can select a final design that reduces environmental impact by filtering for specific constraints including materials, cost, and manufacturing methods.
To demonstrate the impact of generative design, Fabian used the example of WHILL, a client that designs and manufactures electric wheelchairs. According to WHILL’s market research, users wanted lighter wheelchairs that are both more affordable and portable. To meet these standards, WHILL used Fusion 360’s generative design capabilities to output dozens of alternative designs that would meet these demands while maintaining the device’s mechanical integrity. The result exceeded expectations; WHILL was able to lighten the frame by more than 30 percent, making it easier to lift and load the wheelchair into the trunk of a car.
George Moore, a UC Berkeley PhD student in Mechanical and Development Engineering, said that the highlight of the Pier 9 visit was learning about Autodesk software to support collaboration and joint decision-making for sustainable design solutions.
Dr. Yael Perez, a researcher at the Blum Center, noted that there are many students like Moore who collaborate with communities, such as the Pinoleville Pomo Nation in northern California, to develop sustainable designs for housing, energy, and education.
“By making software available to students for free, as well as providing other types of supports, Autodesk is bringing local and professional knowledge to the design table for collaborative innovations,” she said.
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally. With the rapid adoption of social media platforms, human traffickers have the potential to target more vulnerable children. Yet artificial intelligence and machine learning also have the potential to thwart more predators and protect potential victims.
Martin explained that preventing initial online communications between vulnerable children and suspected traffickers is a significant intervention. “Since 2015, the number one recruiting tactic into the sex trade happens online,” he said. “But there was a huge gap in using technology in prevention.” Predators were deciding whom to approach by looking at public profiles online and gauging vulnerability. If these vulnerabilities were modeled, Martin said, machine learning could be coded to detect which children were most likely to be approached.
Once a child goes missing, time is of the essence. In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children employed 25 analysts receiving and disbursing about 8 million reports to law enforcement. Cases determined as “urgent” were automatically dispersed to a government agency, while others went to a 30 day backlog. Machine learning was introduced as a key part of the pipeline in 2017, automating the IP addresses and cell phone information of victims and predators. Since then, case backlog is down to 24 hours, and the time saved has allowed analysts to focus more deeply on specific cases.
When creating data sets to be fed to algorithms to prevent human trafficking, concerns about diversity and inclusion are life and death issues. As Thee of Bark.us explained, “Traditional facial recognition tools are good at identifying those who are white, adult, and male—which is almost the opposite of human trafficking victims. Pairing the grainy pictures of missing children with actual faces was our initial challenge.”
Finding technology companies to partner with the panelists’ initiatives presented significant challenges. “Storytelling has significant power,” Rogers said. “Press about how Intel can use its AI technology to save lives is powerful. But you have to be comfortable with rejection. Funding is always going to be a issue here—You have to be ready for a marathon and not a sprint.”
The panelists underscored that AI and machine learning are proving to be extremely helpful tools for this important human rights work. They also noted that the potential for student involvement is great, as this generation of university students are increasingly fluent in computer science, which can be put toward protecting vulnerable children around the world.
“Young people growing up online are in the midst of one of the largest social experiments in history,” said Thee. “This is labor intensive work, but in many ways you can work to save yourselves and your peers.”
How do you convince people to drive less? When a team of University of California-Berkeley students considered the problem in the city of Berkeley–where traffic is increasing despite the city’s reputation as a bastion of progressive politics–they focused on how to improve the experience of riding the bus.
After a semester studying housing, transit and other issues plaguing the Bay Area, a group of UC Berkeley students has some unexpected solutions. Free buses, anyone? How about a podcast on homelessness?
In 2006, the Big Ideas Contestlaunched at UC Berkeley to catalyze and support an interdisciplinary and diverse network of student entrepreneurs to develop game-changing innovations. No longer would entrepreneurship be ensconced within just engineering and business schools and accessible to only a few. The time had come to “open-source” entrepreneurship to include the range of perspectives and interdisciplinary expertise necessary to develop well-rounded solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.
However, this massive and lucrative industry is not without social cost. The complex supply chain—from coffee bean to cup—tends to funnel money to corporations in wealthy countries from farmers in poorer countries, where the beans are arduously picked by hand. In 2016, two of the world’s biggest coffee companies, Nestlé and Dunkin’ Donuts, admitted that beans from Brazilian plantations using slave labour may have tainted its coffee products. Overall, coffee is one of the most notorious industries for human rights abuses. Workers are vulnerable to low wages, exploitative work conditions and, at worst, forced labor and human trafficking.
The Berkeley Coffee Project, an initiative under the Anti-Trafficking Coalition, which is a Blum Center-sponsored IdeaLab, is aiming to empower students to become more conscious consumers and educate them about labor practices connected to their everyday purchases. As the Berkeley Coffee Project Planning Chair Sophia Arce states, “To minimize human rights violations within this industry, it is up to us, the consumers, to demand products that hail from a fair, transparent supply chain.” Arce, a senior Global Studies major, led a team of over 30 students from diverse disciplines to develop “Conscious Coffee”—an app that allows students to easily find ethically sourced coffee near the UC Berkeley campus. The app includes a list of 30 partner cafes sorted by distance from user’s location, sourcing certifications (along with explanations of their meaning), and links to each cafe.
To launch the app, the team hosted Coffee Festival in early April, an event for students to learn more about local companies that use ethical sourcing and get their fair share of free coffee products. The festival featured campus vendors, such as CalDining (which sells Fair Trade coffee via its partnership with Peets) and Equator and local businesses like COBA, Sweet Maria’s, FORTO, and Rebbl. Students also learned from Berkeley Coffee Project representatives about the difference between fair trade, direct trade, USDA Organic, and a range of sustainability labels.
“Understanding the labels is a basic step, but there are so many ways for products to be ethically sourced,” Arce explained. “It’s important not to accept labels at face value and do your research.”
The Berkeley Coffee Project plans to recruit more cafes to be listed in the app and create a purchasing rewards feature.
“There is a perception that products with labels like Organic or Fair Trade are too expensive for the general population to afford, let alone college students scrambling to afford Bay Area housing costs and overpriced textbooks,” said Arce. “If the goal of ethically sourced products is to empower economically marginalized populations, shouldn’t they be accessible to consumers who also struggle financially?”
Arce said this irony inspired her to add a rewards system for future app development.
“Not only do I want to provide Cal students with the information they need to make conscientious consumption choices, I want to give them the financial resources to make these choices viable.” Want to learn more about ethically sourced coffee near campus? Download the Conscious Coffee for Android here or on the Apple App Store.
When fourth year media studies student Erik Phillip came across a
flyer for the Blum Center’s Development
Engineering course Hacking4Local, he was interested but wary.
“I thought I’d be the only undergraduate and the only non-engineer,”
he said. “That was a terrifying combination.”
But Phillip, who was born and raised in Oakland and is proud
member of its African American community, decided to go to the course’s
information session anyway because of the changing economics and demographics
of his hometown. He quickly learned two things: first, that the instructors of Hacking4Local
sought students from multiple disciplines; and second, the course’s aim was to
teach students how to design solutions for Oakland on complex topics such as
homelessness, low-cost housing, and high-quality education.
Phillip had no delusion that he would walk away from the course in
May with a solution to the affordable housing crisis, which was the subject he
chose to focus on with a team of five students. Rather, he said, his
expectation was and remains “to learn how the affordable housing crisis came
about and how the systems around it works.”
Mostly, he said, he has been amazed how much he has learned due to course’s unusual approach, which combines pedagogies in interdisciplinary project-based learning, human-centered design, the flipped classroom, and student team learning as well as input from a half dozen professors and instructors, including Public Policy Professor Dan Lindheim, former City Administer of Oakland, and guest lecturers such as Steve Blank, whose Lean Launchpad and Lean Startup methodologies have been embraced by Silicon Valley startups and the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps.
Hacking4Local is a hacking course only in name. Its first priority
is framing a problem to be solved. While some of the student teams exploring
local transportation emissions, equitable health access, and Oakland hills fire
mitigation are using algorithms and data analysis in their inquiries—the
primary method of the course is gathering information through research and
interviews (at least five per week), synthesizing that information into
eight-minute presentations (during which the instructors serve as a council of
critics), and iterating and refining ideas.
Students get the real-world experience of working on problems
identified by local government agencies, nonprofits, or companies. And at the
end of the course, they must deliver their solutions, which can vary—a physical
product with a bill of materials cost and a prototype, a web product with users,
a mobile product with working code and users, or a service or policy solution
with an implementation plan and anticipated cost of delivery.
The instructors—Development Engineering Lecturer Rachel Dzombak, Mechanical Engineering
Agogino, Public Policy Professor Dan Lindheim, and Haas School of Business
Entrepreneurship Lecturer Steve Weinstein—have
assembled a reading list that familiarizes students with how to work on complex social issues,
consider their historical and political contexts, and engage with communities affected
by a variety of overlapping problems. The class introduces students to methodologies
such as the “mission model canvas,” “customer discovery,”
and “agile engineering,” and exposes them to guest speakers who have
experience in Oakland communities and politics.
“The course is about design for the public good and helping
students hone their skills on both qualitative and quantitative methods for
understanding stakeholder needs and getting community feedback on possible
solutions,” said Agogino, who serves as chair of the Graduate Group
in Development Engineering and the Blum Center’s education director. “Students
learn to value the complexities of government, the people it serves, and other
stakeholders. They learn that as with any organization, there is a difference
between formal power and informal power.”
Added Dzombak: “The class challenges students to think
through the root cause of problems, the systems in which problems exist, and to
understand potential consequences of interventions. Students
are learning to navigate ambiguity using a human-centered process and gaining
critical knowledge about politics and governance, which is rare for an
During one four-hour class in March, Phillip and his affordable housing teammates—Surabhi Yadav, a master’s student in Development Practice, Ben Truong, an undergraduate cognitive science student, and Andre Balthazard, an undergraduate operations research and management sciences student—presented their findings on why affordable housing in Oakland has been inadequate and what they might devise for their client, the Strategic Urban Development Alliance (SUDA). The team, which has conducted over 60 interviews with Oakland residents and community stakeholders, argued that one of the key problems in Oakland real estate is the lack of involvement from residents on issues of equitable development.
To this point, Steve Blank quipped: “The joke about community
meetings about real estate development
is they’re filled with retired people and stakeholders.”
The team members nodded. Phillip
pointed out that since 2010, the Bay Area has added 722,000 jobs but only
106,000 housing units.
Blank pressed the group: “Yes, but there are multiple
housing crises. Which one are you solving for?”
In an interview after the class, Surabhi Yadav said her
team is aiming to solve for longtime residents who feel they
are at risk of eviction or their children will be unable to live nearby. Yadav
noted that although many longtime residents do not have individual financial or
political power, they could have collective power.
“Unionizing power is time consuming to create,” noted Yadav.
“Still, we’re questioning whether we can develop tools that will help Oakland
residents harness their collective power. And we’re trying to figure out if we
can help SUDA measure and develop what effective community development looks
Yadav, who co-designed and co-taught a similar course for engineering
students at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, said classes that involve
multiple disciplines and hands-on learning are good at developing students’ professional
skills in communication, teamwork, managing priorities, and navigating ambiguities.
“You have to learn how to take feedback in these kinds of courses
and go with the flow,” explained Yadav. “It’s about structuring uncertainty, because
the logistics and pedagogy and learning outcomes of the class are very
Barbara Waugh, an executive in residence
at Haas, Oakland resident, and guest lecturer for Hacking4Local, sees another
strength of the course: higher team performance.
“Diverse teams under- or outperform homogeneous teams
depending on whether they ignore or leverage their diversity,” she said. “Shared
passion for a project can be a great lever and our Hacking4Local teams
demonstrate both the passion and the higher performance that leveraging
Access to clean, reliable drinking water remains one of the biggest challenges in developing countries, and public water services in India are no exception. There, over 150 million people are served by intermittent piped water systems. In many Indian cities, water is available roughly four hours per day; while several cities report that water may flow through pipes to homes and businesses only once every five to ten days.
At the March Blum Center Faculty Salon, Professors Isha Ray of the Energy and Resources Group and Alison Post of the Political Science Department shared their analysis of the effects of the Development Impact Lab-supported social enterprise NextDrop, which designed a mobile phone intervention to alert Indian households via text when to expect water supply.
NextDrop was designed not so much to solve India’s water provision problems but to give Indian citizens back their lost time. Co-founders Thejo Kote, Emily Kumpel, Ari Olmos, Anu Sridharan, and Anish Jhinail piloted the project in 2010 in Hubli-Dharwad, a city of 1.1 million people in the state of Karnataka, where water can take up to eight days to arrive via pipe and faucet. They estimated that individual households lost seven days a year waiting for water and regularly needed to rely on unsafe sources.
With support from Big Ideas and the USAID-supported Development Impact Lab, the NextDrop team moved forward with piloting their service. In its first implementation phase, the team sourced real-time information about the distribution of water from valvemen, the individuals charged with turning water valves on and off in neighborhoods. NextDrop provided these valvemen with in-kind rewards for sending SMS notifications. In turn, NextDrop notified residents in the neighborhood, also via text, that their water would arrive within roughly 30 minutes. After piloting in Hubli-Dharwad, NextDrop began operations in Bangalore and Mysore.
That is where Professors Alison Post, co-director of the Global Metropolitan Studies Program, and Isha Ray, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, became involved. Post and Ray worked with NextDrop in Bangalore so that the efficacy of its solution could be evaluated through a randomized control trial (RCT).
Post explained that the research design for the NextDrop RCT involved selecting a mixed-income study site that was representative of Bangalore’s demographics. The aim of the RCT was to capture the extent to which 3,000 households in the study area benefited from NextDrop’s system.
“We had several reasons to anticipate positive impacts on household welfare, particularly for household members charged with managing water supply,” said Post. “We hypothesized that improved predictability of water would decrease water wait times, and free up time for other tasks, earnings, community and family events. Additionally, we predicted that the intervention would have a positive psychological impact by decreasing stress related to water scarcity. We also expected receipt of NextDrop notifications to increase the frequency with which citizens contacted the utility directly with service problems, rather than going to informal intermediaries. These impacts were expected to be most notable among low-income households.”
However, the results of the RCT revealed a very different story. The study—two years in planning and execution—showed NextDrop’s SMS services had a null-to-modest impact on household welfare.
“The most evident program impact was a modest reduction in stress levels related to managing household water supply among low-income households,” said Post. “Other than that, there was very little impact.”
Ray and Post then set out to understand why the results were not as positive as expected. A major reason was that the Bangalore valvemen upon which NextDrop’s system depended were not reporting accurate water valve opening and closing times. During the Hubli-Dharwad pilot, NextDrop used in-kind and recognition-based incentives to encourage valvemen to send water release notifications. And since the community was more close knit in Hubli-Dharwad and the city much smaller (by more than 9 million people), NextDrop was able to develop one-on-one relationships with individual valvemen.
However, when NextDrop launched its system in Bangalore, the enterprise dropped its incentive program and asked the city’s water utility to require valvemen to send reports to NextDrop. This new hierarchical reporting system was arguably more sustainable at a larger scale, but proved to be less effective for keeping the valvemen on board. Analyzing their survey data and NextDrop’s internal data with Political Science Ph.D. student Tanu Kumar, Post and Ray found that valvemen reported only 70 percent of the time and 63 percent of the reports were inaccurate.
A parallel ethnographic study with graduate student Christopher Hyun shed light on how Bangalore’s valvemen operated and how they interacted with NextDrop’s information system. Hyun, a development engineering student pursuing a PhD from the Energy and Resources Group, discovered that valvemen in Bangalore generally had limited time to report when they turned on the water. The valvemen were constantly putting out fires—fixing broken pipes and rushing around the city trying to get water to residents with minimal resources and backup. Notifications, if sent at all, were often sent during tea breaks or during other downtime.
Analysis of survey data collected for the RCT revealed an additional reason the NextDrop system was not generating benefits in Bangalore: many women waiting for water at home didn’t own their own cell phones. The devices were often with their husbands at work or with their children at school or doing errands. NextDrop failed to understand a key aspect of its information value chain: the intended beneficiaries of their information didn’t have the means to receive it.
Kumar, Post, and Ray created a causal framework—an “information pipeline” with six nodes to mark where informational interventions can stop working.
“The framework is especially useful for helping practitioners consider all the necessary steps when scaling or replicating a development intervention in a new setting,” said Post. “It points out realistic challenges in a human information chain and shows the many ways in which informational interventions can break down.”
To further understand the RCT results, Ray and Post conducted a literature review, comparing their results across the broader landscape of the development intervention literature, specifically looking at the roles of last-mile human intermediaries. They found a surprising lack of discussion on the topic.
“Prominent studies in development literature seem to omit these key players,” said Ray. “There is little emphasis on the frontline actors and on what motivates them. It is absolutely essential to understand the role of human intermediaries and how drastically the conditions and results of an intervention can change from one setting to the next. Clearly, our RCT results demonstrate a need to place greater emphasis on considering the human element: these critical factors are usually not discussed unless the study failed, but should be taken seriously in all evaluation models of development work.”
Higher education is having a disruption moment. Not so much
in the sense that universities will no longer be physical places where
professors instruct students—as has been the case since 859 when Fatima
al-Fihri founded the University of Al-Qarawiyyan, which became the world’s
first higher education institution to award degrees in mathematics, grammar, and medicine. No, higher education is
in a period of intense transformation due to the increasing pace of new
advances in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)—and the
way the fields mutually reinforce each other to transform and advance society.
Why are we at a STEM moment? To put it simply, these four
fields have done more to generate economic growth, advance scientific
innovation, and create jobs than many others. Mind you, I do not think STEM inventions
have been free of negative consequences. However, many of the beneficial
technological advances of the decade plus—mobile phones, GPS, the Cloud,
CRISPR, generative adversarial networks, machine learning, AI-based predictive
analytics, electric vehicles, chatbots, and mass production of solar arrays—have
originated in STEM fields.
Yet with each passing year it becomes obvious that the STEM fields need far tighter
integration with the social sciences, arts, and humanities, especially for
graduates focused on local and global challenges and seeking to advance socioeconomic
mobility, jobs and sustainable manufacturing, and access to clean water and affordable
health care. As Kofi Annan so eloquently said, “Education is a human right with immense power to
transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy, and
sustainable human development.”
With this in mind, we at the Blum Center have been looking
at the changing profession of global development. In speaking with former
students and current employers, we have noted a distinct rise in the need for societal benefit
professionals with advanced technology skills. But the story is more complex
than that. Development professionals—whether at UN departments, municipal government
agencies, multinational companies, foundations, or nonprofits—report the need
for a combination of skills, such as the design and management of technology,
knowledge of emerging technologies, evidence-based assessment techniques,
economic development, social problem solving, and cross-cultural collaboration
and community engagement.
report “Next Generation Professional” published by USAID and Devex, for
example, states: “Development
professionals a decade from now will not look the same. One reason is
technology. It’s easy to envision a time when drones streamline every
agricultural development program, when every health worker is equipped with
high-tech mobile diagnostics, and when artificial intelligence provides
real-time data to guide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The
shifting development finance outlook is another factor. Program managers,
resource mobilizers, and partnership professionals might continue to seek
grants from bilateral aid agencies, but they may also partner with private
sector corporations, attract impact investment funds, or manage crowdfunding
campaigns targeting specific causes. Tying all these together are the softer
across cultures and working in teams—that make the industry truly unique.”
I mention all this because the Blum Center has begun thinking about how to build upon its courses for the Global Poverty & Practice minor and the Development Engineering designated emphasis, to provide these in-demand professional skills in a time effective manner. We have seen many STEM students and professionals who are looking for careers with impact, but have few avenues to get the right tools for framing and solving societal scale problems. And we have seen many non-STEM students and professionals who need the technical skills the future development sector demands. These constituencies want us to offer a professional education with a focus on problem solving skills for complex societal problems at the nexus of new technologies, new business models, and changing communities and their needs.
What do you think of this? What are we missing? Come talk to us about this new era of global development training.
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.
According to a December 2017 report of the University of California Global Food Initiative, 44 percent of UC undergraduates experience some type of food insecurity, meaning they lack consistent access to nutritious food while they are students. And 5 percent of UC undergraduates experience homelessness, a figure that doubles when narrowed to UC Berkeley because of the Bay Area city’s high cost of living.
These problems don’t exist in a vacuum, an issue that representatives from the Student Action Committee for the Eradication of Poverty and Inequality (SACEPI) acknowledged in a March 14 event hosted by the UC Berkeley and UC Merced Blum Centers at Blum Hall. The discussion of about 70 students, faculty, and staff was moderated by Sara Tsai, program coordinator of the Basic Needs Community Program, and featured Kiyoko Thomas, case manager of the Berkeley Basic Needs Center, and Joyce Lee, a Campus Food Equity and Inclusion Policy Fellow of the Berkeley Food Institute.
Tsai, a third year student majoring in business administration, explained the Basic Needs Center was founded in February 2019 to fill a gap on campus. The center defines a basic need as food, housing, and wellness security, which collectively affect the mental, emotional, and physical health of students. The intersection of these needs, said Tsai, provide the backbone for the success and overall well being of any student or Berkeley resident.
Thomas agreed with this description, adding, “Holistic wellness is theconnection of your mind, body, and spirit. All parts of our being are important—and it’s time to recognize that.”
Thomas, who is earning a Master of Social Work, said she joined the Basic Needs team last September, because she felt the the student service experience is fragmented.
“Students are expected to go to the Office of Financial Aid for one issue, Cal Housing for another, Counseling and Psychological Services for mental wellness—the efforts aren’t necessarily coordinated.”
Thomas pointed out that some Cal staff are also food insecure and are welcome to use the Food Pantry, which is located in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Building. The pantry is open 10AM – 7PM on weekdays and 10AM- 2PM on weekends.
“Many workers are currently making minimum wage, but the cost of living is rising a lot,” she said. “Those who serve students also need to be served.”
The panel also discussed how academic pressure and Berkeley’s competitive environment can affect under-resourced students and staff. Thomas argued we need to “denormalize the idea that lack of sleep or working through the night is always good and helpful.” She advocated students check in with their friends and not abet their bad health habits. ”Make the norm about health, not about finishing assignments,” she said.
Lee added:“Ultimately, what’s in your environment should be good for you. If things become too much, seek help.”
Tsai advocated that students join the Food Pantry. She said it currently has 65 volunteers and needs more, as the program is the only student-run food source open seven days a week.
“We have Pop Up Pantries every Wednesday and Thursday at Moffitt and Wurster,” she said. “Come join us!”
In international development circles, the application of machine learning to monitor and alleviate poverty has become a much discussed aspiration. However, Joshua Blumenstock, assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information and director of the Data-Intensive Development Lab, cautioned at a recent Blum Center Faculty Salon that unknowns abound and new digital methods may serve more as a complement than a replacement to traditional approaches, especially in the area of economic assessment.
At the salon, Blumenstock highlighted two ways big data is altering the field of international development: first, in measuring quality of life and welfare in low-income countries; and second, in offering financial inclusion applications for poor populations. His colleague Moritz Hardt, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, provided a lead response, drawing from his decade of research on fairness and machine learning. Together, they highlighted that over the past five years big data sets—from mobile phone companies, satellite imagery, social media platforms, and international development organizations—paired with advances in machine learning technology, have generated fascinating and controversial work.
“Over less than a decade we have experienced a global explosion of data, bringing us to this fairly nascent intersection of big data and poverty alleviation efforts,” said Blumenstock. “With the mass availability of large-scale data sets, we now have access to new sources of data on previously remote, low-resource settings.”
A key contributor to these new data sets is the stunning rise in cell phone adoption. According to the World Bank, more households in developing countries own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water, and nearly 70 percent of the bottom fifth of the population in developing countries owns a mobile phone (note: not a smartphone). An increase in satellite and remote sensing data has also contributed to the data explosion. The combination of these data sources, with machine learning, means that data can be synthesized and applied in new ways.
Blumenstock said that satellite imagery in particular is becoming a key source for development research because it reveals basic physical infrastructure and quality of life trends, such as roof material, road quality, and land plot size. This information can help researchers estimate the basic traits of a town, including average household wealth and population density. Blumenstock is currently conducting research with Facebook to provide a publicly available map of micro-regional estimates of wealth and poverty.
“Leveraging machine learning to analyze these forms of data, we can draw conclusions about certain aspects of quality of life with nearly the same accuracy as traditional, multi-million dollar field surveys,” Blumenstock explained.
Given the time and cost savings, international multilateral organizations like the World Bank and United Nations are eager to start applying these big data applications. Likewise, many governments in developing countries are eager to bypass traditional data collection methods in favor of machine learning-assisted data analysis because of the large time and monetary costs of national census surveys.
Blumenstock is hopeful that by supplementing traditional poverty indices with high-frequency estimates based on satellite and digital data, developmentpractitioners can have low-cost options for impact evaluations and project monitoring. He said this data-plus-machine-learning approach could help open up major innovations in three areas: 1) targeting specific populations for program implementation; 2) monitoring and mitigating the effects of natural disasters, health epidemics, and migration patterns by allowing, for example, aid workers to deliver needed resources to hard-hit areas; and 3) enabling different approaches to impact evaluation, specifically randomized control trials, which can costs millions of dollars.
Financial inclusion was the other area Blumenstock highlighted as potentially benefiting from algorithm-based decision making. He pointed out that globally 1.7 billion people lack a bank account, half of whom are women in poor, remote regions—yet about two-thirds of this population have access to a mobile phone. Companies like M-Pesa, launched in 2007 in Kenya, are engaged in wide-scale mobile phone-based money transfering, financing, and micro-financing services. As a result, there has been a surge in “digital credit” banking led by the private sector in low-income countries, which is increasing financial inclusion for populations without formal credit.
Using data to analyze phone use patterns, some banks and intermediary financial technology (fintech) companies are testing ways to develop alternative digital credit scores to provide uncollateralized loans to the unbanked. By aggregating digital trace data that includes Internet searches, emails composition, even browser and smartphone choices, and then using machine learning to assess the data, banks can formulate digital credit scores that predict who is most likely to default on a loan. One of the largest entitles to use this approach is a Kenyan digital savings and loan product called M-Shwari, which is built on M-PESA and run by the Commercial Bank of Africa and the mobile network operator Safaricom. Using M-Shwari, customers who lack a bank and credit history can take out loans. Beyond increasing accessibility to loans, digital credit also has the potential to dramatically reduce transaction costs and provide immediate disbursement.
Providing loans to previously unbanked populations can stimulate critical economic growth. Yet Blumenstock was quick to point out that the concept of digital credit scoring and it’s rapid growth across developing economies raises several concerns. First, most of these loans are short-term with very high interest rates, which can indebt customers. Second, leaning too heavily on algorithms to churn out credit scores can create a variety of biases.
Blumenstock recently visited Kenya to gain greater insight into the mobile banking process, where digital loans have quickly risen in popularity. According to a 2018 study led by FSD-Kenya, more than one in four Kenyans have taken out a digital loan over the past five years, comprising an estimated 6 million Kenyan borrowers. At the time of the study, more than half of these digital borrowers had at least one outstanding loan, and 14 percent had digital loans from multiple banks. Among the long-term implications to digital credit-based loans are credit bubbles, over-indebtedness, and the overall impact on social welfare.
“There’s a lot of allure to using AI to leapfrog traditional methods, from digital currency to data collection,” said Blumenstock. “But it creates a silver bullet fallacy problem. We’re still grossly unaware of its impacts and what exacerbating issues it could lead to.”
Lead discussant Moritz Hardt spoke on the limitations of machine learning, particularly in relation to gender and race biases, and their corresponding consequences to everything from credit scores to healthcare predictions to providing child services to decisions in the criminal justice system.
“It’s not easy to define discrimination in algorithmic decision-making processes,” said Hardt. “We are at a sobering stage right now; people are becoming aware of the limitations and questioning possible structural issues.”
Hardt provided an example of how risk assessment algorithms are used as a predictive tool to determine which individuals are at high risk for missing their court date following an arrest. If deemed as pretrial “high risk” by the algorithm, an arrested individual is held in jail until their court date, with often dire consequences for their income and family circumstances. Such predictive algorithms are similarly used to inform criminal justice officials decisions on how high to set the bail, sentencing, and who gets early release.
“What is often neglected in designing algorithms are the structural and complex socio-cultural challenges unique to each person,” Hardt said.
Blumenstock responded that “we need to endogenize social sciences into machine learning,” warning that taking off-the-shelf algorithms for ad targeting and plopping them into poverty targeting would have obvious negative results.
“Off-the-shelf tools typically assume that the social processes being modeled are static,” he said. “But these processes are inherently dynamic, changing over time and over subpopulations. The appropriate use of machine learning in such contexts requires a more nuanced understanding of the people who are being targeted, and what assumptions might be reasonable or, more often, totally implausible.”
In 1990, at the age of 20, Kara Nelson found herself in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe, just months before the independence government lifted a 10-year ban on land redistribution. The UC Berkeley biophysics student was taking a gap year to see what life was like as a non-student, and the realities of what she chose to see hit her hard.
“For six months, part of my work was with refugees from the independence war who were living in an informal settlement just outside the capital city of Harare. I became exposed to the fact that they didn’t have access to any type of basic infrastructure we take for granted in the United States, including water and sanitation.”
Nelson, now a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley, didn’t realize then that water and sanitation would become the focus of her career. Yet when she returned to campus, she shifted her coursework toward more applied science and took classes in African American and peace and conflict studies, while looking for opportunities to connect the science she was doing to the issues she cared about. She came to realize that engineering had the set of tools for applied research that could address critical infrastructure challenges in the developing world.
At University of Washington, while earning a M.S.E. in environmental engineering, Nelson looked for classes on the intersection of development and engineering but they didn’t exist. So she created a summer class on water and sanitation in low-income countries with a group of fellow students and a few professors. The experience further confirmed her interests. And she told herself she would pursue a PhD only if she could do dissertation work outside the U.S. Although it took Nelson several years to put together the funding, research, and logistical pieces, the UC Davis PhD managed to spend 20 months in Mexico as part of a research group at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, exploring low-cost, low-energy wastewater treatment systems.
“In Mexico, I developed a contextual understanding of the similar challenges that low-income countries confront and how the problems change based on local drivers and conditions,” said Nelson. “The barriers to solving water and sanitation problems around the world are huge, and they can’t be surmounted with just money.”
Nelson recounted this from her office in Davis Hall, where she has a bird’s eye view of the San Francisco Bay, framed paintings of water scenes, and photos of her two sons. Nelson may be a leading scholar on global water and sanitation research, with more than 90 journal papers to her name and a resume that extends 23 pages, but she does not boast her achievements. She speaks in a measured cadence that indicates a habit for meticulous thinking. Among her recognitions are a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2003), a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2003), an Award of Merit from the Water Environment Foundation’s Disinfection Committee (2011), and a Fulbright Fellowship in Colombia from the US Information Agency (2014).
Close to 30 years in water, sanitation, and hygiene (“WASH”) research have taken the professor from Oregon to India, Kenya, China, Ghana, Panama, back to Mexico, and around the United States. These time and travel commitments have made her wise as well as careful about how to make WASH services affordable and environmentally sustainable. As a new professor, she participated in a project in Mexico teaching rural communities how to build their own water treatment devices with locally available materials. This was in line with the philosophy of “appropriate technology,” an engineering approach popularized by German economist E.F. Schumacher that advocated human-scale, decentralized, and often village-based technologies for poor communities.
“This sounds like a great idea,” explained Nelson, “but who wants to spend every week for a month building a water treatment system for your house when you’ve got other priorities?”
Nelson advocates “aspirational technology,” the idea that development engineers like herself should be designing not for poor people, but for people. “Aspirational technology is what people want for meeting their drinking water or sanitation needs,” she explained. “They want it to be exciting the way a smartphone is exciting—something you are proud to share with your neighbors and in-laws and make you feel you’re creating a better world for your children. One of the shortcomings of the appropriate technology movement is that it was sometimes perceived as designing technologies for poor people, as if they were different than technologies for rich people and that poor people had different aspirations. They don’t.”
Nelson adds that these solutions, even if they are aspirational, must not require implementation and maintenance from individual households. A shortcoming of many appropriate technologies is that they rely on low-income households to, for example, purify their own water or safely remove human waste from their households, when this is not something expected of people in the Global North. Nelson advocates that when engineers design technologies—whether for densely populated neighborhoods in Bangalore or small towns in California’s Central Valley—they must think of a whole package of household services at an affordable cost.
Increasingly, Nelson’s applied research is focused on hybrid solutions to water and sanitation in industrialized and developing countries. That is because in developing country cities, centralized systems will likely never meet universal water and sanitation needs—and in developed countries, the large, centralized, infrastructure-heavy systems are not adaptable enough to be environmentally sustainable.
Through the U.S. National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center ReNUWIt (Reinventing our Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure), where Nelson leads the engineering research thrust, she is studying approaches to recycle wastewater in buildings to conserve both water and energy. Another project, in Kenya and started with her former graduate student William Tarpeh, involves recovering nutrients from urine for fertilizer. Nelson is also a leading expert on intermittent water supply, a ubiquitous problem in developing countries, in which drinking water pipes deliver water only periodically. And yet another project involves turning wastewater back into drinking water through a series of advanced treatment steps, with applications for Southern California and other water-scarce cities.
Nelson is also focused on using recycled waste water to irrigate food crops—both in the U.S. and in developing countries—because the looming food crisis is tightly connected to the unfolding environmental crisis. She explains that many of our food systems are not sustainable due to the runoff of fertilizer, which is polluting surface water and in some cases ground water. Nelson is convinced that across the globe hybrid water and sanitation solutions can improve livelihoods and reduce environmental pollution.
“In industrialized countries, we have great opportunities to offset more pristine waters by using recycled water to irrigate food,” she said. “In developing countries, about 10 percent of the world’s food is irrigated with wastewater, which allows farmers to increase their productivity, but it’s inadequately treated so it exacerbates public health problems.”
Nelson is the rare full professor under 50 who pursued doctoral work in engineering solutions for low-income communities and has made it a continued focus. As a result, graduate students have been flocking to UC Berkeley to follow in her footsteps. They are among the first cohort of “development engineers”—engineers who pursue interdisciplinary technological interventions in low-resource settings.
Nelson’s development engineering PhD students who have gone on to academic careers include: William Tarpeh, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University whose Kenya-based work focuses on extracting nitrogen from urine for producing liquid fertilizer; Emily Kumpel, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whose work focuses on water quality monitoring in Sub-Saharan Africa; and Andrea Silverman, an assistant professor of civil and urban engineering at New York University, who studies low-cost wastewater treatment in sub-Saharan Africa. In the NGO sector, she has mentored: Fermin Reygadas, executive director and co-founder of Fundacion Cantaro Azul, a nonprofit that develops and implements point-of-use ultraviolet water disinfection solutions in Mexico; and Ashley Murray Muspratt, founder of Pivot, a dual sanitation and renewable fuel company in Rwanda.
Said Nelson: “I feel strongly that the field of development engineering has to grow dramatically if we’re going to impact the development challenges around the world. Right now, we have the vast majority of our researchers at top universities focusing on issues that are important but often not the biggest priorities for the world’s low-income populations. If we’re going to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, we need many more researchers in the science and technology fields to be working on problems that people in low-resource communities face.”
Nelson is busy these days. In addition to her research and teaching commitments, she is the Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion for the College of Engineering. In this role she is leading initiatives to diversify the student body and faculty in engineering, such as the Advancing Faculty Diversity Initiative and the pipeline program NextProf. Another major emphasis is improving equity and climate across the college so that everyone has the support they need to reach their potential.
She said what continues to motivate her in the classroom is helping students think about water and sanitation from a systems perspective—connecting the technical and societal pieces and showing how engineers need to be working in teams that have expertise in public health, agriculture, energy, and policy. Along with Research Engineer Dr. Jennifer Stokes-Draut, she developed a popular class in 2017 called “Water Systems of the Future,” which aims to provide tomorrow’s water leaders with the skills needed to overcome barriers to innovation in the risk-averse water sector.
“We all aspire to improve livelihoods, so we should be designing technologies that truly meet people’s needs and expectations,” said Nelson. She paused to carefully consider her words: “I’m a techno optimist. I think our ecosystems are in crisis. But I do think technologies will help us get out of the mess that we’re in, if we can work together to transform our institutions and political will.”
In July 2014, a series of natural gas explosions ripped apart Kaohsiung, a Taiwanese city where Po Jui “Ray” Chiu, MEng ’14 (BIOE) had lived with relatives just a year before, while he was completing his compulsory military service.
Education has long been considered a means to move out of poverty. Edtech—teaching and learning that makes use of technology—has in recent years become a multi-billion dollar sector for both developed and developing countries. And an emerging category in the sector are nonprofit organizations, backed by investors eager to spread tech literacy to improve livelihoods throughout the globe.
On January 28, Berkeley’s Education Initiative for Development (EID) IdeaLab, a group of interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate students passionate about education and development, hosted four nonprofit education technology professionals to spark dialogue and provide updates on edtech’s evolution. Three of the panelists graduated from UC Berkeley and one is a current student.
The panelists included:
Kate Sturla (B.A. ‘09) associate director of IDinsight, a San Francisco-based impact assessment firm that uses data and evidence to help leaders combat poverty worldwide. Sturla manages projects in education, health, and agriculture.
Moses Surumen (B.S. ‘19), a fourth-year Cal engineering and computer science student, is founder of the Kenyan coding institute M-Soma, which teaches Kenyan high school students computer science. M-Soma currently instructs a cohort of 47 students.
Sandra Spence (MPH ‘09) is a UC Berkeley School of Public Health graduate and director of global partnerships for CAMFED, a nonprofit whose mission is to eradicate poverty in Africa through the education of girls and the empowerment of young women.
Vivian Bronsoler(MPP ‘14) is senior manager of J-Pal (Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab), a nonprofit global research center based at MIT devoted to reducing poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. With a network of 171 professors at universities around the world, J-PAL conducts randomized impact evaluations to answer questions in the fight against poverty.
The EID panel, moderated by student Paige Balcom, focused on common pitfalls of edtech to inform students about new directions in the field.
How is technology being used to support education in developing countries? How is it different urban or rural areas?
Kate Sturla: Edtech often operates in resource-poor environments—schools may not even have chairs or tables, let alone electricity. So we must be cognizant not only of physical limitations, but also that there is a thoughtful theory of change mapped out for any given edtech intervention.
Sandra Spence: When CAMFED started thinking about incorporating tech in schools, we knew it had to be very basic, especially in rural schools. In Malawi, we gave each school e-readers. The schools were able to negotiate the rights to get books for a discounted rate, which increased student exposure. In the beginning, the schools were scared the Kindles would be broken or stolen and it was hard for students to electrically charge the ebook. We encountered several hurdles to making the technology practical as we moved along.
Vivian Bronsoler: Technology can be used in innovative ways, but we have to be careful. Technology should not be a substitute for teaching or for cognitive practices while studying. For example, One Laptop Per Child [a nonprofit that creates and distributes educational devices for the developing world] had a broad goal to teach kids how to use computers. However, it hasn’t helped student learning or attainment of knowledge—it’s not a substitute. In other words, technology should be seen as a complement to teaching.
For example, technology can be helpful in less obvious ways that simplify the process of education. A website could could allow students to access homework assignments online, or a database could organize scholarships resources. A teacher could use an app to take attendance for large classes, and keep better track of grades—while parents could also access this information to be more involved in their child’s education.
What is a common misunderstanding people have about edtech in developing countries?
Sandra Spence: You can’t just drop technologies into an environment. You need to ask: What is the human platform that will support it?
Kate Sturla: People often conflate computer literacy skills with edtech. For example, access to computers can help students become more literate in how to actually use the device (i.e., typing) versus helping a student actually learn a subject, like math. We should also make sure we teach at the correct level and give teachers the tools to target students at different learning levels.
Vivian Bronsoler: Edtech is attractive to people who want quick solutions—it can seem like a solution, but money can often be better spent better somewhere else. It’s wrong to copy and paste an intervention from one context to another or say you have an innovative idea without actually testing it.
How do you think Berkeley students can make a difference in edtech?
Moses Surumen: Take an education class. We can’t develop apps without understanding of how people learn.
Vivian Bronsoler: During your college career, you learn the tools and theories to get trained on various poverty interventions. But then, once you are in the professional world, various realities exists and challenges arise. Volunteer anywhere you can to get some real-world experience—really be engaged. Learn as much as you can— you can use it in practice.
Sandra Spence: Don’t get swept away by technology. Be part of the wave that is thoughtful about the application of technology. Ask: How does technology fit into the environment? Is it empowering? Are you listening to the people closest to the problem?
Kate Sturla: IDinsight began as a graduate project. Being a student is the best time to build bridges across disciplines and majors and take classes to get different perspectives. Push yourself to take a class outside of your major to get a different angle.
Interested in joining the Education Initiative for Development IdeaLab? Contact IdeaLab Co-Directors Samuel Cabrera (email@example.com) and Bei Zhang (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Two thousand and eighteen has been called a watershed moment in global poverty reduction. It was the year—according to two major analyses—that more than half of the world’s population moved into the “middle class.” And it was marked by a billion people moving out of “extreme poverty” in the time period 2000-2018.
In terms of the global middle class, Homi Kharas and his colleagues at the Geneva-basedWorld Data Lab have written in a Brookings Institute report that this demographic is defined as households that spend $11 to $100 per day per person in 2011 purchasing power parity. Kharas acknowledges that middle class does not have a precise international definition, but is a way to understand the ability for 3.8 billion people to buy consumer goods like motorcycles, refrigerators, or washing machines, go to the movies or take a vacation—and, most important, be able to weather economic shocks like short-term illness or unemployment without falling into extreme poverty.
The global middle class is predominantly Asian and spread out in China, India, and South and South East Asia, where urban populations have mostly doubled in the past generation. The World Data Lab forecasts the global middle class markets in China and India will grow to 5.3 billion people by 2030 and will account for $14.1 trillion and $12.3 trillion, respectively, comparable in size to a U.S. middle-class market at that time of $15.9 trillion.
That is a remarkable turn of events of great interest to policy makers, corporate leaders, and of course academic researchers at the Blum Center. Questions include: What are the products and services that this global middle class needs and wants? What are the implications for food, energy, and water production, and laterally, for climate change due to this socioeconomic growth? What skills and education are required for this rising population to sustain its progress? How will societal digital transformations, such as AI and automation, thwart or abet the billions climbing the economic ladder? And to what degree is this new global middle class sustainable?
Rohini Pande of Harvard’s Evidence for Policy Design Initiative, pointed out in a recent New York Timesarticle that the decline in poverty in Indian and China “has fed an erroneous belief in the West that economies rising into middle-income status are on track to end extreme poverty and no longer need assistance.” She warns that a “redirection of global aid risks neglecting the hundreds of millions who may never escape poverty despite living in countries that are becoming relatively rich.”
Some of Pande’s analysis is in reaction to the other big global demographic story of 2018, published in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Goalkeepers” report, which tracks progress on 18 key United NationsSustainable Development Goals. According to “Goalkeepers,” extreme poverty (US $1.90/day) is on the decline, with 50 million people’s lives being saved due to advances in medicine since 2000. One aim of the Gates report is to warn that extreme poverty is becoming heavily concentrated in Sub-Saharan African countries. By 2050, that region is where 86 percent of the world’s extremely poor are projected to live, with the majority (more than 40 percent) living in just two countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.
The Gates Foundation advises: “the world’s priority for the next three decades should be the third wave of poverty reduction in Africa.” It also warns that if large numbers of poor people in the poorest countries are denied opportunities, the result will be “insecurity, instability, and mass migration …. Investing in young people’s health and education is the best way for a country to unlock productivity and innovation, cut poverty, create opportunities.”
As we at the Blum Center mull all this, we are asking: What can be done to sustain global middle class progress in Asia and enable economic and technological development in Sub-Saharan Africa? What can we as stewards of the world’s leading public research university do to improve livelihoods worldwide? How best can we train the next generation of leaders in equality, innovation, and global problem solving? And what are the research areas on which we should make our big bets?
Since 2001, CITRIS has focused on creating interdisciplinary information technology solutions for California and beyond. Since 2005, the Sutardja Center has taught thousands of engineers and scientists to innovate, lead, and commercialize technology within a global economy. Founded in 2013, the Haas Institute for Business and Social Impact has addressed critical challenges facing the world through creative business solutions. Opened in 2015, the Jacobs Institute is as an interdisciplinary hub for learning and making at the intersection of design and technology. And founded in 2006, the Blum Center serves as the campus’ interdisciplinary hub for understanding and acting on devising solutions for global poverty and inequality.
These five UC centers have much in common because of the way they intersect on issues of technology and engineering, business and entrepreneurship, equality and social impact, and design innovation. Because of these commonalities, leadership from the five centers have decided to explore educational and research collaborations. We will be reporting on joint initiatives in future reports.
So please stay tuned, and let us know your ideas and projects that address this pivotal moment in global poverty reduction.
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He is a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering.
When Will Tarpeh was an undergraduate at Stanford University, he didn’t know if it was possible to be a research engineer who works in the developing world. His global interests started in high school, when he learned that more than 2 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. And they expanded throughout college, as he studied chemical engineering and African studies and interned at Sarar Transformación, a Mexican nonprofit focused on sanitation. “That’s when I got interested in ecological sanitation,” he said, “which is just the idea of using waste as fertilizer.”
Tarpeh, now an assistant professor in chemical engineering at Stanford, says his professional turning point happened at UC Berkeley in 2013, the year the Development Engineering program started. The Blum Center sat down with Tarpeh to learn more about his views of Development Engineering and how his research combines electrochemical engineering, global sanitation, and resource recovery.
How did Development Engineering shape your academic work in global sanitation?
It was extreme serendipity. Development Engineering started the year I got to Berkeley and made a lot of things possible. It gave me a formal structure—having a chapter in my dissertation that was explicitly about Development Engineering and about my sanitation work in Kenya. If it weren’t there and if I hadn’t gone to Berkeley, I might not have explored this part of my academic identity in as much detail. Now it’s such a crucial part, I can’t imagine being an academic without it.
What else drew you to Cal?
I wanted to work with Professor Kara Nelson, because she has a process engineering focus for achieving sanitation goals. She had a Gates Foundation grant that was part of their Grand Challenges exploration, and she and a post-doc were working on the idea of using ammonia from urine to disinfect feces. I tagged along and went to the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Expo, which was my dream at that time. I got to see all these cool toilets, and realized there was a large community of academic researchers who shared my interests.
How did your own research develop?
My first year in graduate school I reviewed journal papers and focused on unanswered questions. That’s when we landed on urine and recovering nitrogen. We chose urine because there were lots of motivations for separating out urine and feces. And from a chemical engineering perspective, we thought nitrogen from urine could be useful because nitrogen fertilizers are central to modern society—they’ve helped feed a growing population. We focused on what we could borrow from other subfields, such as the extraction of nitrogen from wastewater in the U.S., and also on what we could dream up on our own to address sanitation access.
How do you see your academic contributions?
My first paper as a PhD student compared materials that adsorb or concentrate nitrogen in urine. We compared four different adsorbents. Then we took the work to the field and published it in the Development Engineering journal—which meant characterizing the technology in lab, bringing it to the field, and in between looking at the operating and design parameters to show the trajectory as a contribution. Another contribution is in electrochemical nitrogen recovery. Electrochemistry and wastewater treatment have met in earnest over the past decade or so. I’ve been part of the first group of people to apply electrochemistry to urine and to extract nitrogen in a new way we call electrochemical stripping. It’s set some records in terms of nitrogen recovery efficiency and resulting energy efficiency.
You said in a previous interview that “a lot of the solutions to the world’s most pressing problems are in the minds of children who are simply preoccupied with survival.” Why are children a place to understand the world’s grand challenges?
Grand Challenges are really interesting because they are descriptive in nature. Through them, academics, UN representatives, and others try to describe a reality that millions of people experience. But I think the expertise really lies in the communities who experience the problems. We as scientists can try to lend our technical expertise in other communities—but the people who live in those communities are the real experts. That’s how I approach my work. This comes in part from growing up in a low-income household in the U.S., and knowing that resource-constrained communities have valuable skills and life experiences to solve their own problems.
How new is the field of Development Engineering?
It’s not new in some ways. People have been doing this kind of engineering for as long as there’s been inequality. What’s new is that we’re studying how we do it and thinking about better ways to do it. Ten years ago, it was news to people that you need to engage the community when you design for it. It really was. We would learn about implementation failures all the time—and be surprised that engineers didn’t remember to ask people about their sanitation needs and, as a result, the new toilets got turned into closets because they had roofs. Now, I see the frequency with which that kind of thing is reported going down, which tells me there’s value in the Development Engineering enterprise. It formalizes things in a way that engineers who don’t focus on development can appreciate.
How important is field work to Development Engineering?
It’s a crucial site of learning. Going back and forth into the field has been extremely valuable to my research. Maybe the traditional model of humanitarian engineering was: you develop something in the lab about a problem in a developing community; you say, I have an answer for that; you characterize it in the lab; and you go out and say, here it is. But then you realize you were designing for constraints that didn’t reflect reality in the community. Development Engineering is about iterating. Over the course of my PhD, I went to Kenya and worked with Sanergy. That’s when I realized they were collecting urine but not yet creating value from it. Then I tinkered in the lab on the urine research, and spent the next four years going back and forth to see what worked and made adjustments, which allowed for the rigorous study we expect in academic communities.
Is being a Development Engineer a liability in academia?
I don’t think it is the liability it was five or ten years ago. It’s attractive now to do Development Engineering because of the huge impact you can have. Another part of this is students are demanding training to try to solve development problems. I have engineering students who say global sanitation really gets them moving and motivated. From a disciplinary perspective, Development Engineering is one of the ways we stay relevant to our students and to the Grand Challenges that people are facing around the world.
Are you seeing more academic engineers like yourself who do applied research in developing countries?
I do feel there’s a generation of professors tying loose ends together and thinking about ways to leverage skill sets that are no longer within one discipline. Alice Agogino always talked about the wicked problems that refuse to be classified in one silo and that demand multiple approaches. Many professors now have multiple skill sets and are oriented toward solving wicked problems. I feel I’m part of this, combining electrochemical engineering, global sanitation, and resource recovery.
Do you think it’s significant that most of your mentors have been women?
Yes, and that was a recent epiphany. After Berkeley, I did a post-doc at University of Michigan, where I also was advised by two women—Nancy Love and Krista Wigginton. Female professors have impacted me, particularly by seeing the extra obstacles they have to go through and the strategies they use to succeed. Being supportively mentored by advisors who are different than me has prepared me to support students from diverse backgrounds in my own career.
How do you advocate for STEM inclusion and equality now that you’re a professor?
I recommend students and colleagues for awards, formally by writing recommendation letters and informally by suggesting people for collaborations and so on. Also, being a black male, I try to serve as a role model for students. At Stanford, I give lunch talks with minority or under-represented students. It doesn’t take a lot of time and it could be a high impact intervention for one of them. I also work to design impactful programs. Kara [Nelson] and I were involved in the Graduate Pathways Symposium at Berkeley for underrepresented minorities to apply to grad school. I also make sure when I work in Kenya, I give author credit to the local researchers on my academic papers.
When will we achieve global sanitation?
There are some estimates that low and middle-income countries are not going to fully address the problem by 2050. One argument is that we won’t get there because of the barriers to creating centralized wastewater treatment facilities. But there are other options, namely resource efficiency. A paper I’m working on argues that if we take resource recovery one step further and bake sustainability into every process we do, we can minimize the inputs for everything we produce. The paper encapsulates the idea of the circular economy, of resource recovery. Of course, being a urine researcher, I believe separating urine has a role to play in that. I believe imagining the future helps us engineer toward that future.