USAID Digital Workforce Development Program, Led by Blum Center at UC Berkeley, Wins Digital Development Award

USAID Digital Workforce Development program, which launched in 2022, has strengthened the information and technology (ICT) skills of Cambodian faculty, developed career centers at their universities, overseen skills training for students, and provided scholarships in the digital and ICT fields, particularly for rural, female students.

USAID Digital Workforce Development Program, Led by Blum Center at UC Berkeley, Wins Digital Development Award
A classroom setting with students seated at wooden desks, facing the front of the room. Three students in white uniforms with black lanyards stand at the front near a green chalkboard, giving a presentation. The classroom has yellow walls with portraits and a calendar on display. Light streams in through an open door on the right, illuminating the room.
KHoding Hero University volunteers teach rural secondary students basic coding and ICT (courtesy photo)

The USAID Digital Workforce Development program, led by the Blum Center for Developing Economies and its partners, including ELIX Organization and the Asia Foundation, has won USAID’s Digital Development Award for upskilling Cambodia youth to meet the needs of the digital era. 

USAID confers “Digi Awards” to USAID projects and activities that “embrace the Agency’s strategic goals of improving development and humanitarian assistance outcomes through the responsible use of digital technology and strengthening open, secure, and inclusive digital ecosystems.” DWD, which launched in 2022, has strengthened the information and technology (ICT) skills of Cambodian faculty, developed career centers at their universities, overseen skills training for students, and provided scholarships in the digital and ICT fields, particularly for rural, female students.

“Thank you for enabling Cambodia’s youth to succeed in a global digital economy,” said Kerry Pelzman, mission director for USAID/Cambodia, in the agency’s announcement of the awards. 

“It is great to be able to highlight the work and the progress we’ve made to a global audience, including the crucial collaboration amongst the local universities and private sector partners taking place, and their commitment to our mission,” said Chanda Pen, DWD’s Chief of Party. “Tackling the gargantuan task of preparing the country’s workforce for the digital age is only possible with their integral support.”

“It was a collective effort,” he added, “showcasing the power of a high-performing team, motivated under a shared vision.”

The numbers speak for themselves: Across 12 higher-education institutions in Cambodia, DWD trained 124 professionals and over 3,300 15–29–year-olds in digital skills and topics ranging from financial technology to Python to machine learning to virtual business management. Five career centers aided another 22,000 students in finding resources and job opportunities in the ICT industry — a sector crucial to the sustained development of one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Seventy-four students — nearly two-thirds of whom are women — received scholarships to study digital-related degrees.

A group of students and faculty members pose for a photograph on a stage adorned with red, white, and blue drapery. The students, dressed in white uniforms, hold certificates, and are arranged in two rows. The faculty members, dressed in formal attire, stand behind them. Banners and logos of sponsors such as USAID and the Blum Center are visible in the background, along with portraits of notable figures.
USAID DWD scholarship students at the National University of Battambang pose with its rector, USAID, and USAID DWD teams (courtesy photo)

From 2022 to 2023, an additional 11,000 rural students from 32 schools received basic computer coding lessons from 128 university student volunteers via DWD’s KHoding Hero program, in partnership with Cambodia Academy of Digital Technology (CADT). By the end of their lessons, the number of students interested in ICT careers had jumped to 26 percent. USAID noted the project’s 26 local and international private sector partners contributed more than $300,000 USD in support, in addition to playing an integral role in “identifying workforce skill gaps, hosting workshops and speaker sessions, participating in career fairs, conducting walk-in interviews at partnering higher education institutions, and shaping the activity’s approach to internships.”

USAID also recognized DWD for its focus on end users’ contexts and needs, as well as its ability to evolve with the findings and results of its various stakeholders.

Announcing the award, USAID noted that “DWD leveraged a collaborative and user-centric approach, which gives students a comprehensive understanding of potential ICT career paths.” 

“The activity’s built-in feedback mechanisms allowed it to adjust activities proactively based on the real-time needs of students, employers, and faculty,” the agency added. “The activity also developed a comprehensive handbook for digital education that will be publicly available and free of charge, and it designed a cost-sharing business model for university career centers to attract sponsorships from private sector partners.”

In two years, DWD has become a model for others’ efforts, including preparing the country for “Industry 4.0” — the incorporation of “smart,” connected, digital technologies into manufacturing. 

“USAID/Cambodia continues to share DWD’s approaches, including its private sector engagement strategy, as a resource for other programs within the country,” the agency noted.

Pen called out DWD’s higher education institution (HEI) and private-sector partners, including the National University of Management, the National University of Battambang, Svay Rieng University, ACLEDA University of Business, University of South-East Asia, Cambodia Academy of Digital Technology, the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, the Association of Banks in Cambodia, Amazon Web Services, EZECOM, Cellcard, Phillip Bank, Canadia Bank, and Khmer Enterprise.

“We are extremely appreciative to our private sector partners, HEI partners, USAID Cambodia, and the team at UC Berkeley, including George Scharffenberger and Whitney Hischier,” Pen said. “Their steadfast support and their willingness and commitment to collaborate with us in an agile approach have been invaluable to our mission.”

Blum Center Students and Faculty Take Up the Mantle of the International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development

Soliver Ché Fusi is an environmental engineering PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. She hurries online to speak with me late in the Kenyan evening about her work at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. She’s telling me how the technology she’s working on hits on all these target issues — and it’s simple: sustainable agricultural fertilizer.

Blum Center Students and Faculty Take Up the Mantle of the International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development
A group of 13 people including Soliver Ché Fusi
Soliver Ché Fusi (back, second from right), a PhD student with an emphasis in Development Engineering, at a field campaign about land degradation and surveillance frameworks (Photo by Ann Wavinga, ICRAF)

By Adrian White

As we step into this first year of the United Nations’ International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development, the world still circles around the issue of global poverty. By one estimate, from 1990 to 2015, extreme global poverty fell from affecting over one third of the world population to only one tenth, decreasing about 1 percent annually. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it picked back up: from 2020 to 2022, each year pushed 1 percent back into poverty. 

As progress reverses at the same pace it was made, with this Decade comes new urgency. How do the growing global poor access clean drinking water? How do we protect public health and food security with affordable, low-pollution food sources? How do we curtail the impacts of climate change on the global economy while centering carbon-lowering initiatives? Sustainability is critical; technologies must take away from carbon emissions, the consequences of which disproportionately affect impoverished communities. With so many moving targets, how does one choose which issue to aim for and check all those boxes? And who will do it? 

Soliver Ché Fusi is an environmental engineering PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. She hurries online to speak with me late in the Kenyan evening about her work at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. She’s telling me how the technology she’s working on hits on all these target issues — and it’s simple: sustainable agricultural fertilizer.

“If you break down all the complications and nuances, I would argue that we just want clean water…healthy, nutritious, adequate food, and clean air,” says Fusi. But how does fertilizer do this? She explains: It diverts the human waste stream. Fecal and organic matter are collected and burned down to biochar, then mixed with undiluted urine. Nutrients in urine, especially nitrogen, are recovered. This becomes a sustainable amendment that, when applied to crops, returns nutrients to soil. 

Fusi adds that it keeps pathogens from drinking water — and more. “If we’re recovering nitrogen from urine…that’s preventing degradation of water bodies,” she says. So, good for wildlife as well. This cheap fertilizer would also save — and make — money compared to current sanitation systems, and be affordable to low-income smallholders. Their livelihoods would also be improved: soil pH, microbial health, organic matter, and (of course) soil fertility mean better crops and better food security. Soil carbon is also sequestered — good for emissions.

Fusi is just one of many students, alumni, and faculty leading projects like this through the Blum Center, a nearly 20-year-old institution dedicated to combating poverty near and far via technological and policy innovation. Many disciplines come together here, most notably Development Engineering. Berkeley, the Blum Center, and its affiliated faculty can be credited for establishing this field, which combines engineering with other disciplines like human-centered design, resource management, social sciences, and business management.

Fusi’s work shows the Blum Center is — no pun intended — fertile ground for sustainability-minded academics and on-the-ground practitioners eager to make global social impacts. And not just through research: but through actualizing technological solutions to global poverty. It’s a crucible of possibility for those pursuing careers, higher academia, and entrepreneurship that could meet global demands for lowering carbon, while simultaneously improving quality of life in under-resourced areas. Other programs at the Blum Center overlap with the Development Engineering master’s program and PhD minor, including the Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) minor, the Big Ideas Contest, and the Health Tech CoLab

Without these resources Fusi feels she wouldn’t be where she is now: Kenya, by way of California, seeing this project’s real-life results. “The Blum Center…was really the gateway into implementing the work,” she says. “Both times that I’ve been to Kenya, they funded the travel, which is not a small thing. … To do work, you have to be situated in that context. [The Center is] going to put money into that.”

Fusi is not even from California, nor from Kenya: She’s from Cameroon. Another facet of the Center is its “melting pot” nature. U.S. and international students mingle and collaborate closely; so do undergrads, graduate students, PhD candidates, post-doc academics, and faculty. The Center itself suggests that, to find solutions to global poverty, we’ll need an equally global-diverse group to cross-pollinate within itself. This attracts many ambitious students from abroad to Berkeley — including Yicheng Wei, another international student from Xi’an, China and recent alum of the Master of Development Engineering program.

Wei works a different angle on global poverty at the Blum Center: epidemiology, targeting the COVID-19 pandemic. With her cohort, she studies ways to test wastewater for anticipating where the virus spreads through low-income communities, which often don’t have accessible testing sites. “It’s changed me a lot…especially my personality,” she says of the Blum Center’s international setting. “I had a lot of ideas, but didn’t know where to show them. … I’m also more willing to share my own opinions.” 

Wei is now applying for a bioengineering-focused PhD, with an offer already from the University of Tokyo. That said, Wei has also felt very challenged by fellow academics and faculty here — though in a good way. “The rest of the team are all PhD, post-docs, and scientists,” she says. “They have much more experience compared to myself, but they’re not like, ‘Oh, you know nothing!’” One of these experts is civil & environmental engineering Prof. Kara Nelson, the Blum Chancellor’s Chair in Development Engineering. Nelson is faculty lead for Wei’s project, and Fusi’s fertilizer project as well. “Professor Kara Nelson…guided us to a correct pathway,” says Wei. “She’s really passionate about every question I have.”

In fact, many Blum Center projects come under the purview of Nelson, who’s been at Berkeley for 22 years. Her academic focus has long been on water — but especially wastewater and the human waste stream. It greatly streamlines the whole water issue, she claims. “What always motivated me, since the beginning of my career, is how we can bring more attention and creative solutions to addressing this waste issue,” Nelson says. “Adequate sanitation is necessary to address so many issues that are linked — improving children’s health, protecting the environment, increasing food security, and creating respectable job opportunities. Also, if we aren’t adequately managing our waste, then we aren’t addressing one of the biggest threats to safe drinking water.”

Besides water there are other issues — Evan Patrick and Lambert Lin, two other Blum Center students, focus on forest restoration in low-income countries for capturing atmospheric carbon. Without the Blum Center’s international backdrop, it’s possible these two would have never met or worked together. Patrick — a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management — is from the United States. Lin hails from Beijing, a recent graduate of the Master of Development Engineering. 

Patrick, Lin, and others on their team take reforestation approaches a step further than most: assessing how impactful plantings really are. While carbon programs may help offset climate impacts on vulnerable communities, they claim they must also be feasible, fair, and transparent to the smallholder landowners actually doing them — and more incentivizing. To achieve this, their work focuses heavily on remote sensing, data collection, and predictive “forest models” to improve these initiatives while “de-privatizing” the data, making it more openly accessible and affordable. 

It’s not easy — like Wei, Lin says faculty readily challenge their ideas. Says Lin of one faculty member, “He actually criticized the projects. … It helped us to fine-tune our conclusion.” Because of the possibility of policymakers using their work as an excuse to cut down natural forests, Lin and team were able to develop clearer and more airtight conclusions.

Lin’s and Patrick’s project faculty advisor, Prof. Matthew D. Potts, may have had a role leading them to think differently. Potts first established and funded this project at Berkeley. Referring to Patrick’s and Lin’s work, he says that it’s the data collection itself that allows for these kinds of projects’ impact assessments. “How do you assess the impact that motivates people to act,” he asked, “but also helps you design a better program?

Similarly, other faculty — like Nelson — pivot students away from the obvious towards issues people might not want to touch. “How we manage our waste is something a lot of people aren’t as interested in, or as comfortable talking about,” she says about focusing on the waste stream versus water alone. “It’s not, like, everyone’s favorite topic of conversation.”

That said, students also feel they get to challenge how things are done, both inside and outside the classroom. Patrick brought his own criticisms of reforestation work. “Some of the re-plantings…are like little pine matchsticks. … It feels like they kind of only do it one way,” he says. “I think that a lot of tree planting programs have huge trust issues globally. Having a larger data-driven approach to actually show what is working, and what is not — because there are good examples going on.” Lin concurs: “Planting trees is not the best way to sequester carbon. But there are co-benefits. … It could improve water quality, and bring less buildup of nitrogen, improve biodiversity, and improve soil erosion problems.”

Fusi feels the same about academia in general, where disciplines can be siloed and the technology can overshadow the human context. “We are told that research has to be done in a certain way to be considered ‘real science’” — as if it were a politically neutral endeavor, she says. “I think I would have conformed into what mainstream academia says is appropriate.” But her colleagues at the Blum Center with similar backgrounds to hers inspired her. Her cohort “was always like, ‘This is not okay. These things don’t have to be this way.’” 

While innovation and interdisciplinary thinking are important, so is scalability. For some this means narrowing one’s focus to the obvious for quicker results — like clean water, pure and simple. Jeremy Lowe, a PhD student in environmental engineering with a Development Engineering emphasis, helms a passive-chlorination water project through the Blum Center and the Pickering Lab that provides low-maintenance, affordable, and electricity-free chlorination that disinfects drinking water, and that any developing country could access.

It could also be brought to scale, and rapidly. “Two-point-three billion people use a water drinking source right now that could potentially be compatible with this technology,” Lowe says, referencing a study. But he is also realistic. “This is not going to be the end-all-be-all solution for water treatment,” he adds. “Chlorination is doing a great job at disinfecting pathogens from the water, but it doesn’t disinfect all pathogens effectively. And it doesn’t address chemical contaminants. This is where combining chlorination with other water treatment methods is helpful.”

For some Blum Center academics, taking aim at global poverty issues comes from a personal place — bringing solutions to problems they witnessed growing up. Says Lowe, “I grew up in rural North Carolina, and I grew up fairly poor. I think that ultimately shaped how I perceive the world, and how I interact with it. … There’s a lot of unneeded suffering caused by global poverty.”

For Fusi it’s personal too, tied to Cameroon and her home. “My aunt is restarting the farm she had lost because of the war,” she says. “All this knowledge I can use, in a more career sense…but it can also go back to the people that are closest to me, and not just family.”

The diverse figures at the Blum Center bring different criticisms, talents, and angles to global poverty issues that urgently need new perspectives. They come from all around a globe hurtling into the International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development. 

Besides the Blum Center as their home, something else seems to unite many of these voices: a desire to serve. “My ultimate goal is to be of service to people,” says Lowe. 

“I consider myself a servant,” Fusi adds. “Determining who I want to serve, and how I want to serve them.”

Digital Transformation of Development Traineeship Brings AI and Data Analytics to Under-Resourced Settings

Under a new NSF-funded research program housed at the Blum Center, the Digital Transformation of Development (DToD) Traineeship, students are using their research skills to apply digital tools, such as machine learning and AI, to the issues and challenges of poverty alleviation, disaster relief, and more — in pursuit of digital and technological justice, equity, and empowerment.

Digital Transformation of Development Traineeship Brings AI and Data Analytics to Under-Resourced Settings
Berkeley and UCSF Professor Irene Chen speaks to students in class white pointing at presentation during DevEng 203 and DevEng 210.
Berkeley and UCSF Prof. Irene Chen speaks to students in DevEng 203 and DevEng 210. (Photo by Matt Podolsky)

 

By Alisha Dalvi and Sam Goldman

Navigating around town, tailoring our workouts to our level of physical fitness, knowing when our packages will arrive: The boom in data collection and analysis has been a boon to our daily lives — and a new paradigm for businesses, organizations, and governments to optimize efficiency and improve services. It feels ubiquitous. Who hasn’t taken advantage of the digital revolution?

It turns out, many communities haven’t been able to. From marginalized neighborhoods nearby to many areas around the globe, the tools that increasingly govern and improve our lives are not available or not tailored to serving everyone, be it personal wellbeing, environmental health, or economic security. 

But under a new NSF-funded research program housed at the Blum Center, the Digital Transformation of Development (DToD) Traineeship, students are using their research skills to apply digital tools, such as machine learning and AI, to the issues and challenges of poverty alleviation, disaster relief, and more — in pursuit of digital and technological justice, equity, and empowerment.

“There’s a lot of recognition of the potential of rapidly emerging technologies like AI, new analytics, scalable cloud computing, and novel data sources,” says Matt Podolsky, DToD program coordinator. “But these advancements have not been particularly targeted to under-resourced communities and issues that pertain to them. We aim to address that shortfall.” 

After an initial planning year, the five-year program kicked off Fall 2022 with its first cohort of nine master’s and 16 PhD students. Though their formal traineeships center around three DToD-themed courses that are taken over two or more semesters, the program aims to keep them involved for the entire duration of their graduate studies. A handful of fellows receive one-year awards covering tuition and fees, plus a stipend; the fellowship also offers the unique opportunity to apply for travel grants for self-arranged internships, where they conduct fieldwork and applied research with and within low-resourced communities. For PhD students, the program additionally allows them to work toward the designated emphasis in Development Engineering, an official minor for PhDs. The interdisciplinary skills developed in DToD include everything from technical writing skills to ethical data collection, all with the goal of producing fair and inclusive analysis to benefit underserved communities.

One of the key courses students take in the Development Engineering ecosystem, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” provides a hands-on opportunity to develop a tangible solution — say, a simple-to-use, easy-to-carry solar-powered water pump — to real-world problems — say, climate-impacted farmlands. The focus is always on incorporating the context and needs of people and their communities.

“It encourages students to develop a solution that involves the end users in the design process and could be scaled beyond just a small research prototype,” says Podolsky. 

Another class, “DToD Research & Practice,” is a seminar featuring guest speakers including thought leaders and researchers from UC Berkeley’s faculty and experts in industry applying AI and data technologies for social impact, who work on everything from how to incorporate AI in development to finding early signs of eye disease using machine learning. This class also allows students to present their own work to peers, providing feedback to each other while learning about interesting research across campus. That model fosters collaboration, support, and skills in communicating research to those outside one’s discipline.

Rajiv Shah, former administrator of USAID and former Blum Center trustee, approached Prof. Shankar Sastry during multiple board-of-trustee meetings about building on the Center’s mission. 

“The brand of the Blum Center is really technology and mechanisms, incentive designs, and so on to lift people out of poverty,” says Sastry, the Center’s former faculty director, the College of Engineering’s former dean, and DToD’s principal investigator. “And Raj said, ‘Why don’t you take it to the extreme? And why don’t you see how you can combine these latest greatest technologies?’”

Thanks to Development Engineering pioneer Prof. Alice Agogino, the Blum Center already had a track record of success with National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) programs. Meanwhile, Dr. Yael Perez, director of the Center’s Development Engineering programs and the coordinator for the InFEWS NRT, felt it would be a boon for students with digitally minded social-impact projects to receive the same kind of holistic support that InFEWS students had for their own social impact work. She hoped to see more social impact–minded students come out of programs like those of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. And Shah’s idea came back to Sastry.

“It became rapidly clear that technologies in AI and machine learning, as well as Internet of Things and cloud computing, all of that was booming,” he says. But what he found missing was “how you would bundle them into services that could then be offered for people to better themselves, and at scale.”

Around 2019 and 2020, “by the time we were putting this [program] together, most corporate boardrooms were talking about digital transformation. And they didn’t exactly know what they were talking about,” Sastry adds. “But we taught that by digital transformation, we really meant: How do you take these advances in AI, machine learning, IoT, cloud and edge computing to provide services — be they in healthcare, in energy, in distributed energy management — to be able to really enable economic development.”

“We could give our students an appreciation not only for these algorithms,” he says, “but also what happens when you use them.”

The first cohort’s fellows come from disciplines and departments across campus, from various branches of engineering to city and regional planning to the School of Information. Over 60 percent of the first cohort are women and nearly half are underrepresented minorities. 

Ritwik Gupta works with collaborators at the United States Geological Survey to measure soil water retention after the 2021 Dixie Fire.
Ritwik Gupta works with collaborators at the United States Geological Survey to measure soil water retention after the 2021 Dixie Fire. (Photo by Matt Podolsky)

Among this first class is Ritwik Gupta, a PhD student at Berkeley’s AI Research Lab, who focuses on computer vision for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, along with public policy for the effective and safe usage of such technology. Working with a diverse set of partners such as CAL FIRE, the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit, and the United Nations, his research on tasks such as assessing damage to buildings from space and detecting illegal fishing vessels in all weather conditions has been deployed worldwide.

The work of classmate Evan Patrick leverages geospatial science and ethnography to evaluate forest restoration efforts in Guatemala and explore the ongoing impacts of the El Niño Southern Oscillation on landscapes and livelihoods in the country. The Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) PhD student worked with two MDevEng capstone groups in the Potts Lab to model the carbon benefits of plantation expansion in Guatemala and to use social media audience estimates to investigate ENSO-driven internal migration in Central America.

Sarah Hartman, in her fifth year of an ESPM PhD program, first got involved with the Blum Center through its first NRT on innovations in food, energy, and water systems. She wanted to continue what had been an “absolutely wonderful experience,” and DToD just happened to be relevant to her work using technology, engineering, and science to improve water and agricultural conditions in low-resource settings.

“The way the program’s designed is really nice,” she says, “because it gives you exposure to people who might be outside of your discipline but are using methods that might be of use to your particular application.” For instance, in one DToD class, a visiting professor discussed how she translated the skills and technology involved in using AI to build others’ personal wealth into using AI to detect early health concerns in low-resource settings. 

The programs’ benefits, however, extend beyond official class content.

“I really appreciate the balance they strike between professional opportunities and community-building opportunities,” Hartman says. “And sometimes it’s the small things.”

During a class presentation, Ritwik Gupta points to dark vessel detections generated from his xView3 AI model within the Department of Navy's SeaVision platform.
Ritwik Gupta points to dark vessel detections generated from his xView3 AI model within the Department of Navy’s SeaVision platform. (Photo by Matt Podolsky)

Like coffee and cookie breaks. Students like Hartman find inspiration and collaboration during opportunities to socialize during class. “There’s a lot of value in the informal conversations that we have around the structured lecture content,” she says.

Take, for instance, Gupta’s work using machine learning and satellite imagery to understand the toll Russia’s war in Ukraine is having in cities. His methods, Hartman found, could add a new layer to her work understanding how the war is impacting Ukrainian agricultural resilience, such as better, faster insight into the status of key agricultural infrastructure like grain silos and ports. This cross pollination improves her ability to conduct real-time analysis in a continuously evolving situation.

Going forward, Podolsky plans to implement more workshops on topics from data visualization to effective communication skills, such as op-ed writing. “We really just want to add to the research training aspect beyond just coursework,” he says. 

But in the big picture, Sastry says, the DToD program is about more than just the implementation of digital development solutions in accordance with the needs of people in under-resourced settings. It’s also about what comes before that process even starts.

“I think it’s great to do interventions, it’s great to think about clean water, it’s great to think about energy,” he says. “But what’s really emerging from this series is students getting a sense of empowerment to go and change the world. And that quite often transcends specific solutions. I think we’re giving them that, and we’re giving them some optimism.”

“Because at the end of the day, the technology is great, but it’s the starting point,” he adds. “It’s not the endpoint; the services are the middle point; and then the empowerment for people is really the endpoint. So it starts with empowering our students to empower the people to help themselves.”

DevEng Team Creates Toolkit for Decision-Makers Aiding ‘Doubly Vulnerable’ Populations

“FireTools,” developed in DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” brings a wide array of resources under one umbrella for local decision-makers to use to improve disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience — with a particular emphasis on doubly vulnerable communities.

DevEng Team Creates Toolkit for Decision-Makers Aiding ‘Doubly Vulnerable’ Populations
Students and instructors of Fall 2023's DevEng C200 class all posing for a class photo
Fall 2023’s DevEng C200 class (Amy Pickering photo)

In California, it’s hard to overstate the impact of climate change–fueled wildfires: Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a 320-percent increase in burned areas, 268 lives lost, and in just the past five years, an estimated $60 billion in lost revenue.

At the national level, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is also concerned about wildfires as it focuses on post-disaster recovery, and there exist a variety of wildfire-resilience toolkits meant to guide decision-makers’ efforts to help people prepare for and recover from wildfires. But according to Erica Anjum, there is not enough attention on low-resource areas. These communities are doubly vulnerable: not just at greater physical risk from wildfire but also facing “intersectional social vulnerabilities,” says Anjum, a city and regional planning graduate student. Indicators of these can include, but aren’t limited to, income, housing status, age, and disabilities. “Different vulnerabilities render people vulnerable in different ways — all of which are relevant in planning resilient communities,” she says. 

Enter “FireTools,” an online toolkit prototyped by Anjum and her graduate-student teammates in DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies.” Their toolkit brings a wide array of resources under one umbrella for local decision-makers to use to improve disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience — with a particular emphasis on doubly vulnerable communities. 

FireTools is a hub for resources such as community- and fire-mapping tools, funding sources, landscaping best practices, evacuation preparedness and resilience centers, and data-privacy considerations — all things decision makers rely on when assisting and preparing communities before, during, and after catastrophes.

“Apart from the very crucial impact on loss of lives and property, the intervention will lead to more collaboration between stakeholders in the fire preparedness, resilience, and recovery spaces,” said Master of Development Engineering student Titli Thind. “The process of building the toolkit has spurred conversation between previously disconnected key decision makers, and we hope that this continues.”

DevEng C200, a core MDevEng course open to grad students from a variety of backgrounds, provides an opportunity for students to partner with professionals to tackle problems that require the skills of Development Engineers. That process requires understanding the focus area’s stakeholders, end users, and their contexts; testing hypotheses for effective technological intervention; iterating these solutions’ designs; evaluating their efficacy; and proposing a way for scaling up their use. 

Professors Amy Pickering and Mathieu Aguesse lead the class. Class projects have included an app for farmers to engage with one another, build community, and monitor the health of their wetlands; a comprehensive handbook for more efficient greenhouses for farmers in the climate change–impacted eastern Himalayas; expanding and diversifying the products and market for plastic-recycling social enterprise Takataka Plastics; a mobile platform, focused on data-governance management, that allows for the collection, sharing, and analysis of data from low-resource settings; analyzing and modeling the widespread deployment of a water-chlorination device; a simple-to-use, easy-to-carry solar-powered water pump; an affordable, foaming soap dispenser; improving the outcomes of unhoused people with a better online platform that’s used by both unhoused folks and San Francisco caseworkers; and the improved integration of frontline public health workers in a platform that provides primary-care services in Guinea. 

Along with Thind and Anjum, FireTools was developed by Xuan Huang (MDevEng), Kanyawee Srikulwong (development practice), and Ashley Woodward (civil and environmental engineering).

The team started with research data on wildfire resilience, practices from other fire-prone regions like Australia, and 14 case studies of communities and their decision makers who have faced fires before. They spoke with first responders and planners from previously hard-hit California communities. Their due diligence brought to light specific problems that the team sought to address, such as multiple authorities or organizations collecting the same data in the same communities post-fire (which risks retraumatizing vulnerable fire survivors) as well as some neighborhoods’ lack of accessible evacuation routes. 

“This project is a great example of how valuable it was to interact with the wildfire toolkit’s end users to create a product that addresses their needs,” Pickering said.

The tools in the kit — such as a post-fire data-collection process and landscaping best practices — evolved and grew with further stakeholder interviews and feedback, culminating in the website, a toolkit distribution plan, and a business model. The plan is to provide the toolkit to primarily local decision-makers and planners for free, with the team proposing funding for growing, improving, and testing it from primarily federal agencies with a stake in disaster-resilient communities.

The team built its toolkit as a “living document,” where the at-risk communities themselves can share their own insights and experiences to further refine authorities’ ability to help them. Those same authorities can use the toolkit to further inform their disaster planning and coordinate with other agencies with whom they’ve historically had limited collaboration. 

This whole process of producing a technological intervention in accordance with end users’ needs, however, is not over once the toolkit is put to use; it won’t be much good if it’s not sufficiently achieving its goals. 

So, the team plans to measure their solution’s efficacy by, among other standards, the number of planners who take up the toolkit, collecting feedback from decision-makers in places hit by wildfires, examining whether its use has streamlined data collection, and whether doubly vulnerable populations’ trauma associated with collecting sensitive data after a catastrophe — worsened by duplicative surveying — has been reduced. 

Researchers from UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Merced will continue working on the toolkit, Anjum says. But regardless of how the toolkit may have to be adapted, its goals continue to be reduced loss of life and property, improved data collection and interagency dialogue, and all-around better wildfire preparedness and resilience. 

“We want to share our experiences and expertise,” one local planner and survivor of the record-breakingly deadly and destructive 2018 Camp Fire had told the team, “so others don’t lose as much as we did.”

Patricia Quaye: Empowering Rural Women and African Culture Through Fashion

SHE uses sustainable fashion design to empower talented rural women to break free from generational cycles of poverty while promoting rich African heritages to the world. The project helps women with years of skilled seamstressing experience who find themselves disregarded or deemed incapable due to the rural environment and a male-dominated society.

Patricia Quaye: Empowering Rural Women and African Culture Through Fashion
Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)

By Alisha Dalvi
Political Science, Global Poverty & Practice ’24

In the summer of 2021, Patricia Quaye took a 15-hour journey from her home in Awutu Breku, a small town in Ghana, to Berkeley to be a part of the inaugural cohort of the Master of Development of Engineering program, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. While she was 7,000 miles away, her heart remained close to home, and in the summer of 2022, Quaye went back to Ghana to build on her organization dedicated to giving back a better livelihood to her community. 

Quaye had founded SHE 4 Change in January of that year as both a business and a foundation to provide women in her community with more opportunity; SHE stands for Support Her Empowerment. “That is exactly what the project is doing,” says Quaye. 

Patricia Quaye in a colorful top from SHE 4 Change featuring traditional African prints and matching handbag
Patricia Quaye wears SHE 4 Change, featuring traditional African prints. (Courtesy photo)

SHE uses sustainable fashion design to empower talented rural women to break free from generational cycles of poverty while promoting rich African heritages to the world. The project helps women with years of skilled seamstressing experience who find themselves disregarded or deemed incapable due to the rural environment and a male-dominated society. These women are often paid much less than what the cost of materials and their labor are worth. SHE aims to break this cycle of poverty by paying women fairly and expanding their market. Quaye took advantage of her time as a student in Berkeley to study the global market and adjust her designs to a broader range of individual tastes while sending the profits back to women in her community. The high quality of SHE apparel extends its customer base beyond those who can only afford the simplest clothing. 

Quaye recalls, from her conversations with the seamstresses, instances prior to founding SHE 4 Change where customers didn’t return to pick up their clothes after dropping them off for sewing, as they, too, were poor and may have later decided they could not afford the sewing costs after all. Some even refused to pay the previously agreed-upon cost. This leaves many women stranded. 

“Imagine going through four-plus years of training to acquire a skill, but because you are located in the ‘wrong’ place and people don’t know about your skill, you don’t grow professionally, and you can barely put food on the table,” Quaye says. 

Quaye’s cousin, a seamstress for over 15 years, inspired SHE 4 Change. When COVID-19 hit, Quaye saw her struggle — her cousin lost her few and only patrons to the pandemic, leaving her unable to afford even a basic meal. Quaye wanted to help and began looking for organizations that could assist skilled women like her cousin find patrons or obtain resources. But she couldn’t find any support, with many organizations unresponsive or simply declining to help. Quaye wanted to take matters into her own hands. 

A SHE seamstress sews with her own machine at her own home. The social enterprise plans to hire many more seamstresses before officially launching in the spring. (Courtesy photo)
A SHE seamstress sews with her own machine at her own home. The social enterprise plans to hire many more seamstresses before officially launching in the spring. (Courtesy photo)

Quaye’s project-based classwork in the MDevEng program required her to connect more deeply to the community she’s serving. After conducting research and interviewing women, she realized this was a challenge across many regions and communities in Ghana, not just for her cousin. Rural women often lack the tools to sew high-quality garments, therefore most individuals living in big cities and urban areas, who can afford higher quality wares, don’t “believe” in rural women’s capacity to produce the quality they require, she says. This limits seamstresses to rural markets with lower rates for their work hours. 

Quaye cites her own experience for her dedication to creating opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. “I grew up in a poor background,” she says. “I know what it means to not have opportunity. I know what it means to not have food on the table or know when the next meal you’re going to eat will be.” 

The SHE 4 Change logo holds cultural significance in and of itself: The “E” is a tribal Ghanaian symbol signifying sankofa. (Courtesy photo)
The SHE 4 Change logo holds cultural significance in and of itself: The “E” is a tribal Ghanaian symbol signifying sankofa. (Courtesy photo)

So over the summer of 2022, along with a summer job and internship, Quaye went back home to her small town of Awutu Breku to be hands-on with her fashion enterprise. This entailed working with her mother to create designs, searching for and purchasing fabric in Accra, Ghana’s capital, from female vendors, and bringing fabric and supplies back to the seamstresses who then sewed the designs using their own machines. While SHE seamstresses can repair existing clothing, they focus on making new ones from scratch, supporting women fabric vendors as well. These fabrics are traditional African prints and patterns which hold historical and cultural significance. The SHE logo itself showcases the traditional Ghanaian symbol of the sankofa in the “E,” a bird that signifies retrieving good from the past. 

The most valuable part of her time at home, however, was the face-to-face interaction she had with her team — getting to know the women in person rather than over the phone. She had met these seamstresses through her mother, a community organizer who encourages girls to get involved in political decisions that affect them. Her mother provided Quaye with connections and further instilled the importance of empowering the women around her. Quaye shared the excitement of the project with them, learned the impact it could have on them and their families, and came to better understand her seamstresses’ work environment. 

A pile of fabrics sourced from vendors in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Quaye typically finds her fabrics at larger markets in the city and brings them back to Awutu Beraku. (Photo by Patricia Quaye)
A pile of fabrics sourced from vendors in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Quaye typically finds her fabrics at larger markets in the city and brings them back to Awutu Beraku. (Photo by Patricia Quaye)

Nowadays, SHE’s piloting stage features six women, but Quaye plans to hire over a dozen more before an official launch. She officially registered SHE 4 Change as a company and a foundation, obtained a company bank account, and created social media accounts for the brand. 

More challenging are the finances. Quaye had used her Berkeley scholarship stipend to cover fabric, packaging, and other production costs. But she also went looking for funding from both NGO- and government-sponsored, women-oriented organizations to provide her seamstresses with reliable machinery to guarantee a better and safer working environment. As more profit comes in from an international customer base, equipment can be purchased to lower the seamstresses’ time and effort, thereby lowering the cost of labor. This then allows for their service to be affordable for their own community as well, creating a chain reaction of relieving financial insecurity. And as the foundation grows, Quaye hopes to train more women. “It’s important that this project allows women to empower themselves, so they can empower other women as well,” she says. 

Since graduating from the MDevEng program, Quaye has continued gaining experience as the sustainability coordinator at a retail company in the Bay Area, where she’s deepened her understanding of the clothing industry. In

Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the MDevEng community sport SHE 4 Change clothing. (Courtesy photo)

July 2023, Quaye was awarded with the Mastercard Foundation Alumni Scholars Impact Fund, powered by the Big Ideas Contest. With this funding, she is building a SHE 4 Change Sewing Center in Awutu Breku, and in March will head back and officially launch the SHE 4 Change line of products. She hopes to get more funding through other channels to support the project. All the while, she continues monitoring the impact of education on women in Ghana and is committed to follow up with research that can expand the impact of SHE 4 Change and similar endeavors to more countries through the SHE 4 Change Foundation.

“I don’t want people to buy just to help the women, but because the women can produce quality products, and they feel the value when wearing the clothes,” she says. 

Indeed, Berkeley peers and teachers who have tried SHE 4 Change’s wares have loved them and become patrons. “The support from the DevEng department, my classmates and professors, always pushes me to know I am making an impact. It is like a family that is on the same mission with me,” she says. 

The MDevEng program itself has played a massive role in how she approaches her foundation, ensuring that she stays tuned to the needs and aspirations of the women on her team.

Going forward, Quaye hopes to see SHE 4 Change take off into a global brand known for empowering women while providing unique clothing. She also hopes to continue to break Eurocentric barriers by using fashion to showcase traditional African prints. Instead of having the world dig out culture and resources in Africa, she says, “we can bring the culture to the world by keeping heritage and local women alive through our garments.” 

Master of Development Engineering Graduates Second-Ever Cohort

Master of Development Engineering Graduates Second-Ever Cohort
Photo by Amy Sullivan

Yordanos Degu Zewdu clearly remembers the moment she decided to become a changemaker helping those most in need: as a young kid in Addis Ababa, on the way home from shopping with her mother, right before the start of the school year.

Degu Zewdu and her mother came across a father and his two children. He appeared ill and was begging desperately for food for his hungry kids. The suffering and desperation moved the young Degu Zewdu deeply.

“But as a kid, I had no means to help. So I stood there, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness,” she recalled. “My mother, the kindest person I’ve ever known, generously gave the father money to buy food for his kids, brightening their faces with joy.”

Yordanos Degu Zewdu (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Yordanos Degu Zewdu (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

In that moment, she realized that “when I grew up, I wanted to be in a position to help communities and families in need.”

Degu Zewdu, who continues fulfilling that promise as a Development Engineer, recounted the story to her peers and their families last Friday evening at the commencement ceremony of the UC Berkeley Master of Development Engineering program’s Class of 2023 — the second-ever cohort of what is likely the world’s first such degree program. The group of 30, hailing from 13 countries, crossed the stage at Banatao Auditorium following three semesters, an internship, and a capstone project.

“We are here to celebrate the hard work you have put into this program and to honor your commitment, your courage, your tenacity, and your compassion,” said Prof. Kara Nelson, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. “And we thank you for the work that you are doing to make this world a more just place, a more equitable place, and more peaceful. You are an inspiration to all of us.”

The Class of 2023 worked on projects ranging from tracking and optimizing plastic waste collection for recycling in Uganda, to household sanitation and hygiene in Ethiopia, to policy needs as California transitions to greater renewable energy.

Despite impressive accomplishments in the classroom and out in the world, the variety and magnitude of the world’s problems can make DevEng work feel “like planting a singular seed in a vast desert and hoping for a forest to grow tomorrow,” said the evening’s other student speaker, Anjali Ravunniarath.

Anjali Ravunniarath (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Anjali Ravunniarath (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“I stand here, with the same big problems and no easy solutions. However, I have found solace in this community in the last year and a half,” she said. “Together, we’ve dissected a lot of systems, understood parts of it, and occasionally tried to see if we could fix a few. The problems may not have disappeared, but our collective efforts make it seem less daunting, and that’s truly what I’m grateful for.”

This constant change-making journey won’t always be smooth sailing, counseled the evening’s commencement speaker, Ranjiv Khush, a water scientist, member of Marin County’s water board, and co-founder of Aquaya, a nonprofit producing data and tools to support universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Even the most accomplished development engineers, like Prof. Amy Pickering, don’t get it right every time, he said.

“Here’s the thing: Amy and all of our other heroes, they make embarrassing professional mistakes. They mess things up. They feel ashamed,” he said. “Just like us.

Ranjiv Khush (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Ranjiv Khush (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“The difference,” Khush added, “is that they’re really good at rolling with it. They shake it off. They refuse to let their mistakes define them. Be the same: Shake it off. Please, do not let your mistakes and your embarrassments dissuade you from anything or get in the way of your success.”

Prof. Dan Fletcher closed out the ceremony with a challenge to the newly minted master’s-degree holders: “I want to challenge you each day after this program, as you move on with your careers, as you find your passions, as you live your passions, to be the best person that you imagined you could be while you were in this program.”

It was a sentiment with echoes of advice Degu Zewdu had offered earlier in the evening.

“As we set forth on our individual journeys,” she said, “I urge each of you to embrace life’s unpredictability, step out of your comfort zones, show resilience, remain open to the countless opportunities that await. It is in these moments of growth and uncertainty that we will unveil the authenticity of ourselves.”

DevEng Photo Contest Winners Highlight Both the Promise and Fragility of Technological Interventions

DevEng Photo Contest Winners Highlight Both the Promise and Fragility of Technological Interventions

Development Engineering is a field of research and practice that combines the principles of engineering with economics, human-centered design, entrepreneurship, natural resources, and social science to create technological interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. It’s a technical field, one often rendered in blueprints, lines of code, and physical devices.

But depicting DevEng to lay audiences is vital not just to raising the field’s academic profile but to growing the capacity of a discipline that tangibly improves lives as well as to highlight the richness and complexity of the communities DevEng aims to serve.

Each summer, students in UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering program and the PhD designated emphasis in DevEng implement DevEng interventions close to home and far away, documenting their work and their environment as they go. This year’s DevEng Photography Contest highlights the best of this summer’s photos and videos, from the sometimes-precarious state of electrical power in rural places to novel technologies for delivering medicines and medical supplies. (Coincidentally, the three winners were captured in the same country.) Jacob Seigel Brielle and Isaac Seigel-Boettner, the talented Cal-alum duo behind Pedal Born Pictures, joined DevEng staff in judging this year’s submissions.

 

1st place

“The fragility of rural power”

Samuel Miles, PhD student, Energy & Resource Group; DevEng designated emphasis

“This is a picture of a young boy carrying out his chores in rural Rwanda,” says Miles. “The background shows rural infrastructure — in this case, a sagging power line held up by a local tree. It encapsulates the opportunities and challenges of modernity — the possibility that the boy grows up benefiting from electricity, but also the dangers poor planning represents to safety.”

Judges commended the great intersecting lines in the composition and how the photo’s symbolism deepens the more one dives into the image.

 

2nd place

“Zipline Drone Landing”

Rachel Dersch, Master of Development Engineering student

 

Dersch’s video depicts a medical delivery drone landing. The company behind it, Zipline, is a Silicon Valley start-up operating in various African countries, including Rwanda. “They make deliveries constantly to all the hospitals in Rwanda that contain blood, medicines, and supplies,” says Dersch. The company provides “quality employment” for their staff in Muhanga, Rwanda, she adds, and is being considered for her research team’s sites for solar power and water filtration units, since they require a landing pad for deliveries. “The drones are a really cool adaptation for developing countries when the road infrastructure makes time sensitive deliveries like blood difficult to accommodate,” Dersch says.

Judges appreciated the depiction of a fascinating new technology being used for good — and the importance in DevEng of testing tech first.

 

3rd place

“Rural health clinic energy transitions in Rwanda”

Rachel Dersch, Master of Development Engineering student

“I like this photo because it showcases the complexity of working in rural locations where cows are grazing on hospital grounds next to new technology implementations,” Dersch says. “This photo was taken in a very remote location in the ‘Thousand Hills’ of Rwanda, a gorgeous place. We were at the location conducting qualitative interviews on the energy transition at the health clinic and picking up power monitoring sensors.”

Judges recognized this photo for the deeper story and symbolism behind it. Plus, “these sorts of juxtapositions help explain more of the why behind DevEng,” Seigel Brielle says.

A Stream of Solutions: Highlights from the Annual Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Symposium at the Blum Center

Water, sanitation, and hygiene are crucial pillars of public health initiatives and in the fight against poverty. Issues like inadequate water access and poor sanitation disproportionately affect under-resourced communities, leading to waterborne diseases and socioeconomic impacts within vulnerable populations. Solutions are interdisciplinary, blending research findings and policy interventions in pursuit of infrastructure development, with communities’ contexts and needs at the core of WASH efforts.

A Stream of Solutions: Highlights from the Annual Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Symposium at the Blum Center
Joyce Kisiagani’s lightning talk holds up her prototype for an affordable chlorination device that allows under-resourced communities to disinfect water at the point of collection. She went on to win the “Best Visuals” award at the end of the night. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

 

By Alisha Dalvi

In 2007, the Blum Center hosted UC Berkeley’s first Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) symposium for scholars and development practitioners. The event was the first of its kind in the Bay Area, and for the next decade, Stanford and Berkeley hosted WASH events on alternating years. After a hiatus due the pandemic, the symposium was back this year for the first time since 2019. This time, it’s the Blum Center continuing the tradition, with a wider scope of research and a larger community since the original WASH event over 15 years ago. 

Water, sanitation, and hygiene are crucial pillars of public health initiatives and in the fight against poverty. Issues like inadequate water access and poor sanitation disproportionately affect under-resourced communities, leading to waterborne diseases and socioeconomic impacts within vulnerable populations. Solutions are interdisciplinary, blending research findings and policy interventions in pursuit of infrastructure development, with communities’ contexts and needs at the core of WASH efforts. Practitioners range from chemical and environmental engineers to public health professionals. 

On December 6, the Blum Center hosted graduate students, professors, and experts with one common connection — a commitment to sharing and expanding collective knowledge in the WASH sector. The event kicked off with an introduction from its head coordinators, Prof. Amy Pickering, Blum Center Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice, and Prof. Kara Nelson, Blum Chancellor’s Chair in Development Engineering. Icebreakers followed, where attendees broke out into teams to play a sanitation-inspired game. 

The main attractions, however, were six longer research presentations and 17 quicker lightning talks, which included research developments that have concluded, are currently underway, or still in planning stages. They covered biological, environmental, and social issues, from cost assessments of water supplies to chlorination techniques for reducing maternal and neonatal diseases to proposing a compostable toilet. 

The sheer scope of presentations demonstrated the multifaceted range of the field. “WASH challenges primarily affect low-resourced and underserved communities,” says Nelson. “Those in the field have to understand these problems from an interdisciplinary perspective.” 

J’anna-Mare Lue, a Berkeley PhD student, was awarded a golden toilet trophy for the “Most Creative” presentation. Her lightning talk emphasized the social and environmental equity aspect of WASH work. (Photo by Hannah Wharton)

The end of the night featured a reception and awards. Joyce Kisiangani, a UC Berkeley PhD student, won for Best Visuals for her presentation introducing a low-cost passive-chlorination device for disinfecting water at the point of collection. Another UC Berkeley PhD student, J’Anna-Mare Lue, won for Most Creative for her presentation on water as a medium to address environmental inequity. Christine Pu, a PhD candidate at Stanford, was awarded Most Engaging for her discussion of how investments in water infrastructure transform rural livelihoods in Ethiopia. 

The event was deliberately small and intimate, designed to cultivate in-depth conversations and small-group discussions. “It is an event by and for the people who participate in the WASH field,” Nelson says. Hannah Wharton, a environmental engineering PhD student in Pickering’s lab and a member of the WASH symposium student committee, agreed. “Connecting with other researchers and professionals in the WASH field is so important for making progress on the global inequities that we are all trying to eliminate,” she says. “Having people there from a variety of fields really speaks to the interdisciplinarity of WASH and the need for future events.”

A WASH attendee asks a question at the end of a research presentation. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)
A WASH attendee asks a question at the end of a research presentation. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

With around 60 attendees and plenty of time for networking, WASH aficionados were able to dive deep into the complexities of their peers’ projects. “Compared to the scale of the problems, we are a relatively small group of researchers working on them,” says Nelson. “We have to be resourceful and work in teams. And have a strong community that is supportive and lifts you up when you are feeling discouraged.” 

When asked what they hoped to see in the future for WASH events, nearly every attendee had a similar answer: “To see more people!” They are certainly on track to meet this goal — each year, event planners have welcomed more and more first-time attendees. The increase in symposium attendance parallels new and expanding research projects in the field, like those of Kisiangani, Lue, and Pu. And as the WASH sector grows, these symposia are vital to encouraging collaboration and fostering a network where projects can succeed on an individual and community level. 

“Next year,” Wharton says, “we want to host even more members of the community and continue increasing dialogue.”

Student Entrepreneurs Find Collaborators, Inspiration, and Opportunities at Innovators@Cal

Innovators@Cal — UC Berkeley’s annual flagship entrepreneurship event, which brought together aspiring student innovators, students curious about joining early-stage ventures, and an inspirational keynote speaker tackling the “world’s dumbest problem.” 

Student Entrepreneurs Find Collaborators, Inspiration, and Opportunities at Innovators@Cal

Student entrepreneurs and attendees gather in Blum Hall for a networking and brainstorming session. (Sam Goldman photo)

By Sam Goldman

Earlier this fall, UC Berkeley debuted a webpage spotlighting the breadth and depth of its most innovative alumni and the resources available on campus to support the next generation of game-changing entrepreneurs, along with a series of deep-dive stories highlighting Cal founders and their impacts on society. 

The timing couldn’t have been better: Pitchbook recently ranked Berkeley No. 1 for number of venture-backed startup companies, ahead of the likes of Stanford, Harvard, Penn, and MIT. Berkeley innovators like Jennifer Doudna and Kevin Chou generate international headlines. Campus is home to an ever-growing number of entrepreneurship, innovation, and tech-minded organizations and resources.

But — for the aspiring student innovator with a rapidly germinating new idea — where do they start? Where can they access resources and support to help transform their ideas into reality? Where can they find teammates ready to go all-in?

On November 7, that place was Innovators@Cal — UC Berkeley’s annual flagship entrepreneurship event, which brought together aspiring student innovators, students curious about joining early-stage ventures, and an inspirational keynote speaker tackling the “world’s dumbest problem.” 

Students from a wide range of disciplines and departments across the UC Berkeley campus took turns offering two-minute pitches to a standing room–only crowd in Banatao Auditorium. They highlighted a wide range of innovations, including an app detecting stroke symptoms, an electrical grid–monitoring technology, and simple new methods for improving the availability of menstrual products. Immediately after, speakers and listeners alike gathered in Blum Hall for a lively networking and brainstorming session where students used whiteboards to sketch out their ideas, solicit feedback, and find teammates. 

Student entrepreneurs prepare for the evening’s networking session. (Sam Goldman photo)

One of those blueprints was for the startup Materri, which generates recommendations for the best materials to use in footwear designers’ products, saving those producers time and money in consulting fees. Materri attended Innovators@Cal hoping to recruit software engineers.

“We’re not software engineers, and we’re building a software platform,” said co-founder Kira Erickson. “So that’s been our main hurdle in becoming a successful startup: just finding engineering talent, so we’re hoping to find some talented people to work with us.”

Across the room was Kerisha Burke, who, after researching why Black people hold a disproportionately low percentage of STEM jobs, found that part of the problem was rooted in student opportunities. “Students from underrepresented backgrounds continue to face challenges in pursuing careers in the STEM industry,” she had told the audience, “particularly due to the lack of access to resources that could help them to succeed.” Many of these resources exist outside the classroom — STEM conferences key among them. But these events are expensive to attend and time-consuming to apply for. 

MBA student Kerisha Burke pitches Scholarly Loop. (Sam Goldman photo)
MBA student Kerisha Burke pitches Scholarly Loop. (Sam Goldman photo)

Enter Burke’s Scholarly Loop, an AI-powered platform consolidating all manner of resources to support underrepresented students throughout the entire conference process, from a list of conferences to travel scholarships to tools that facilitate the paperwork side.

“I’ve been looking for an opportunity to pitch,” she said. “And I thought this was an opportunity for me to be vulnerable, open, and to just take a risk. Hopefully this is the first step in me doing that, then going out there and pitching and just getting more comfortable with sharing my ideas with others.”

The event was sponsored by a host of on-campus organizations, including many student-run, spanning the innovation and entrepreneurial pipeline: Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, AI Entrepreneurs at Berkeley, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, Berkeley Venture Capital, Entrepreneurs@Berkeley, Entrepreneurship@BerkeleyHaas, NSF I-Corps, the Student Entrepreneurship Program, and the Big Ideas Contest, Berkeley’s flagship social-innovation competition (pre-proposals applications are due December 6).

The night’s guest of honor was keynote speaker Komal Ahmad, founder of Copia, a logistics technology platform for managing food waste. Ahmad, winner of the 2012 Big Ideas Contest, studied international health and global development as well as Global Poverty and Practice at UC Berkeley, before her work solving hunger earned her an avalanche of accolades, including landing on Forbes30 Under 30 list. Copia redirects leftover food and meals (including from the Super Bowl and the Oscars) to organizations and people who need it now. The company has saved over 6.5 million tons of food, delivered over 5.4 million meals, generated over $21 million in savings for businesses and nonprofits, and operates in 40 states.

The story behind those eye-popping numbers is a single meal that an undergraduate Ahmad, then studying to be a doctor, hadn’t intended to have. 

Komal Ahmad, founder of Copia (Sam Goldman photo)
Komal Ahmad, founder of Copia (Sam Goldman photo)

Walking down Telegraph Avenue, she encountered a homeless man asking for food, and she invited him to join her for lunch. As he wolfed down his meal, he shared his story: His name was John and he had returned from his second tour in Iraq to find that his military benefits hadn’t kicked in. He hadn’t eaten in three days. And yet, “right across the street,” Ahmad said, “Berkeley’s dining hall was throwing away thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food.” 

Hunger was not a problem of insufficient food, she realized, but a logistics and distribution problem. 

“Solving the world’s dumbest problem became my life’s mission and Copia’s purpose,” she said. “Had I never reached out to that homeless veteran, had I never looked up from my phone, Copia would not exist. That day I fed one man. Because of his story, Copia will feed 8 million people” this year.

Yet the journey from one to 8 million was anything but linear.

Ahmad’s first attempt to find new stomachs for 500 leftover sandwiches on short notice had hardly any takers. Fast forward to subsequent efforts where she recruited her own volunteer drivers to ferry food from A to B, then tapped into the existing infrastructure of Doordash and Postmates to scale her endeavor. But after three years, Copia had yet to make much of a splash locally, and Ahmad felt depleted. “I lost my passion,” she said. “I lost my fire.” 

She took a job at Google, listening to the complaints of angry customers for six months before getting fired. She had hit “rock bottom.” 

But her dismissal was the “best thing that ever happened to me.” The intensity of failure, she told students, provides one with a new clarity, allows one’s strengths to shine through, and one’s “genuine self emerges.”

Ahmad returned to her passion, first volunteering at a Silicon Valley food pantry and then recruiting more volunteers. She built the technology and logistical systems to connect all manner of businesses and nonprofits so that leftover meals can find recipients who need them now. Copia joined the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator and became a multimillion-dollar startup.

“It’s not an overnight transformation,” she said. “It’s taking this step over and over — to take the risk, chase the dream, and follow your heart.”

“Whatever comes your way,” she advised, “keep moving forward.”

That, in a nutshell, is one of the key attributes of a successful entrepreneur, and a life view that UC Berkeley inspires, teaches, and supports. So remember to get your Big Ideas proposal in by December 6 — take a cue from Komal and take that risk. We are here to support you!

For the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a Look at Blum Center Students Working to Alleviate Poverty

October 17 was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a United Nations observance to acknowledge the efforts and struggles of those living in poverty and to uplift their voices to make their concerns heard. These goals are at the heart of the Blum Center’s mission, with academic, research, and extracurricular opportunities and initiatives encouraging students to consider poverty alleviation. The Center’s programs, including the Global Poverty & Practice minor, the Master of Development Engineering, Big Ideas Contest, and Health Tech CoLab, help undergrads and grad students find opportunities to get hands-on experience with alleviating the root causes and various manifestations of poverty locally and globally. 

For the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a Look at Blum Center Students Working to Alleviate Poverty

By Alisha Dalvi

Left: Joshua’s organization, the TTI Foundation, showcases its objectives on its T-shirts. (Courtesy photo). Right: Joshua speaks at a public secondary school in Gwagwalada, Nigeria this past March to celebrate International Women’s Day. This was one of many schools Joshua and her team visited for their Tech Awareness Tour across Abuja. (Courtesy photo)

Keerthi Konda, a senior cognitive science major, completed the practice experience of her Global Poverty & Practice minor over the summer, providing geriatric and palliative care to rural populations of India. As a pre-med student, Konda knew she wanted to tailor her experience to increasing access to healthcare. Each day she assisted doctors and nurses working in outpatient geriatric clinics, home visits, and hospice services, as well as conducted financial surveys with the families of patients for a new integrated facility to scale up its current services and reach more people from surrounding areas.“The GPP minor has changed how I view poverty and inequality. By combining theory and practical application, I’ve realized that poverty alleviation work is layered, with different approaches best suited for different communities, rather than one universally effective solution,” says Konda. “It’s about empowering communities and building a support system so individuals have access to basic needs, rather than just financial assistance.”

Keerthi Konda, a senior GPP student, is also a peer advisor for the program (Courtesy photo).
Keerthi Konda, a senior GPP student, is also a peer advisor for the program (Courtesy photo).

October 17 was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a United Nations observance to acknowledge the efforts and struggles of those living in poverty and to uplift their voices to make their concerns heard. These goals are at the heart of the Blum Center’s mission, with academic, research, and extracurricular opportunities and initiatives encouraging students to consider poverty alleviation. The Center’s programs, including the Global Poverty & Practice minor, the Master of Development Engineering, Big Ideas Contest, and Health Tech CoLab, help undergrads and grad students find opportunities to get hands-on experience with alleviating the root causes and various manifestations of poverty locally and globally. 

Blum Center students have launched a company that works with a women’s cooperative to grow and raise food in a 100-percent circular, sustainable system; started a company that turns otherwise-unrecycled plastic into usable household goods; evaluated the effectiveness of outsider-supported health-clinic microgrids; created a platform for unemployed recent graduates to develop and highlight their professional skills; and supported efforts to provide healthcare to those transitioning out of incarceration. 

Excellence Anurika Joshua is a first-semester Master of Developing Engineering student from Nigeria in the MDevEng’s Healthcare Transformations track. In addition to her biomedical background, before coming to UC Berkeley Joshua spent four years involved in workforce development in Africa, where she helps women with digital skill training and job placement. 

When looking at graduate programs, Joshua sought something that would allow her to combine three elements: social development, non-profit management, and inclusion. “I sought a curriculum that is immersive in managing and driving change from a global perspective and that looks at development from a social enterprise perspective,” she says. “And, because of my background in both healthcare and workforce development, I wanted a program that was interdisciplinary. When I found the MDevEng program, I was like ‘This is it!’” 

Joshua began her workforce-development initiative after experiencing a trying period of her life. “I realized the African society I was in was not kind to helpless women and didn’t care about what you had been through,” she says. As a therapeutic activity, she would make animations for her son, using free, open-source apps. Not only did her son love them, but so did her followers on social media. Soon, businesses were asking her to do storytelling videos for their brands. “They were asking for my videos instead of my résumé,” she says. “Nobody was asking if I was male or female. Or if I was married or divorced. All they needed to see was my portfolio and that I did a great job and could deliver.”

After a few jobs, Joshua was able to purchase a laptop and establish a successful online brand. Then, in 2020, dozens of people asked her for help in moving their businesses online to keep afloat during the pandemic. That’s when she realized the need for digital skills, especially among women to bridge this gap 

Currently, Joshua trains women in English-speaking African countries, though she plans to expand to Francophone ones soon. The training ranges from basic computer skills to advanced skills like UI/UX design to software development. “I realized the issue of high unemployment amongst women wasn’t a lack of jobs,” she says, “but more of underemployment and the lack of employable skills.”

Her first training was with 35 women. Within only a few years, she says, she has empowered over 8,000 African women from across 35 countries to earn their own money and become self-sustainable by leveraging digital skills. 

“Students in GPP and DevEng are building their knowledge and skills about effective approaches to addressing poverty every day,” says Chetan Chowdhry, the Blum Center’s director of student programs. “They are thinking critically about how they can use their position as UC Berkeley students and soon-to-be alumni to support marginalized communities in ways that are respectful, ethical, and sustainable.” 

Meet Pun Praphanphoj: MDevEng Student and Prototype Engineer for Sustainable Solutions

Passion has led Praphanphoj to join the Master of Development Engineering program at UC Berkeley, where he focuses on sustainable design innovations. In his third and final semester now, he says he has enjoyed learning global development history and issues.

Meet Pun Praphanphoj: MDevEng Student and Prototype Engineer for Sustainable Solutions
Pun Praphanphoj (courtesy photo)
Pun Praphanphoj (courtesy photo)

By Mengyuan Dong

With his passion for design and cars, studying automotive engineering came naturally for Pun Praphanphoj when he started college. Originally from Thailand, Praphanphoj spent his college years at the HAN University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. There, he equipped himself with knowledge and skills in mechanical engineering and gained practical experience, from building a racing car for Formula Student Competition to interning in the fuel cell industry in Europe. 

Praphanphoj was determined to work in the car industry when graduating from college. However, after returning to Thailand and working at Toyota on developing embedded systems and autonomous vehicles for almost two years, he reconsidered. “I wanted to have more impact and not be like a cog in a machine,” Praphanphoj says, recalling why he was motivated to leave the car industry for a while and try something new. 

This led him to Energy Absolute PCL, a renewable energy service provider in Bangkok. Praphanphoj worked as a project manager designing greenhouses for farmers in the local area to grow organic vegetables, as well as designing battery-powered locomotives. The company had a dozen greenhouses where it partnered up with the farmers and sponsored them with equipment, seeds, and a market to sell these vegetables. For one particular project, Praphanphoj programmed a farming system that could control each crop’s condition individually and report plant conditions online, helping farmers better monitor and manage their crops. The experience taught him the importance of engaging with people and learning about their needs when designing projects. It also prompted him to pivot from an engineering role to pursuing a growing passion for bringing technological solutions to societal and environmental problems.  

Praphanphoj (white shirt) working at a greenhouse in Bangkok with Energy Absolute PLC (courtesy photo)
Praphanphoj (white shirt) working at a greenhouse in Bangkok with Energy Absolute PLC (courtesy photo)

“This experience also made me realize that engineering and tech alone will never solve any human complex issue without considering other aspects of the problem,” he says. “It converted me from truly believing in the power of tech alone to be more humble and holistic in my approach towards problem solving.” 

This passion has led Praphanphoj to join the Master of Development Engineering program at UC Berkeley, where he focuses on sustainable design innovations. In his third and final semester now, he says he has enjoyed learning global development history and issues. Through taking classes including DevEng 202: Critical Systems of Development, he became more aware of the more nuanced aspects of global development — and the long-lasting impacts development engineering could have on people and their communities. 

“They ground you in the knowledge that there are people not only working for monetary purposes, but for improving other people’s lives as well,” he says. 

Whether it’s with professors who’ve been doing the work of development engineering for decades or with fellow students from different backgrounds and countries, Praphanphoj says he values having conversations about how things should be done to create impact and change the status quo. With the MDevEng’s wide range of elective classes, he also took courses in other departments, learning innovative finance for development and natural climate solutions and global change. 

For a project-driven class, Praphanphoj took part in a project with Maia Africa, a Burkina Faso company specializing in producing mosquito-repellent products. Such products are particularly essential in regions of West Africa where the prevalence of malaria makes the local population vulnerable to mosquito-borne diseases.

The company had already introduced a mosquito-repellent ointment to the market. However, they sought a more innovative solution to disrupt the mosquito reproductive cycle directly. This is where Praphanphoj and his three teammates stepped in, devising a strategy to impede mosquito egg-laying, thereby curbing the growth of the mosquito population. They came up with a low-maintenance, low-cost, and water-based trap, which would lure female mosquitoes to come in and lay their eggs. While the product has not entered the production phase yet, Praphanphoj appreciated learning the process of designing this solution, along with the chance to present an economical and innovative technology to address a longstanding issue in the region.

Praphanphoj says growing up in Thailand and studying and working in Europe and the U.S. have shaped him into a flexible and open-minded person. “I think the ability to embrace and see things as they are and not imposing how things should be done is something that I’ve learned through traveling, studying and working in different places,” he says. “That’s a quality that I’m quite proud of.”

Such experiences enrich and shape Praphanphoj’s professional perspective as an engineer as well. He believes engineers should not only rely on their own past experiences and knowledge, but also listen to local people and learn from their experience about what the solution should be. 

“You need to make sure that you’re not playing the savior role here and trying to push whatever you think is best for them, but rather be someone who’s there to listen and accommodate what they want and make sure whatever you offer fits within the context of how they live,” he says. 

This summer, Praphanphoj was selected as an Engineering for Change fellow and currently works for Good Machine as a prototype engineer. He contributes to a project using observational balloons to track natural disasters in California. The team is now developing a system for balloon control at different altitudes while building additional testing capacity for system-level testing. 

Praphanphoj with a prototype of a race-car frame (courtesy photo)
Praphanphoj with a prototype of a race-car frame (courtesy photo)

And for his MDevEng capstone project, Praphanphoj is working with Takataka Plastics, a start-up co-founded by a Berkeley mechanical engineering and DevEng alum providing waste management solutions. His specific project addresses recycling issues in Uganda by optimizing the placement and frequency of the pickup locations of plastic collection bins around the city of Gulu. By the end of the fall semester, Praphanphoj will present the company with a recommendation to improve the program’s logistics and engage more residents to participate.  

Praphanphoj sees himself as a creator and designer who wants to use his skills to develop solutions or products that would be helpful to low-resource communities. After graduating in December, Praphanphoj says he’s interested in working in the renewable energy space, as well as in carbon capture and sequestration. Specifically, he wants to prototype and have fun in early-stage product development — something that hasn’t changed since his days building race cars.

“I do like working with my hands,” he says. 

UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas Contest Builds Student-Led Social Innovations

Paige Balcom, the co-founder, co-CEO and CTO of Takataka Plastics, is changing Uganda — one plastic bottle at a time.

UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas Contest Builds Student-Led Social Innovations
Paige Balcom (second from left) and members of the Takataka Plastics team (courtesy of Takataka Plastics)

By K.J. Bannan

Paige Balcom, the co-founder, co-CEO and CTO of Takataka Plastics, is changing Uganda — one plastic bottle at a time.

In 2017, Balcom, who earned her Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, was settling into campus life after spending a year in Uganda on a Fulbright research grant. Only a month into her first semester, Balcom heard about the Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest, which encourages and empowers students to solve social issues. She knew she wanted to get involved, but was initially stumped for a meaningful idea. While talking to her father about potential research topics, however, he reminded her about the pollution problems they had both witnessed in Gulu, Uganda. Plastic waste is a significant problem there, affecting the environment, people, and ecosystems, she says.

“The streets are full of trash — full of plastic waste — and a lot of it was burned too, creating soot and air pollution and toxic fumes. I wanted to make sure that Ugandans also thought it was a problem, so I started talking to some Ugandan friends. They agreed that plastic waste is a really big issue,” Balcom explains. Once she found the problem she wanted to solve, she formed a team with other students on campus. “We went to the library one Saturday morning less than a week before the Big Ideas proposal was due, and just sat there for hours doing a brainstorming session,” she adds.

The beginnings of Takataka Plastics came together during that long Saturday among the stacks. The team came up with a company name, Trash to Tiles, and envisioned a process where polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles — the kind used for bottling water and soda — would be transformed into usable products such as building tiles and furniture. The process would also aid people in the community by creating jobs and income.

Balcom’s experience is a textbook example of the social innovation that the Big Ideas ecosystem catalyzes. Click here to read more about how the program has supported over 9,000 students, through the stories of Paige and two other social innovators who have transformed their Big Ideas into real-world impact.

MDevEng’s Third Cohort Arrives Ready to Tackle Global Challenges

On Aug. 22, the third cohort of the Master of Development Engineering program convened at Blum Hall for their orientation and the start of the first of three semesters of an interdisciplinary curriculum that revolves around developing technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. The Class of 2024 — 34 students in total — hails from 12 countries across four continents, but many arrived last week for breakfast and headshots already on friendly terms.

MDevEng’s Third Cohort Arrives Ready to Tackle Global Challenges
The Master of Development Engineering’s Class of 2024 (Valerie Moss photo)

Every August marks the arrival of fresh faces at UC Berkeley, and for the third year running, some of those new students will be earning the country’s — if not the world’s — first graduate degree in Development Engineering.

On Aug. 22, the third cohort of the Master of Development Engineering program convened at Blum Hall for their orientation and the start of the first of three semesters of an interdisciplinary curriculum that revolves around developing technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. The Class of 2024 — 34 students in total — hails from 12 countries across four continents, but many arrived last week for breakfast and headshots already on friendly terms.

In addition to being students in the burgeoning field that first coalesced at Berkeley, the cohort will also be active practitioners and shapers of it. When digitally polled about what they thought “Development Engineering” means, “dignity” was the first reply to hit the giant screen of Blum Hall B100. “Flourishing” and “communities” were early leaders in the live word cloud, but “innovation,” “technology,” and “sustainable” became three of the class’ most dominant perspectives on their new area of study and practice. 

The appearance of “diversity” prompted a discussion that got at the heart of DevEng. Hussein Orekoya, a civil engineer from Nigeria, elaborated: Diversity in innovation, he said, meant recognizing that “a solution that might work here in California might not work in Africa.” 

In addition to working in civil engineering in Lagos, Orekoya is the founder and executive director of My Environment is Mine Initiative, a youth-led organization promoting sustainable development across the continent and guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. His classmates arrived in Berkeley having done everything from petroleum chemistry to AI and robotics in government.

The MDevEng Orientation scavenger hunt took new master’s students all over campus, including Doe Library. (Hussein Orekoya photo)

Following a round of icebreaker bingo — filling in squares by finding new classmates who fit criteria like owning a pet or starting their own social venture — the cohort broke off into groups for a campus-wide scavenger hunt, a particularly important geographical orientation considering their elective classes this fall span 10 departments.

That interdisciplinary breadth — and DevEng’s focus on the big-picture context of complex problems — make the MDevEng “the program I wish I could have taken when I was a student,” Prof. Kara Nelson, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, told the new cohort, which started classes the following day.

But students, she said, will have to pair tenacity with working in interdisciplinary teams and digging deeply to understand the local contexts of the problems they’re solving for. It’s not easy work, she warned. “You have to be fearless and never give up.”

“It’s so daunting,” Nelson said, “but it’s so fun.”

In the AI Era, Blum Center Students and Alumni Find Ways to Apply the Technology for Social Good

Yet even before AI took center stage this past year, students and alumni of the Blum Center for Developing Economies were embracing the emerging technologies’ potential, specifically for social good. From detecting “deepfake” videos to analyzing agriculture changes and building understanding across communities, Blum Center folks share their experiences, inspirations, and the impact of their AI-driven projects and ventures. 

In the AI Era, Blum Center Students and Alumni Find Ways to Apply the Technology for Social Good
Sarah Hartman, a PhD candidate in ESPM minoring in Development Engineering, analyzes historical and near-real-time satellite imagery in Google Earth Engine to map and categorize fields and landscapes to compare changes over time. She then relates these changes to other timestamped activities such as damage to transportation routes or local military activity. (Video by Sarah Hartman)

By Mengyuan Dong
Master of Journalism ’23

Only about a year has passed since DALL-E, the AI text-to-image model, and ChatGPT, the large language model–using chatbot, ushered in what feels like the age of AI: months of wall-to-wall news coverage of and personal experimentation with the most powerful publicly available artificial intelligence programs. But what started off as images of Darth Vader playing in the NBA and the near-instant generation of new bedtime stories have given way to concerns about how AI can contribute to disinformation campaigns, academic dishonesty, and even an end to whole classes of workers whose jobs can, theoretically, be done by machines.

Yet even before AI took center stage this past year, students and alumni of the Blum Center for Developing Economies were embracing the emerging technologies’ potential, specifically for social good. From detecting “deepfake” videos to analyzing agriculture changes and building understanding across communities, Blum Center folks share their experiences, inspirations, and the impact of their AI-driven projects and ventures. 

 

Shaping the battle against deepfakes

Raymond Lee (courtesy photo)
Raymond Lee (courtesy photo)

Back in 2019, Raymond Lee, a former Big Ideas Contest winner and a UC Berkeley alum, spotted the growing threat caused by deepfakes — media created using learning techniques that can swap faces, voices, and even entire bodies, making it appear as if someone is saying or doing something they never actually did.

While deepfakes became viral and raised public concerns, no technical solutions stood out then. Lee decided to initiate FakeNetAI, a deepfake detection SaaS (Software as a Service) that aimed to “protect against economic, societal, and political threats.” 

FakeNetAI began as Lee’s capstone project during his master’s program in data science, and it quickly evolved into a startup with the support of his teammates from data science, electrical engineering and computer science, and Haas MBA students. And through participating in the Big Ideas Contest, Lee connected with mentors, conducted market analysis, and developed a mature business plan. 

To train their machine learning model, Lee and his teammates curated a diverse dataset by employing open-source data sets, scraping raw data from YouTube, and collecting deepfake videos created using various methods. The team’s approach and the customized machine-learning architecture resulted in a detection accuracy of over 90 percent.

Since its victory in the Big Ideas Contest in 2019, the startup has successfully attracted media outlets, banks, and social media firms as customers. For NewsMobile, an Indian fact-checking site, FakeNetAI helped identify viral deepfake videos featuring prominent figures like Tom Cruise and Donald Trump. Moreover, it aided in verifying livestreaming videos during a critical moment of the Myanmar coup for another third-party fact-checker.

However, Lee acknowledges that the fight against deepfakes is far from over. The rapid proliferation of deepfake generation has still outpaced the development of detection expertise. Citing the research of Prof. Hany Farid from Berkeley’s School of Information, Lee emphasizes the urgent need for continued research in detecting these highly realistic manipulated videos.

“It’s like a cat and mouse game where you constantly have to outsmart the generation models with your detection model,” he says.

The other challenge is, because media comes in a wide range of formats, it takes a lot of work to train a machine-learning model that can perform well on all different formats. So the more generalized a machine-learning model is made to be, the less accurate it becomes.

FakeNetAI is still growing, and Lee is determined to stay at the forefront of innovation. He has also pivoted his career to do more general AI and data science consulting. “The image generation field has advanced at a rapid rate,” he says, “and there’s always a lot of interesting stuff going on in the video, image and text generation space.”

 

Understanding abandonment in Ukrainian agriculture amidst war

Sarah Hartman, a PhD student within Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, has been involved in the Digital Transformation of Development traineeship since last year, and will continue as a funded fellow for this upcoming year.

Before joining DToD, Hartman’s research interests in food and water led her to participate in the InFEWS program. What she enjoys the most about these programs is the opportunity to interact with individuals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines.

“I’ve gained a lot intellectually by chatting with people,” Hartman says. “There were things that I learned from the other fellows that have helped reframe how I think about my research or have made me think about potential tools and methods that I hadn’t otherwise stumbled upon.”

In her research on water and agriculture, Hartman utilizes machine learning and AI to map changes and quantify the extent of agricultural activities. Her recent work involves training machine-learning models to analyze satellite images of Ukrainian agriculture during its war with Russia, with a specific focus on abandonment and its underlying drivers. 

The idea stemmed from a teaching experience when Hartman was a graduate student instructor for a Principles of Natural Resource Management class. As the war in Ukraine began during the semester, she noticed the students’ desire to understand the global impact of such events on natural resources and supply chains. She then decided to deliver materials around globalization with a specific angle of Ukraine. For instance, the country is one of the world’s breadbaskets, where fields of sunflowers, wheat, and corn provide food for some of the world’s most water-stressed and vulnerable countries, particularly many in North Africa. The abandonment of Ukrainian fields could cause serious food instability for its importing countries.

Inspired by the dynamic conversations in class, Hartman wanted to pursue a research project on the issue. “I took it personally,” Hartman says. “I’ve been learning how to use satellite images and machine learning to look at agriculture; what better place to do it than to help inform what’s happening in Ukraine in near real-time?”

Are fields abandoned because of a physical tank or destruction? Or because of supply chain issues such as farmers unable to get sufficient fertilizer or no longer able to sell their crop? Hartman’s research looks into these issues by analyzing satellite images and hopes to reveal what affects the overall resilience of Ukrainian agriculture. Specifically, she analyzes historical and near-real-time satellite imagery in Google Earth Engine to map and categorize fields and landscapes to compare changes over time. She then relates these changes to other timestamped activities such as damage to transportation routes or local military activity.

Besides technical analysis, Hartman hopes she could do more outreach and engagement with local communities in Ukraine that are directly affected, which has been challenging given the ongoing war condition. She says she would love to work with organizations with access to the groups. 

Hartman is captivated by the power of analyzing publicly available satellite images. She explains that researchers can access these images and gain insights into any part of the world, dating back to the 1980s or earlier. This accessibility proves particularly invaluable when collecting information on remote and resource-limited regions where data has historically been uncollected or lost. 

What an incredible opportunity to pair images that have been collected for tens and tens of years and use that to analyze things in a way that provides data that may not necessarily be possible otherwise,” Hartman says. “That’s what I see as the potential.”

 

Paving the way for empathy in the digital age

Kenan Carames, a current Master of Development Engineering student in the AI & Data Analytics for Social Impact concentration, is developing platforms that help people in different communities grow closer together in an online space. Already having a background in data analysis, he joined the program to pursue his interest in social issues and international development.

Kenan Carames (courtesy photo)
Kenan Carames (courtesy photo)

“There’s so much exciting stuff happening in AI both from a technical and social point of view,” he says. “And coming from an engineering background, I do have the opportunity to provide a more technical perspective in the social conversations.”

Over his two and counting semesters, Carames took classes on development issues and intense technical skills such as applied machine learning. A course called Politics of Information taught by Prof. AnnaLee Saxenian, also Carames’ mentor, sparked his interest in political issues around data and the social media space. His passion found a nurturing ground during his ongoing internship with Search for Common Ground Peace, a peacebuilding organization that aims to mediate conflicts and violent areas across the world. 

Carames recently worked on developing a chatbot for the organization to guide individuals in countries including Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Kenya, Jordan, and Lebanon towards resources that promote empathy and mutual understanding. He primarily helped advance the user experience of the chatbot, which requires a lot of data analysis and visualization of how users interact with the product and which materials get the most engagement. The current structure of the chatbot is more like a decision tree or choose-your-own-adventure, Carames explains, but his team plans to use more natural language processing (NLP) to make it more dynamic and engaging in the future.

“It’s definitely different work than I’ve done previously. And it’s kind of cool to have these social goals that you’re working towards,” he says. “That feels very impactful.”

While Carames is still developing his MDevEng capstone project idea, he is determined to keep exploring efforts to build empathy in digital spaces. The concept of the project will be based on contact theory, he says. The theory holds that contact between two groups can promote tolerance and acceptance under appropriate conditions, and he wants to experiment with it in an online space. 

From an engineering perspective, Carames will explore the system design and algorithm decisions he could make to ensure that when people from different groups come in contact with each other, they’re fostering understanding of each other rather than developing prejudice and hate. He has been learning from a project where researchers use question-and-answer website Quora to facilitate conversations about Israel and Palestine for people living in and outside these areas. 

“It’s a very heated topic, and how do you set up those spaces and design conversations to get people to engage each other in a helpful way?” he asked. “It’s very difficult and messy, but I think that’s why it’s interesting.”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: How MDevEng Students Ingrid Xhafa and Greg Berger Investigated the Efficacy of Outsider-Supported, Off-Grid Power Systems in Remote Rwandan Health Clinics

Xhafa has worked in the development sector for a decade and graduated from the Master of Development Engineering program last December with a focus on energy and environment. The intersection of healthcare and energy was also the focus of another recent MDevEng graduate, Greg Berger. Together, Berger and Xhafa, both in the program’s Energy, Water, and the Environment track, examined the energy needs of healthcare clinics in one sub-Saharan country, Rwanda, as their MDevEng capstone project. 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All: How MDevEng Students Ingrid Xhafa and Greg Berger Investigated the Efficacy of Outsider-Supported, Off-Grid Power Systems in Remote Rwandan Health Clinics
Ingrid Xhafa and Greg Berger in Rwanda (all photos courtesy of them)
Ingrid Xhafa and Greg Berger in Rwanda (all photos courtesy of them)

By Alisha Dalvi

Health care is a basic human right and a core resource for achieving the UN-adopted Sustainable Development Goals. But fully sixty percent, or roughly 100,000, healthcare facilities across sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to reliable electricity, or to electricity at all. 

There is a well-documented correlation between energy access and positive health outcomes, a key reason why governments and development practitioners have committed to achieving universal electrification of health facilities by 2030. 

This problem is right up Ingrid Xhafa’s alley. Xhafa has worked in the development sector for a decade and graduated from the Master of Development Engineering program last December with a focus on energy and environment. The intersection of healthcare and energy was also the focus of another recent MDevEng graduate, Greg Berger. Together, Berger and Xhafa, both in the program’s Energy, Water, and the Environment track, examined the energy needs of healthcare clinics in one sub-Saharan country, Rwanda, as their MDevEng capstone project. 

Berger has always had a profound interest in energy. With a background in mechanical engineering, he plans to use his education to implement sustainable energy technologies in an equitable way. “Energy is pivotal to the foundation of modern human activities,” he says. “And it’s important to implement sustainable solutions by working with communities that did the least to contribute to the climate crisis but are hit the worst.” Xhafa, on the other hand, came in with a master’s in public policy and knows the impact policy has on resource allocation in energy and elsewhere.

An off-grid solar-power system
An off-grid solar-power system

In Rwanda, Berger and Xhafa worked with Daniel Kammen, Professor of Energy and head of Berkeley’s Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (RAEL), who has long worked on evaluating the potential for off-​​grid power in the country and other nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Kammen became their MDevEng capstone advisor and helped kickstart the project by guiding research and remote work. 

During the spring of 2022, Berger and Xhafa examined how Rwanda’s challenges with access to energy in remote areas have led to the implementation of new infrastructure such as off-the-grid systems that rely on solar panels to power small and medium-sized needs. Standalone off-grid solar has the potential to improve health services in remote villages with insufficient grid infrastructure. However, historically, most of these interventions have happened as ad-hoc initiatives from outside development practitioners, and the infrastructure’s maturity and sustainability has to be vetted.

Trained as engineers, but now with training in low-resource settings, both Xhafa and Berger knew these solutions needed to be assessed from multiple perspectives: technical robustness and feasibility, business model sustainability, and socio-cultural impacts. “The MDevEng program played a huge role in how I look at development interventions, as well as challenges to look out for in implementation,” says Berger.  

Throughout their program, Berger and Xhafa worked with RAEL to analyze data from remote monitors placed in six Rwandan healthcare facilities to assess power quality and reliability generated by standalone solar boxes. PhD student Samuel Miles from RAEL had added remote sensors to them over a year ago to collect data on how well the stand-alone systems were operating in the country, without the need for someone to be constantly on-site to check. From there, Berger and Xhafa conducted in-depth analyses, asking questions like, “Does the existing energy system fulfill the needs of the clinic?” and “Are there more opportunities or challenges for more electricity?” and “Are there power disruptions throughout the day that are detrimental to the clinic?” 

Inside a healthcare clinic
Inside a healthcare clinic

But this technical analysis alone doesn’t paint the full picture of what leads to the success or failure of an intervention. Berger and Xhafa needed to have on-the-ground discussions with clinic staff and community members to gather insights about the impact of this technology in the day-to-day. Last summer, the researchers  spent a month in Rwanda examining eight health clinics, six of which had off-grid solar boxes installed with USAID support that provide solar power and clean drinking water to their facilities. The other two clinics were connected to the traditional power grid — a comparison point for understanding how the solar boxes’ electricity systems performed. 

The duo recalls their journey in the country filled with surprises, from four car breakdowns to the incredible hospitality of the Rwandan people and extremely easy collaboration with the local staff. On a day-to-day basis, Berger and Xhafa coordinated with locals to visit those eight healthcare facilities, and with the help of a local translator, they spoke with the head of each one, as well as their nurses and doctors, to grasp the specialized needs and testimonies of each clinic. They toured the clinics to conduct inventory, perform basic energy audits and analysis, and provided clinic staff with a survey to obtain measurable data. 

Xhafa and Berger meet with a clinic staffer
Xhafa and Berger meet with a clinic staffer

They found that most of these standalone systems provided quality power when operable, however differing clinic needs led to different levels of power consumption and down time. On top of that, the clinics were largely unable to fulfill their other objectives of providing electricity and water services to the community in a financially feasible way for the system operations. 

The RAEL team concluded that the intervention had poor site selection from the beginning; areas were not densely populated enough to earn revenue from the productive use of electricity. On top of that, these standalone solar solutions did not consider the arrival of government-provided grid infrastructure which would negate the need for standalone systems. Plus, Xhafa says, “one solution fits all” may not be the best approach for all energy projects in Africa. 

They also found the system sizing to be generic and that seasonal factors made a big difference in power adequacy. Involving the communities in the design and implementation processes could have avoided some of these problems. “We noted a lack of adequate training on system operation and uncertainty of how these systems will be sustainable once the equipment starts aging or when technical issues arise,” Berger says. 

By the end, Berger and Xhafa, in conjunction with RAEL, quantitatively showed the challenges of a one-size-fits-all power system, and they hope these insights can provide some crucial information for similar initiatives. Standalone energy systems can be vital in remote areas with no grid reach, they say, but alternative financial models have to be explored and the economics behind the productive use of electricity understood. 

Being trained with this mindset through the MDevEng program, the pair put a greater emphasis on the clinics’ communities, considering them as the customer of the solution and treating their testimonials as valuable insights alongside the hard data. Both Xhafa and Berger highlighted how valuable it was to have the community at the center of their research. 

“They are hardworking and ingenious people who can solve their own problems,” Xhafa says. “The solutions suggested by the locals have the highest opportunity to be successful.” 

Blum Center for Developing Economies 2022–23 Year in Review

The past year also witnessed momentous firsts in our Development Engineering community and some impressive triumphs by students well on their ways to making tangible impacts on real-world problems.

Blum Center for Developing Economies  2022–23 Year in Review
From left: The MDevEng class of 2022 (Amy Sullivan), Big Ideas winner High Tide (Chetan Chowdhry), the GPP class of 2023 (Amy Sullivan), and Introduction to Development Engineering (Springer)
From left: The MDevEng class of 2022 (Amy Sullivan), Big Ideas winner High Tide (Chetan Chowdhry), the GPP class of 2023 (Amy Sullivan), and Introduction to Development Engineering (Springer)

By Sam Goldman

This past academic year has, dare we say it, felt more or less normal. We were, in a most literal sense, finally and consistently together again.

After what felt like ages in a pandemic bubble of Zoom classes, working from home, and frightful news headlines, the Blum Center and Berkeley campus have returned to a state of relative and in-person normalcy: classrooms returning to capacity, events at Blum Hall multiplying, rediscovering the delight of cake and coffee at a staff meeting. While we remain vigilant in our health precautions, May 2023, the final month of the academic year, saw the end of COVID-19 as a WHO global health emergency — a hopeful coda to 2022–23.

The past year also witnessed momentous firsts in our Development Engineering community and some impressive triumphs by students well on their ways to making tangible impacts on real-world problems. Below are some highlights.

 

Welcome, MDevEng Class of 2023!

In August, the second-ever cohort of our Master of Development Engineering program arrived at Blum Hall to begin their three semesters of study. Hailing from 10 different countries, the class came in with experience in everything from designing shelters for victims of gender-based violence in remote villages in Indonesia, to prototyping and testing affordable greenhouses for hundreds of smallholder farmers in India, to developing solar power projects in Peru and Tanzania. 

The three dozen new grad students all seemed to agree on one thing at their Aug. 23 orientation, however: “The food in Berkeley is so good!”

 

Prof. Brad DeLong publishes book on economic history of the “long 20th century”

In September, economics professor and our chief economist Brad DeLong published Slouching Towards Utopia, an expansive account of the economic history and technological changes from 1870 to 2010, surveying “the monumental transformations — and failed promises — brought about by an extraordinary rise in prosperity.”

“While the past 150 years have solved the problem of baking a large enough economic pie for everyone to potentially have enough,” DeLong said, “the problems of properly slicing and then enjoying that potentially ample economic pie have flummoxed us as a species.”

The Financial Times and The Economist named Slouching Towards Utopia one of their best books of 2022.

 

Professors Gadgil and Madon publish Development Engineering’s first textbook

Speaking of books, a mere three days after DeLong’s book debuted, the first-ever textbook dedicated to Development Engineering hit publisher Springer’s website.

Civil and environmental engineering Prof. Ashok Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon of Haas School of Business edited the free-to-download Introduction to Development Engineering: A Framework with Applications from the Field, which racked up 30,000 downloads in its first few weeks.

The book features 19 case-study projects, from fintech for rural markets in sub-Saharan Africa to stopping arsenic poisoning in India to protecting electoral integrity in emerging democracies, along with four framework chapters on the field’s history, ethical challenges, and philosophical roots.

 

Our first Master of Development Engineering graduates!

In December, the inaugural MDevEng cohort received the U.S.’s (if not the world’s) first master’s degrees in Development Engineering. In designing and implementing interventions in accordance with and for people in low-resource settings, the 44 students’ capstone projects included a business for seamstresses in rural Ghana to sell their high-quality wares, advancing an initiative to bring arsenic-safe drinking water to rural cities in California, and a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers.

“You have become the precedent for what this program can and will become: a program marked by educating and equipping changemakers to develop innovative global solutions,” said commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo. “What a powerful vision, and each of you embodies that so much.”

 

Kara Nelson named head of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering

This past spring, civil and environmental engineering Prof. Kara Nelson was named head of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, where she oversees the growth and direction of our DevEng programs and initiatives.

Prof. Nelson took over from retiring mechanical engineering Prof. Alice Agogino, a key force behind the creation of our DevEng programs who also served, among many other positions and distinctions, as the Blum Center’s education director and leader of the MDevEng’s Sustainable Design Innovations track.

 

And this year’s Big Ideas grand prize goes to…

…High Tide, a Berkeley student duo replacing plastic coatings with bio-based coatings for single-use products that allow them to be composted and recycled. Of the 23 finalists at May 3’s Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day at Blum Hall, judges awarded Ivan Jayapurna and Kira Erickson the $10,000 grand prize. 

“The concept behind High Tide was born out of a realization that the majority of our paper products are destined for landfill, despite paper being a compostable and recyclable material,” Erickson said. “It’s an extremely pervasive yet less widely known issue. The potential for systemic impact is massive if addressed properly.”

2ndWind, which assists small- and medium-sized businesses once their owners retire, earned the Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT) “FinTech for Social Good” Initiative award. 

 

Global Poverty and Practice minor graduates its 16th class

Sixty more students — all of whom had to adapt their studies and practice experiences to pandemic-caused restrictions — joined the GPP minor’s 1,000-plus–member alumni community on May 15 in a commencement ceremony infused with gratitude and optimism.

“There is so much power in recognizing the process of working for change as its own reward: All one has to do is stay the course, regardless of where the path leads,” said one student speaker, Samyukta Shrivatsa. 

“GPP has been a process of tearing down everything we thought we knew about the world and rewriting the stories we tell about it,” she told her peers. And the story that GPP tells? 

“One of audacious hope in the world and each other.”

 

Thank you to our students!

We’ve had the honor of directly serving more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students this year — practitioners of poverty alleviation, health-technology innovators, development engineers, social entrepreneurs, and more. And we look forward to serving many more in 2023–24! Please let us know how we can help.

Student Teams Tackle “Period Poverty” and “Pre-Diabetes Intervention” in the Health Tech CoLab

Hebee is one of two Berkeley student teams that developed their innovations over the past year through the Health Tech CoLab, an ecosystem to support students developing medical devices, diagnostic tools, and digital health tools that increase access to healthcare. The CoLab’s Health Access Cohort also included Diaita, which offers personalized diet and exercise plans as well as cognitive behavior therapy to ward off Type 2 diabetes and its associated illnesses. 

Student Teams Tackle “Period Poverty” and “Pre-Diabetes Intervention” in the Health Tech CoLab
From left, Megan Chan, Paige Lyles, and Ariana Satari (Hebee photo)
From left, Megan Chan, Paige Lyles, and Ariana Satari (Hebee photo)

Berkeley students Paige Lyles, Megan Chan, and Ariana Satari know what it’s like to start their periods unprepared: “the feelings of panic and stress that flood your chest as you have to drop what you’re doing and rush to find a solution,” says Lyles.

But despite periods being a natural bodily function, the lack of access to period products in public places (not to mention the lack of education around menstruation) leaves many people in this very position — even while toilet paper and tissues are provided in public restrooms without a second thought. “Period poverty” affects everyone, Lyles, Chan, and Satari point out: from unhoused people to “working students and parents who have to choose between buying food and buying increasingly expensive period products.”

That’s why Lyles, who studies civil and environmental engineering, and Chan and Satari,  mechanical engineering, founded Hebee, a smart period-products dispenser and mobile app for school campuses where both menstruators and facilities staff can see on the app where dispensers are located and exactly how many pads and tampons are stocked in each. One of its unique innovations is a universal wall that can expand or contract to fit products of varying size.

Hebee is one of two Berkeley student teams that developed their innovations over the past year through the Health Tech CoLab, an ecosystem to support students developing medical devices, diagnostic tools, and digital health tools that increase access to healthcare. The CoLab’s Health Access Cohort also included Diaita, which offers personalized diet and exercise plans as well as cognitive behavior therapy to ward off Type 2 diabetes and its associated illnesses. 

“These teams are not only examples of clever product innovation, but they epitomize what it means to be social innovators,” says CoLab manager Karenna Rehorn. “They’re motivated and guided first and foremost by wanting to improve people’s health and lives and to address glaring social and health disparities.”

Being a part of the Health Access Cohort, says Diaita cofounder Ariel Ho, a registered dietician from Taiwan and Biomedical Visiting Scholar at Berkeley, “has given the team the chance to participate in various workshops on customer discovery, prototyping, user testing, and pitch development.” The CoLab, she adds, “has provided Diaita with opportunities to connect with academic and industry experts to gain insights into how to build a product that better fits user needs and furthers healthcare access.”

Diaita's Ariel Ho
Ariel Ho (Diaita photo)

Ho founded Diaita a year ago. Like the Hebee team, they noticed a glaring gap in a field of healthcare and access: the “need for a digital health intervention that provided prediabetic individuals with personalized, flexible, culturally responsive diet and activity suggestions with an emphasis on long-term, sustainable behavior change.”

As CoLab residents, Ho and collaborators Midori Pierce, a Master of Information Management Systems student, and Meng-Chia Chiang, in the Haas Global Diploma Program in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, conducted more than 100 interviews to understand potential users’ needs in order to determine product-market fit, performed in-depth testing of their user interface and user experience designs, and prototyped their app. True to the CoLab’s mission of using collaboration and networking as engines of health-tech innovation, they linked up with medical professionals, insurance industry experts, investors, and researchers.

During their CoLab tenure, the Diaita team learned that they need not have a perfect “minimum viable product” from the get-go, but rather a solid one that can be refined over time. Originally, they had wanted to incorporate machine learning and a wearable device, but reconsidered those ideas as long-term goals. They also learned, as Ho said, to “communicate effectively through differences and use their diverse skill sets and perspectives” to work through clashing opinions on product design — something that naturally arises out of a team with such diverse professional backgrounds.

The Diaita team recalled “deeply personal and heartfelt” stories from their customer-discovery interviews about their experiences with diabetes-related problems — and interviewees’ enthusiasm for Diaita’s innovation.

“Hearing these stories has kept the team motivated week after week and month after month to continue on with this very important work, knowing that there are so many individuals who can benefit from Diaita’s health-tech solution,” Ho said.

Diaita plans to soon release an initial version of its product through Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store, while continuing to interview stakeholders, iterate their product, and network, with the hopes of raising capital, growing their customer base across new countries, “pursuing clinical validation through research,” and reviving that original concept of integrating a wearable device.

Hebee, founded in 2021, also used its CoLab membership to develop multiple iterations of its dispenser, including with help from the Jacobs Hall Makerspace and its 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other tools they could access at no extra cost. The team also gained valuable insight from the CoLab’s diversity, equity, and inclusion activities, going on to partner with community and student organizations in the Bay Area to obtain and give out period products to those in need. 

“We as a team have benefited from DEI workshops to ensure that our brand continues to uphold these values through the way we iterate our product and how our presence is cultivated within the community,” Lyles said.

Earlier in their residency, with help from Rehorn and their mentor Cathy Farmer, they figured out an effective user-testing plan, despite not yet having a fully functional prototype to try out on campus. Now, Lyles, Chan, and Satari are preparing to launch both their user-testing and their dispenser and app prototypes across the Cal campus — with app-development help from two “brilliant” interns, Andres Lam and Yugam Surana.

“The energy in the CoLab space is positive, and makes working enjoyable for us,” Lyles says. And that even includes a small kitchen where they can keep and prepare food on their longest working days. “It makes the student-founder balance a lot more manageable. Having a supportive community is especially important when you are in the early stages of development.”

Recent DevEng Grads and Big Ideas Winner Aim to Bridge Professional Employment Gap for Young Nigerians

In the fall of 2021, Master of Development Engineering students Victor Okoro, Daniel Huang, and Joshua Iokua Albano, interested in education and helping Nigerians find jobs post-graduation, teamed up to found Madojo, a platform that connects Nigerian university graduates with employers in the technology space while helping the graduates gain sought-after skills through skills development, portfolio design, networking, and mentorship.

Recent DevEng Grads and Big Ideas Winner Aim to Bridge Professional Employment Gap for Young Nigerians
The Madojo team, (L-R) Daniel Huang, Victor Okoro and Joshua Iokua Albano, won the 2022 Binance-LIFT “Blockchain for Social Good” Grand Prize. (Adam Lau / Berkeley Engineering)
The Madojo team, (L-R) Daniel Huang, Victor Okoro and Joshua Iokua Albano, won the 2022 Binance-LIFT “Blockchain for Social Good” Grand Prize. (Adam Lau / Berkeley Engineering)

By Anehita Okojie

Nigeria is home to by far the highest number of startups in Africa, and over the past few years, these startups have received a large amount of venture funding — over $1 billion in 2022 by one estimate. These startups are looking to hire a local workforce, but a stark difference exists between the skills employers look for and the skills Nigerian applicants have when they graduate from universities. 

In the fall of 2021, Master of Development Engineering students Victor Okoro, Daniel Huang, and Joshua Iokua Albano, interested in education and helping Nigerians find jobs post-graduation, teamed up to found Madojo, a platform that connects Nigerian university graduates with employers in the technology space while helping the graduates gain sought-after skills through skills development, portfolio design, networking, and mentorship.

The team came to the MDevEng program from different career fields. Okoro, a native of Nigeria, worked in software engineering, and most recently as a technology architect. Huang’s background is in entrepreneurship, product development, and security consultancy. Albano has worked in machine learning and data engineering. 

The three channel all this experience into Madojo. Okoro, the team’s executive officer, was born and raised in Nigeria, has a personal understanding of the job market and economy of the country, and serves as the point of contact for Nigerian employers and students. Huang, Madojo’s technology lead, uses his product-development experience to design their curriculum. And coming from an engineering and design background, Albano has taken responsibility for the presentations and reports that Madojo puts out. 

Madojo is a “hybrid learning community that connects employers with university students in Nigeria,” Huang says. “The goal is to be able to close the experience gap that students have before starting their first job.” In Nigeria, students have access to experiential learning opportunities such as internships and undergraduate research positions, “but the overall economic structure is not robust enough to support them extensively, ” Okoro says. There is a need to democratize skills such as coding and writing computer programs because only a small percentage of university students follow through and learn these skills before entering the workforce. 

At the end of 2021, the Madojo team decided to apply to the Big Ideas Contest to move their idea forward. The competition provided critical structure, accountability, mentorship, and feedback. Albano found the process of pitching their project to be most beneficial because it taught the team how to “convince others that do not have the context or background [the team has] that this problem needs to be solved.”

 They were able to do just that. In the spring of 2022, judges awarded Madojo the first-ever Binance CharityLIFT Initiative Award. The LIFT FinTech for Social Good Initiative, a parallel contest to Big Ideas’ flagship competition, seeks to support students working on financial technology ideas to advance social change by unlocking the potential of these digital technologies to benefit underserved populations around the world—the very goal of Berkeley’s Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT), which focuses on research, experiential learning, and community building. “What better way to do this than by organizing a contest in which we focus specifically on financial technologies or blockchain solutions that are able to make an impact on people’s lives,” says Laura Chioda, the director of research at LIFT and the Institute for Business and Social Impact at the Haas School of Business. The FinTech for Social Good Initiative is made possible by the generosity of Binance Charity and Ripple Impact.

Madojo “provides students professional experiences in a setting that allows them to get feedback in terms of the professional skills, technical skills, collaboration skills,” Huang says. “This format will also serve as a recruiting platform for employers.” To this end, Madojo’s curriculum has two main topics of emphasis: technical skills and professional development. Students learn technical skills through case challenges based on local Nigerian problems that teach students how to utilize data to solve those problems. These case challenges help students develop “microcredentials,” which allow them to show an in-depth understanding of a particular topic or skill that is relevant to future employment opportunities. In this way, the platform streamlines the recruiting process for employers, who can see these skills, while giving applicants real-world experience. Students also focus on developing professional skills such as how to give elevator pitches, how to write resumes and cover letters, and how to find and apply for jobs. “At the core of what we’re doing is walking the students through how to problem solve,” Okoro says, because this is a large focus of employers in Nigeria. 

Although the Madojo team does not yet have a platform available, they are connecting with students all over the country through Google Forms and email. At the end of last year, Madojo ran a pilot program with 15 Nigerian students, who were enrolled in a 10-week, microcredentialing course that the team designed to gauge their interest in the program and see if the program benefits them. The team sees Madojo as a community and hopes members will utilize its curriculum to become career self-starters. “We’re only successful if [students] are able to take away all the skills, networks, and connections” that they are offered, Huang says. 

In the future, the team hopes to digitize the program, drawing inspiration from Nigerian career portal Jobberman and Kaggle, an online community of data scientists. They want to create a  platform “where students can upskill, verify the skills they have, and upload those skills to their portfolio,” Albano says. This would allow students to have one webpage where they can display their resumes, portfolios, and other products or code they have written. 

The name “Madojo” comes from combining the word for “community” in the three main Nigerian languages, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. To the team, which graduated from the MDevEng program in December, “the most important thing is building a community of learning and a community of opportunities,” Okoro says. As with many promising technologies, Madojo’s users will also put it to use for a more diverse array of purposes than the founders imagined, from addressing climate change to working with youth to even owning a dance company to put on performances for the community. 

“They are really community focused,” Okoro says. “They are looking to give back to their communities with the opportunities and resources to do so.”

Meet Ilana Lipsett: Big Ideas Mentor and Judge and a Champion for the Future

As a senior program manager at Institute for the Future, a non-profit encouraging individuals and organizations to plan for the long-term, Lipsett looks at the world-to-come through a collaborative lens. But her dedication to innovative futures transcends her office. As a judge and mentor of the Big Ideas Contest, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Lipsett has become a key piece of the program and an exemplar for students who too hope to redesign how we approach forthcoming generations.     

Meet Ilana Lipsett: Big Ideas Mentor and Judge and a Champion for the Future
Ilana Lipsett
Courtesy of Ilana Lipsett

By Alisha Dalvi

When we think about our socio-economic future, endless possibilities come to mind. You may be concerned about the changing climate or advancements in technology or how various social groups interact with each other. Or maybe you’re thinking on a smaller scale, interested in how your community will be affected. Ilana Lipsett explores all of these facets. As a senior program manager at Institute for the Future, a non-profit encouraging individuals and organizations to plan for the long-term, Lipsett looks at the world-to-come through a collaborative lens. But her dedication to innovative futures transcends her office. As a judge and mentor of the Big Ideas Contest, housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Lipsett has become a key piece of the program and an exemplar for students who too hope to redesign how we approach forthcoming generations.     

Lipsett is a Bay Area native, born and raised in the East Bay, and frequented UC Berkeley for summer school growing up. She attended college across the state at UC San Diego, studying History, French Literature, and Music. Her unique educational focuses led her down a long and windy road of various disciplines: She started off in Washington, D.C. at the intersection of labor and politics, working on everything from political campaigns to advocacy work for displaced workers. Ten years later, she returned to the Bay Area to get her M.B.A. in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. During and after grad school, Lipsett worked for the City of San Francisco at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. This kickstarted her work in urban development with an emphasis in community engagement; her advocacy for creating accessible and inclusive public spaces and public-facing activities translated across different domains: from the City of San Francisco, to a private real estate developer, to her own business, and even at an international scale, supporting community spaces in refugee camps. 

Now, Lipsett advances her brand of public engagement and participatory design at the Institute for the Future (IFTF). Her work has a civic-futures focus, entwining sustainable community solutions into everything from political systems to real estate. One of her many ongoing projects works to expand a predominantly POC housing co-op in San Francisco by creating an accessible STEM center and Performing Arts Center in unoccupied buildings. But Lipsett also values impact through education. At IFTF, Lipsett teaches public classes to an international audience on design futures and foresight essentials. “I really want to give people the tools to think about how the future can be different,” she says. “Then encourage them to get creative and make the changes so they can move towards their preferred future.” Lipsett certainly practices what she preaches: As a singer and songwriter for “The Seastars,” a girl band that uses music to advocate for a climate sustainable future, Lipsett taps into her creative side to encourage others to change their behavior in favor of our environment.

When she is not busy changing the future and using music to empower the world, Lipsett carries teams to victory in the annual Big Ideas competition. Lipsett first heard about Big Ideas in 2018 through her friend, Dani Bicknell, a program manager for Big Ideas at the time. Bicknell told her about the competition and asked if she wanted to be a part of it. “I always love to be involved in the local community, but Big Ideas especially felt like a great fit with the skills I have to offer and how I want to be connecting with others,” Lipsett says. So, on whim, she said yes, but just as a one-time commitment. But that one time, where she served as both a judge and a mentor to a team, was such an incredible experience that she immediately knew that it wouldn’t be her last. “It was such an amazing opportunity to see students see potential in something new,” she says. 

As a judge, Lipsett reads and judges student entrants’ social innovations’ pre-proposals based on a specific scorecard, deciding whether it should move on to the final round. There are four factors on which pre-proposals are measured: viability, originality, team, and quality. “Saying no is probably the hardest part,” she admits. “Every proposal is so interesting and creative.” After the finalists have been determined, Lipsett is matched with a team of students to act as their mentor. Lipsett highlights how perfectly aligned she was with teams she was matched with. For example, one project she mentored, Doin’ Good, aimed to provide vocational education to Syrian refugees in Lebanon by creating mobile maker spaces and education centers out of a van. Conveniently, Lipsett had just come back from Bangladesh, creating maker spaces at refugee camps there. And Lipsett’s expertise certainly paid off — Doin’ Good won first in the Workforce Development track in 2019 and was a Grand Prize finalist! 

As a mentor, Lipsett meets with her mentees every week, setting a timeline of work to be done and anticipating and preemptively addressing potential challenges or gaps. From providing connections to people working in the field to helping with the budget, Lipsett was the go-to person whenever her team was stuck. But Lipsett believes it’s the students’ drive that allows the project to flourish. One team Lipsett mentored, Send Help, proposed an AI chatbot that connects citizens with police alternatives during non-emergencies. Essentially, they wanted to make calling non-police first responders as easy as calling 911. Lipsett suggested to the team that the proposal needed an endorsement from public officials, and the next thing she knew, the team had met with the Berkeley City Council and got letters of approval from policymakers. 

Lipsett is certainly not short of accolades in her own endeavors for innovative change. In 2013, the White House awarded the Champion of Change Award to her and her team for creating [freespace], a movement dedicated to activating vacant spaces as temporary community, cultural, and art hubs. [freespace] (written with the brackets) was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, created by the Obama White House, encouraging everyday citizens to get involved in addressing civic issues in their neighborhood. Lipsett, with her team, came up with an idea: “What if we create a community space as a platform instead of focusing on one specific issue?” So, they found a 14,000-square-foot warehouse on the market for $25,000 a month and convinced the landlord to rent it to them for $1. This was the birth of [freespace]. The project had two rules: everything had to be free, and everything had to be participatory. 

“It opened up as an experiment, we didn’t have goals or expectations, we didn’t know where it would go,” Lipsett recalls. But the success was hard to believe. “People would come for one thing and stay for another.” There were paella cooking lessons while artists were making sculptures during a class for programming LED Lights. At one workshop, facilitators encouraged kids from the local Boys and Girls Club to create their own superheroes. Then, costume designers turned their visions into reality, working with the kids to create personalized superhero costumes. This likely would not have happened if not for the random human collision which [freespace] cultivated; the workshop idea came to the costume designers after spending time in [freespace], often surrounded by children. Seeing the benefits of giving the community a space with an open invitation to do and create anything inspired a whole [freespace] movement: While the space in San Francisco was always meant to be temporary, 26 different locations opened across 18 countries around the world. 

This year, Lipsett mentored yet another Big Ideas team. She values investing time to enhance and encourage students’ social innovations. And while she has decades of experience and serves as a mentor, Lipsett still feels she has a lot to learn from others, whether it’s kids with superhero dreams or grad students providing safer alternatives to police calls. “Working with such determined students is so energizing, the whole process is definitely mutually beneficial,” she says. 

Meet Cleve Justis: MDevEng Professor and Best-Selling Author

Cleveland Justis, professor of MDevEng’s “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship,” fights these misconceptions by teaching how business strategy can be used as an instrument of social change. 

Meet Cleve Justis: MDevEng Professor and Best-Selling Author
Cleveland Justis photo
Cleveland Justis photo

By Alisha Dalvi

When Master of Development Engineering students find out about the core class on social entrepreneurship, some tend to be a little skeptical. Some, having learned to eschew capitalist norms in previous work and academic experiences, now wonder how a class that teaches market-oriented approaches will be beneficial. Cleveland Justis, professor of MDevEng’s “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship,” fights these misconceptions by teaching how business strategy can be used as an instrument of social change. 

Justis started his undergrad at Swarthmore College and then fell in love with UC Berkeley when he spent the summer in Berkeley after his freshman year. The university, the town, and especially the outdoor scenery prompted him to transfer; one year later, he was a Cal student, studying environmental science. Justis found his passion for environmental education working with Cal Adventures promoting outdoor skills and activities. Immediately after graduating, Justis became an instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School, leading hiking and kayaking expeditions across Alaska, Chile, and Mexico, while also at the Headlands Institute, another environmental educational nonprofit. While dedicating 10 years each at both organizations, Justis discovered an interest in the strategy side of running nonprofits, an intersection he had not heard much about. “Environmental activists always seem to disagree with business,” said Justis. “But I was dedicated to reconciling that.”

Tackling this goal led him back to school to obtain an MBA from UC Davis Graduate School of Management. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs working in poverty alleviation, Justis knew he did not want to use business school to make companies wealthy, but to create social change. While pursuing his MBA, he began operating under a then-new concept: social enterprise. He identified three crucial facets that remain fundamental to his curriculum to this day: using the tools of nonprofits, government, and business in creative ways to bolster social change. He wanted to understand business as a way to uplift other fields. 

Justis wasn’t alone in his curiosity about social enterprise — other students were hungry for it, too. Upon completing his MBA, the dean of the School of Management encouraged Justis to start the first-ever social enterprise course at the business school. So he did just that, formulating a class from scratch. He pulled in guest speakers, many from the government, with the goal of bridging the business-versus-public sector divide. And he soon realized that he really loved teaching —  even more than his day job at the time, leading the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a non-profit that supports park conservation throughout the Bay Area.

Despite some hesitation that it was too late and he was too busy to go back to school, Justis returned for an interdisciplinary Ph.D. at UC Davis, working with top-notch faculty and researchers from the business, geography, and community development schools to create unique ways to apply business techniques to create social change.   

While working on his Ph.D., which he finished four years ago, Justis was also teaching social enterprise to undergraduates at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In early 2020, a professor at Haas’ Center for Social Sector Leadership reached out to him and mentioned the start of a new master’s program housed at the Blum Center for Developing Economies: Developmental Engineering. The MDevEng needed someone who could bridge the different worlds of social change and business planning. And this was Justis’ forte. 

Justis has taught DevEng 204: Introduction to Social Enterprise since the program’s start two years ago. MDevEng students are required to take the course in their spring semester, learning how to incorporate entrepreneurial approaches to their personal social ventures. This is especially useful to the degree’s required capstone project. Justis has one main goal in his class: help students understand how successful social change requires government, business, and nonprofits to coexist by pulling in strategies across disciplines. Some students tend to be a bit skeptical of capitalist-oriented approaches. “And this is good, it’s a healthy apprehension,” Justis contends. “But I want to help them understand that government hasn’t been universally beneficial either, and non-profits also don’t always act in the people’s best interest.” The ideal system? One which creatively melds all three approaches. 

Courtesy of Cleveland Justis
Courtesy of Cleveland Justis

Justis formats his class with some lecturing in the beginning and a substantial amount of time for students to discuss and learn from each other. “The past two cohorts have been very intelligent and great critical thinkers; it’s really impressive,” says Justis. “And I am continuously amazed by how students use their international knowledge and connections to apply my lessons on a global scale.” Justis also brings in guest speakers throughout the course, many of which are based outside the US and represent marginalized groups across the world. And through learning from these speakers, lectures, and each other, students understand the magnitude that small-scale models, ones they can devise and develop within their own networks, have in forging social impact. For example, Mathews Tisatayane, is working to provide his community in Malawi clean energy, healthy food, and economic independence by using a social enterprise for-profit system. This is exactly what Justis hopes students get out of the class — developing impactful models doable at an individual and community scale. 

Students in this year’s DevEng 204 class had a new pedagogical tool: Justis’ recently released book Don’t Lead Alone, a culmination of his work, combining the tools he learned through research and valuable lessons he’s learned through teaching social entrepreneurship and leadership. Don’t Lead Alone’s goal is to make his past work more readable and accessible to everyone beyond academia, and it was inspired by students he has inadvertently learned from in his previous classes. The book — Justis’ first — encourages readers to “think like a system, act like a network, and lead like a movement,” drawing skills from leaders across — guess where — businesses, nonprofits, and governments. Daniel Student, a fellow UC Davis MBA alumnus and theater director and actor, co-authored the book and provided creative direction to Justis’ academic linear. Three years of on-and-off writing paid off. Since its release in February, it has landed on at least three different Amazon bestseller lists. But, ever the educator, Justis is most interested in how the book lands with his pupils. “I wrote the book for my students,” he says, “so they’re the true test-case.”

 

“Audacious Hope in the World and Each Other”: GPP Class of 2023 Celebrates Graduation After a Uniquely Challenging 4 Years

While the paths taken by the 60 newly minted GPP alumni to and through the minor differed greatly, they ultimately converged May 15 at Sutardja Dai Hall’s Banatao Auditorium following classes on poverty alleviation, a hands-on “practice experience” combining theory with practice, and deep reflection on what they learned. GPP’s 16th graduating class drew from 25 different majors and has joined an alumni community numbering over 1,000.

“Audacious Hope in the World and Each Other”: GPP Class of 2023 Celebrates Graduation After a Uniquely Challenging 4 Years
The Global Poverty and Practice minor Class of 2023 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The Global Poverty and Practice minor Class of 2023 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Thomas Kouyate and Samyukta Shrivatsa (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Thomas Kouyate and Samyukta Shrivatsa (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Samyukta Shrivatsa arrived at Berkeley knowing the huge privilege it was to receive an education at Cal — indeed, what a huge privilege it was to even afford the flight all the way here from India. She came in wanting to change the world for the better, and do so “with an A-plus.” 

Then the pandemic hit. The magnitude of the problems it caused and revealed left Shrivatsa, a peer advisor of the Global Poverty and Practice minor who graduated last week, feeling ready to throw in the changemaker towel. 

But that was when she discovered the GPP minor — “or perhaps,” she mused to her fellow graduates, “when GPP found me.”

Photo by Amy Sullivan
Photo by Amy Sullivan

While the paths taken by the 60 newly minted GPP alumni to and through the minor differed greatly, they ultimately converged May 15 at Sutardja Dai Hall’s Banatao Auditorium following classes on poverty alleviation, a hands-on “practice experience” combining theory with practice, and deep reflection on what they learned. GPP’s 16th graduating class drew from 25 different majors and has joined an alumni community numbering over 1,000.

“We went into this thinking we were alleviating poverty for others,” said Shrivatsa, who is preparing to start an environmental engineering PhD at Stanford, “but we came to understand that we were really doing this for ourselves and that there is infinite hope in recognizing that, thankfully, none of us are alone in shouldering this responsibility. 

“There is so much power in recognizing the process of working for change as its own reward: All one has to do is stay the course, regardless of where the path leads.”

Prof. Dan Fletcher, faculty director of the Blum Center, which houses the minor, pointed out that the graduating class weathered pandemic disruptions in the classroom, during their practice experiences, and in their personal lives — not because the GPP program was required of them but “because of their commitment to these ideals.”

“As champions of social justice,” Fletcher said, “they represent the best of UC Berkeley.”

Keynote speaker Prof. Aarti Sethi (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Keynote speaker Prof. Aarti Sethi (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Keynote speaker and anthropology professor Aarti Sethi marveled at students’ ability to accomplish all that while having to do so much to take care of themselves, their families, and others. “Thank you for teaching us about resilience,” she said.

Sethi asked students to consider the “heart of the liberal university”: libraries — those “spaces of autodidactism” where one could discover the world’s vastness and interestingness, be transported to new places, find intellectual freedom, and wander without purpose. In a world where the uneven distribution of power and resources divides us into those who must “live in need” and those with the privilege to “live in desire,” it’s the latter — a cultivation of “impractical pleasures” — that is a worthy goal to pursue not just for ourselves but for others. 

All people have a right to to build an “impractical relationship to the world,” Sethi said. “What an education here can do and should do is to question this division and to create conditions in which everyone can live without purpose in some aspect of their life.” 

Thomas Kouyate, a molecular and cell biology major preparing for a position at Boston Children’s Hospital, recalled the minor as one of Berkeley’s biggest draws. He grew up in Senegal and remembers seeing poverty everywhere while he and his friends had the latest material goods. For a time, he accepted that reality. 

Understanding the roots of poverty came through interactions with his classmates, faculty, GPP staff, his parents, and “debunking those lies we were taught” about what causes such stark inequality. “We’re not here to solve poverty in a single day,” he discovered, “but rather that we’re here to understand that it starts with us, one day at a time, at a small scale.” 

Alumna speaker Peyton Provenzano (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Alumna speaker Peyton Provenzano (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Kouyate took that wisdom back to Dakar, Senegal, where he did his practice experience at a hospital and with the country’s National Tuberculosis Control Program. He implored his classmates not to become inured to the giant, complicated issues they’ve committed to grappling with: “My hope is that we keep serving and loving those in need, knowing that they will not be able to pay us back.” 

That kind of optimism was what alumna speaker Peyton Provenzano most liked about being a student at Berkeley — that students could make their campus and the world a better place. 

“The challenge for all of you will be translating that optimism and spirit of the Berkeley campus into your lives beyond the university,” said Provenzano, who just finished her JD at Berkeley Law. “It’s not naive to believe in the prospect of a more just, equitable, and kind world.” The students before her, she added, are uniquely equipped to be the change they want to see. 

But progress won’t be linear, Provenzano warned; the inevitable setbacks can’t be cause for discouragement. “Contributions large and small do make a difference.” 

For Shrivatsa, these large and small impacts, as well as how the graduating class arrived at them in the first place, form the stories that shape how we see the world around us.

“GPP has been a process of tearing down everything we thought we knew about the world and rewriting the stories we tell about it,” she told her peers and commencement attendees. And the story that GPP tells “is one of audacious hope in the world and each other.”

2023 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day & Awards Celebration

Following months of designing, workshopping, mentoring and pitching, High Tide, a student team working to produce a bio-based coating for compostability and recyclability, took home top honors at the 2023 Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration, the Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas’ annual finale.

2023 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day & Awards Celebration
Kira Erickson and Ivan Jayapurna were awarded the Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Grand Prize of $10,000.
Kira Erickson and Ivan Jayapurna were awarded the Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Grand Prize of $10,000.

Following months of designing, workshopping, mentoring and pitching, High Tide, a student team working to produce a bio-based coating for compostability and recyclability, took home top honors at the 2023 Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration, the Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas’ annual finale. Judges gave High Tide, one of 23 finalists to appear at the May 3 event at UC Berkeley’s Blum Hall, the $10,000 Grand Prize.

High Tide, led by Ivan Jayapurna, a PhD candidate in Applied Science & Technology focusing on biodegradable plastics and Kira Erickson, MBA candidate, is dedicated to ending the use of plastic-coated paper in single-use containers unable to be composted or recycled. Their solution prioritizes structure over chemicals, using renewable resources to create a water repellent bio-based coating that will harmlessly degrade in natural ecosystems and can safely fall into green and blue waste bins. 

“The past few months have been hectic but fun and definitely educational. We got to talk to a lot of experts and I personally learned a lot about the packaging industry and on developing new materials from a commercial perspective. Today was really cool to see it all come together, as well as seeing all the other really cool projects,” said Jayapurna. “Hopefully this big idea can be a small part in helping us achieve a waste free future.”

“The concept behind High Tide was born out of a realization that the majority of our paper products are destined for landfill, despite paper being a compostable and recyclable material,” added Erickson. “It’s an extremely pervasive, yet less widely known issue. The potential for systemic impact is massive if addressed properly. I hope it’s a challenge High Tide can help solve with our nature-inspired solution.”

This year, the Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas received 160 applications from UC Berkeley students and 30 applications from its partner campus in the UK, the University of Sussex — representing  more than 600 students, 60 disciplines, and 15 countries — all aimed at addressing pressing social issues from food insecurity to workforce development to maternal healthcare. Of the final-round teams, over half of the projects were led by women. During the pre-proposal application period, Big Ideas provided students with a wide variety of resources including entrepreneurship skills workshops, team-building development, networking opportunities, and startup advising. Twenty-three finalists emerged from the 190 applications after a review by over 150 experts from academia, industry, and the venture community. These 23 teams continued to receive support and even more personalized mentorship as they prepared a final application. In addition to participating in today’s poster session, 5 of the 23 finalists were also chosen to pitch their innovations to three judges.

Big Ideas honored Jill Finlayson and Steven Horowitz for their long-time commitment to UC Berkeley students as Big Ideas’ mentors and judges. This year marked Horowitz’s 10 year mark with Big Ideas. Finlayson has been with the program for more than 12 years
Big Ideas honored Jill Finlayson and Steven Horowitz for their long-time commitment to UC Berkeley students as Big Ideas’ mentors and judges. This year marked Horowitz’s 10 year mark with Big Ideas. Finlayson has been with the program for more than 12 years.

“These finalists are the best of the best of social innovation,” said Jill Finlayson, Managing Director of the CITRIS Innovation Hub and a Big Ideas judge for the last decade. “They could all easily go out in industry and make the next step. But Big Ideas is about making that big leap, pushing boundaries into reality. And that’s where we felt the winning team stood out.”

“It was such a thrill to bring the idea to life with Ivan and with support from our mentors, Tony [Kingsbury], Mathieu [Aguesse], Karenna [Rehorn], and Phillip [Denny],” Erickson said. “We got to meet and learn from many more people along the way as well who inspired us with their dedication to sustainability and generosity with their time.”

Rick Lyons honors two teams of undergraduate students with the Berkeley Changemaker award
Rick Lyons honors two teams of undergraduate students with the Berkeley Changemaker award

The other headliner of the night was 2ndWind, winner of the Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT) “FinTech for Social Good” Initiative, a parallel Big Ideas track focused on advancing innovations that can unlock the potential of digital financial technologies to benefit underserved populations around the world. The FinTech for Social Good contest is made possible by Binance Charity and Ripple Impact.  2ndWind aims to help small and medium businesses continue even when the owners retire. The project creates an efficient platform to facilitate small and medium businesses in this time of transition, allowing owners to achieve their retirement’s goals, while preventing the layoffs often associated with small business closures.

Another highlight of the evening was when two undergraduate teams were recognized by Rich Lyons, Vice Chancellor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Blackprint Technologies and the Potion Project each won the Berkeley Changemaker award.

Support Big Ideas Tackling California Climate Change

This Fall of 2023, Big Ideas is launching a new effort devoted specifically to climate change challenges in California. It will employ the time-tested Big Ideas@Berkeley Methodology to provide training and seed awards to very early-stage, student-led projects focused on climate change innovations in California.

Support Big Ideas Tackling California Climate Change

Photo by Adam Lau

Big Ideas@Berkeley identifies and encourages students to develop solutions to the problems that matter most to them and their generation. In a year-long process of advising, skills training, mentorship, and seed funding, Big Ideas helps students translate their academic work and their diverse experiences into direct impact.

To date, over 11,000 students from 100 different majors have participated. Of the 550 social impact ventures launched through Big Ideas since 2006, nearly 50 percent are still in operation. With the training and the $3 million in seed funding that the program has invested in these students, they’ve gone on to secure more than $1 billion in additional investment, transforming their ideas into solutions that are now making an impact across the world.

This Fall of 2023, Big Ideas is launching a new effort devoted specifically to climate change challenges in California. It will employ the time-tested Big Ideas@Berkeley Methodology to provide training and seed awards to very early-stage, student-led projects focused on climate change innovations in California.

We encourage you to consider a gift to support Big Ideas@Berkeley students with a donation to the program’s Tackling California Climate Change effort — part of UC Berkeley’s weeklong campaign, kicked off during Earth Week, to “spotlight environment-focused projects on campus that are working to create a world where people and nature can prosper.” The campaign ends April 26 at 11:59 p.m.

Meet the 2023 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists

Learn more about the finalists and their upcoming presentations at the May 3 Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration here.

Meet the 2023 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists
Photo by Adam Lau
Photo by Adam Lau
Last summer, Louisa Keeler was in her home state of Texas researching ways the government could support survivors of intimate partner violence. Navigating available resources was difficult, “but trying to get those services while going to school, or raising children, or getting to work — that was much more difficult,” Keeler says. Two colleagues, Ruth Ferguson and Sohail Kamdar, also noticed related themes working with survivors of sexual harassment and discrimination, but also ways in which technology could empower individuals to access secure community services.

 

Keeler, Ferguson, and Kamdar are all Master of Public Policy students who developed the idea of Sepal, “a simplified, safe haven for finding the care you need by thoughtfully connecting you to knowledgeable providers.” Their idea secured them one of the 19 final-round spots in the 2022–23 Big Ideas Contest, UC Berkeley’s flagship social innovation program. This year, the contest received 160 applications from UC Berkeley students and alumni — representing more than 500 students, 80 disciplines, and 15 countries — and addressing pressing social issues in everything from food insecurity to workforce development to social injustice. Of the final-round teams, half of the projects are led by women and half have a URM co-founder.

 

Learn more about the finalists and their upcoming presentations at the May 3 Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration here.

Student Spotlight: Farhiya Ali of 2021 Big Ideas Winner Blackbook University

Farhiya Ali joined Blackbook University as a development intern in 2019 after Ibrahim Baldé, one of digital platform’s founders, reached out to the Black campus community seeking women in STEM to be a part of the organization, which equips Black students with relevant information, opportunities, and a network to connect with their peers.

Student Spotlight: Farhiya Ali of 2021 Big Ideas Winner Blackbook University

By Anehita Okojie

Farhiya Ali
Farhiya Ali

Farhiya Ali joined Blackbook University as a development intern in 2019 after Ibrahim Baldé, one of digital platform’s founders, reached out to the Black campus community seeking women in STEM to be a part of the organization, which equips Black students with relevant information, opportunities, and a network to connect with their peers. Ali’s passion for accessibility and using technology for social good drew her in. Through her involvement with the 2020-21 Big Ideas winner, the first-generation college student and child of Somali immigrants bolstered her service to — and helped bring together — the Black community while developing her technological skills.

Ali, a senior born and raised in the Bay Area, describes Blackbook University as “a diversity, equity, and inclusion solution to empower Black students and enable peer-to-peer connection, academic enrichment, and professional development.” Currently, the platform connects students with on-campus organizations and alumni through its mobile application. Blackbook hopes to create connections between Black students on campus while utilizing its alumni network to create opportunities for current Cal students. 

During her internship, Ali analyzed the enrollment trends of Black students going back to the 1990s, helped create the initial mobile application, and directed social media content. While working on the application, she tested prototypes, worked on the user interface, and conducted user interviews about how to improve the mobile app. She learned how to connect each page of the mobile application so they were easily accessible. 

Ali says Baldé consistently encouraged her and the rest of the Blackbook team to take ownership of their work. “You had his full support to explore different areas of the company and take ownership,” she recalls. “Or, if you saw that someone was working with some really cool data sets that you want to work with, you have full support to go work on that and explore that area.” 

During her sophomore and junior years, Ali moved up to a product marketing role within Blackbook and is currently its user design/experience expert, where she continues working on the mobile Blackbook University application, available for download on the App Store and Google Play Store. 

“We want [the app] to be a space where alumni can reach out and provide students with opportunities,” Ali says. (The team is currently building toward securing angel funding.) 

In addition to benefiting her peers, Ali’s tenure at Blackbook has developed her own professional repertoire in, among other things, software development, product management, and creating social campaigns — and all while exploring different disciplines through her projects and team members, whose majors range from data science to legal studies, business administration to media studies. She’s utilized platforms like Excel, Asana, and Trello, though some of the most important skills she says she learned were interpersonal skills, like “how to communicate differences professionally and how to maintain a level of respect, accountability, and transparency within a team.” 

All of these skills and experiences came in handy during her fast-paced internship last summer at Kinestry, an innovation studio that helps clients develop meaningful brand experiences through technology and specializes in non-fungible tokens (NFTs). One of her projects at Kinstry was Metaverse Fashion Week, a completely virtual fashion week that allows designers to showcase their work digitally. Thanks to her Blackbook experience, she was able, in her collaboration with clients, to make sure artists felt their projects were feasible and their work valued. Her experience with user interfaces and interviews at Blackbook helped her as a Kinestry product manager to gain insight into how to best assist clients in meeting their goals as well as staying organized in her own work.

Ali, however, has actively supported Berkeley’s Black student community beyond Blackbook. She’s been involved with the Black Engineering and Science Student Association since her sophomore year, when she started as BESSA’s pre-collegiate outreach chair. Founded in 1968, BESSA’s mission is “to increase the number of culturally responsible Black engineers and scientists who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community.” Now, as president, Ali leads a team of 12 other board members whose programming focuses on K-12 outreach in the Bay Area, study jams, tutoring, and corporate-sponsored events for current UC Berkeley students. As president, she launched a paid, peer-to-peer tutoring program for Black STEM students as a form of academic retention and supports fundraising to sponsor students’ trips to national conferences. 

Ali also credited a change in major to opening up opportunities to serve her peers. She started out in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), but that changed in spring 2022 when she took a gap semester to take community college classes and network to expand her professional opportunities. During the break from Cal, she spoke with friends and people in her network and learned more about the Interdisciplinary Studies Field major, “what it did for them, and what doors it opened.” These conversations inspired her to switch from EECS to ISF, with a focus on human-computer interaction, in order to further serve the Black community on campus and pursue internship opportunities — the latest being a technical project management internship at Dolby Laboratories. The lighter load of the ISF major allowed her to both earn a fulfilling degree while having enough time to devote herself to other opportunities outside of academics and serve her community. 

Throughout her time in university, Ali has had mentorship from other students and alumni, from Baldé to her BESSA predecessors. Now an upperclassman herself, she’s taken up the role of giving back to underclassmen. “You should move forward,” she says, “but always give back to the community that helped you get where you are.”

From Malawi to Berkeley and Back: How M.DevEng Student Mathews Tisatayane Achieved His Dream of Bringing Sustainable Development to His Hometown

Tisatayane had been a teacher, a nurse, and an unsuccessful social entrepreneur. Now, he’s using development engineering to provide his fellow Malawians clean energy and an opportunity to free themselves from economic hardship.

From Malawi to Berkeley and Back: How M.DevEng Student Mathews Tisatayane Achieved His Dream of Bringing Sustainable Development to His Hometown
Three of the 11 members of the Yankho women's co-op (left), the backbone of and inspiration for Umodzi, along with Brian Ndongera (third from right), an advisor to Umodzi, Mathews Tisatayane (second from right), founder and president, and Sean Mandell, co-founder and CEO. (Umodzi photo)
Three of the 11 members of the Yankho women’s co-op (left), the backbone of and inspiration for Umodzi, along with Brian Ndongera (third from right), an advisor to Umodzi, Mathews Tisatayane (second from right), founder and president, and Sean Mandell, co-founder and CEO. (Umodzi photo)

Tisatayane had been a teacher, a nurse, and an unsuccessful social entrepreneur. Now, he’s using development engineering to provide his fellow Malawians clean energy and an opportunity to free themselves from economic hardship.

By Sam Goldman

Growing up, Mathews Tisatayane had few boundaries about where he could go and who he could see. His corner of Malawi, in southeast Africa, was multicultural, and he hung out with people from different tribes, who spoke different languages, and who practiced different religions. He didn’t have electricity or running water, and his family took him shopping for clothes once a year if he was lucky. But “growing up,” he said, “I didn’t feel like I was poor at all.”

As the third child and first-born son of his mother’s 12 children, he held a lot of responsibility and worked on his family’s farm growing tobacco — a major component of the Malawian economy. When he was seven, he used the income he earned to self-enroll in a school about five miles away.

Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane (Courtesy photo)
Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane (Courtesy photo)

Tisatayane, now 50 and finishing his final semester of UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering program, says his family still grows tobacco “out of desperation, out of ‘what else can we do?’”

When he finally did get the chance to go to school, he encountered his first Peace Corps volunteer, which made him think the U.S. had something to offer the world. These ideas lodged in the back of his mind.

Tisatayane finished high school in 1994, but the introduction of college-entrance exams that favored elite kids halted his plans for college. It was already a dark time: His great uncle, who owned his family’s farm and had funded everything in his life, had passed away. He recalled trying to compose himself and asking what he could do in this bleak situation.

If there is one thing that defines Tisatayane, it’s resilience: “When I’m put in a situation, no matter how bad or good it is, I’m always trying to say, ‘How can I do better for myself and the people around me?’”

The mantra has guided him through famine, nursing school, full-time nursing, a deep but unsuccessful foray into social entrepreneurship, all the way to the inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program. During his three semesters at Blum Hall, he parlayed new professional and peer connections to launch Umodzi with Sean Mandell, a recent graduate of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. The company is a reincarnation of Tisatayane’s failed attempt at social entrepreneurship, allowing women-led co-ops in Malawi to raise quail in a 100-percent sustainable, self-contained system.

“I’m almost happy I failed,” he said of his first attempt at sustainable development. “If I didn’t fail, I wouldn’t have come to Berkeley.”

From famine to the San Francisco Department of Public Health

After his great uncle died, Tisatayane found his way to a teacher’s training college, spent two years there, and returned to his village to teach kids — all while continuing as a subsistence farmer providing for 17 people as the elder man of the family.

But more hardship was in store. In 2001, a terrible famine hit Malawi. Tisatayane lost half his body weight and, at one point, while still teaching, went three days without food. The problem, he realized, wasn’t that there was not enough food in the country, but that it was not accessible to poorer people — including those who grew it. “That was the famine that changed my life for good,” he recalled two decades later. “It’s one of the things that pushed me to” apply to UC Berkeley — “to try to do something to relieve my people of that.”

Meanwhile, he had gotten involved in a government program where people planted trees for food. There, he met another Peace Corp volunteer. They married. And that was how Tisatayane made it to the country that, in high school, he started to realize had something to offer the world.

“When I came to the United States, I was totally useless,” he said. In Malawi, he had friends, family, a teaching job. “I had everything there. And then all of a sudden, I’m in a completely different situation.” He was lost. It was like the end of high school all over again.

But that spurred the same thought process: What could he do to help himself and those around him? Tisatayane enrolled in the City College of San Francisco not knowing what he wanted to pursue. But it reminded him of his youth, surrounded by folks speaking different languages, practicing different religions, displaying different personalities. It buoyed him.

While at CCSF, Tisatayane volunteered for six months in the unit serving patients with HIV/AIDS, learning about U.S. patient care. Many of them nearing the end of their lives didn’t have family, and he saw how the nurses became the closest relationships they had. “The passion, the love, and the dedication of the nurses who worked in that care unit,” he said, “inspired me to be like, ‘I think I want to be a nurse and do what these people are doing.’”

He studied intensely and improved his grades while at CCSF but did not get into the nursing program there, which used a lottery system. Persevering, Tisatayane later found a different school, and he became one of the very few men or Black people in the University of San Francisco’s undergrad nursing program, from which he graduated with a bachelor of science in nursing in 2011.

With the mission of helping the homeless suffering in the wealthiest country in the world, over the next five years, he worked at the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Medical Respite & Sobering Center, aiding those who were discharged from the hospital and needing housing or social services as well as those passed out on the street and smelling of alcohol. Despite the 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift — and the beginning of a new family here — Tisatayane continued to support his family back home in Malawi.

“If you’re not going to do this, you’re going to regret it on your deathbed.”

Though he had spent years helping those in need in San Francisco, his family in Malawi continued to grow and need support. His sisters and their friends had started a cooperative, Yankho co-op in Kauma Village, and he gave them $5,000 to use however they wanted. Six months later, the group of women had started an informal microfinancing program among themselves; every Sunday, they got together to lend money to whoever needed it most that week.

Tisatayane found that many women, along with their children, were raising chickens and other small birds, but they couldn’t scale their efforts. The cause mirrored that of the famine: Bird-feed ingredients grown in the village were bought up by middlemen, who sold them to businessmen in the city to make the feed, and who then sold it back to the farmers. He wrote up a business plan and showed it to contacts of his wife, who secured him $35,000 in funding. He would bring to his community a self-sustaining bird-raising operation.

The key, he learned, was energy: ubiquitous in the U.S., scarce in his hometown. He studied microgrids — small-scale, self-sufficient energy systems — and reached out to friend and fellow Malawian William Kamkwamba, of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind fame, who put him in touch with someone who got him the solar panels and batteries that Tisatayane would assemble into bird incubators and brooders. The equipment was paid for using the funds Tisatayane had raised.

The incubators could replace a hen lying on her eggs for 21 days — not an easy model to scale — in order to hatch as many eggs as possible. The chicks would then stay in the brooders — warm rooms that mimic their mothers’ feathers. After two weeks, the birds would be ready to be sent to farmers.

Solar panels being installed during Tisatayane's first attempt at sustainable development in Malawi. (Umodzi photo)
Solar panels being installed during Tisatayane’s first attempt at sustainable development in Malawi. (Umodzi photo)

If his community could raise their own chickens all on their own, then they would eat well, which meant better health. They could sell the ones they couldn’t eat for income. And building a system run by women and youth would empower them, too. One of “the most profound moments” in the process, he recalled, was being in the U.S. and receiving a video of incubated chicks hatching at his village — “life coming out of an egg, because of the invention that we made.”

The machines worked well for two months. When they started failing at night, he hired independent solar companies to check them out. The panels, it turned out, had come from different manufacturers, as did the wiring. Either they were put together improperly or the batteries were used too quickly and died. The endeavor was paused indefinitely.

Tisatayane said he felt like “a failed social entrepreneur.” He tried out some online courses on social entrepreneurship, but they didn’t help. Then, he discovered UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab, run by Prof. Daniel Kammen. He spent a week on YouTube devouring Kammen’s talks. He wanted more. “How can I be part of people like this,” he asked himself, “because I truly, truly believe that I can do more in Malawi.”

In following the lab online, he came across Berkeley’s new Master of Development Engineering program, the first cohort of which was to start in the fall of 2021. “This is it,” he thought. “If you’re not going to do this, you’re going to regret it on your deathbed.” 

Investors and biodigesters 

Sure enough, he was accepted. He’d wake up at 6 a.m., take BART from his home in southern San Francisco to downtown Berkeley, and hike a mile up through campus to California Memorial Stadium for DevEng C200, “Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies,” at 8 a.m. He had started his dream program, a chapter in his life he hadn’t even considered not long before.

Sean Mandell (Courtesy photo)
Sean Mandell (Courtesy photo)

That first-semester M.DevEng course turned out to be pivotal. Tisatayane met Sean Mandell, a student at the Haas School of Business who had been a data scientist for four years at a health-tech start-up. Mandell had had a longtime interest in — but limited involvement with — global development and had come to Berkeley to pursue social entrepreneurship. The two chatted during class breaks. 

“We truly liked each other and respected each other’s views on what needs to happen in terms of development,” said Mandell, who graduated in May.

“Without Sean, my business wouldn’t be what it is,” Tisatayane said on a recent afternoon at a cafe on Euclid Avenue, near Blum Hall, home of the M.DevEng program. He described their blueprint: Solar panels heating multiple hatcheries incubating quail eggs, and biodigesters turning quails’ waste into fertilizer for the birds’ food as well as fuel to supplement the solar electricity. Once up and running, the circular system could address a panoply of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including zero hunger, gender equality, affordable and clean energy, responsible consumption and production, and more. The whole enterprise, which they named Umodzi — “togetherness” in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s main languages — would be run by the women cooperative with whom Tisatayane had collaborated on his first try. The name reflected the unity with which Tisatayne’s community approached everything, from work to celebrations, as he grew up. 

A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)
A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)

Prof. Layla Kwong of the School of Public Health, his capstone advisor, gave him the idea to use biodigesters — mechanical stomachs that convert organic material, like quail poop, into biogas to heat incubating eggs, cook food, or make fertilizer to grow the quails’ food. Tisatayane read up on the process and discovered a biodigester maker already in Malawi. The country also had an incubator maker. “Talking to people, we found out all the systems were already there,” he said.

Eventually, Tisatayane and Mandell registered Umodzi as a public-benefit corporation in the U.S., with a subsidiary company in Malawi and a lawyer in each country, too. Tisatayane is founder and president; Mandell, co-founder and CEO. They went on to raise over $100,000 from individuals interested in supporting their project and even contributed some of their own savings. They bought a 25-kilowatt solar power system with a 60 kilowatt-hour lithium battery system from a Malawian supplier.

But getting a fully functioning enterprise off the ground required even more investment, and that’s where networking through the M.DevEng program came in handy once again. Prof. Alice Agogino, chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, introduced Tisatayane to Stephen Isaacs, former president and CEO of Aduro Biotech and a member of the program’s advisory board, who then introduced him to his own friend Bob Reed, former CFO at Sutter Health. Reed immediately took to the idea. “What can I do for you?” he asked Tisatayane.

“I have an idea to change my community, but I know nothing about the money world,” he had replied. 

Reed enthusiastically obliged and became a friend and mentor to Tisatayane, introducing him to another potential investor. Umodzi’s circle of backers grew.

“Here for the indefinite future”

In the spring, Mandell surprised Tisatayane: He had bought a one-way ticket to Malawi, departing the day after his May graduation. “I’m here for the indefinite future,” Mandell told him. 

Tisatayane himself left for the country in June and stayed for two months, his longest trip to Malawi since moving to the U.S. Gut instinct told him to stay for a second month; it allowed him to be with family when his father passed away.

A biodigester at Kauma Village (Photo by Sean Mandell)
Solar batteries and an inverter (Sean Mandell photo)

The batteries (lifespan: 10-plus years) and electrical equipment arrived in modular shipping containers and joined the hatcheries and biodigesters in Kauma Village. Solar panels (lifespan: 30 years) were installed, and a borehole was drilled to provide potable water to the birds. While drilling, they decided to install taps for the local community to access the water for free.

Umodzi’s fundraising efforts have netted just enough money to launch; Tisatayane estimated all the investment will be recouped in about a year of operations. As site manager, the pair hired Bernadetta Ndongera, a young woman from the community with experience working with farmers, raising poultry, and growing crops and with a degree in agriculture from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, in the country’s capital. “We didn’t want to bring in a man when both co-founders are men,” Tisatayane said. The Yankho co-op remains Umodzi’s backbone. In fact, it was the women’s cooperative that aspired to raise quail as a ticket to economic freedom and self-sufficiency in the first place. 

As his final semester in the M.DevEng program wound down, Tisatayane bought a one-way ticket to Malawi to be full-time hands-on. Before departing in mid-January, he’ll wrap up his current job as a health nurse at a San Francisco County jail, which he had been juggling alongside his studies, entrepreneurial activities, and parenthood. He expects to split his time between the two countries he calls home, with plans to come back to California later in 2023. 

With only a couple weeks left in the M.DevEng program, Tisatayane was sent a familiar type of video — the first sign that months of hard work, perseverance, and passion were beginning to bear fruit for his community. Umodzi hatched the first quail chicks from an initial batch of 900 — a mere fifth of the number all its incubators will hold. On his screen, he watched in awe as a few of them broke through their shells. 

“My goal is to relieve Malawi of its tobacco industry and replace it with clean energy, and from there, move on to the rest of Africa or the rest of the world, to the extent that we can,” Tisatayane said. “But I can’t clean up Zambia and other neighboring countries until I clean up Malawi, my backyard.”

Congrats, M.DevEng Class of 2022! Members of Inaugural Cohort, Themselves Pioneers in DevEng, Graduate

After 16 months, three semesters, 44 internships, 26 capstone projects, and countless hours in the classroom and out in the field, the inaugural cohort of UC Berkeley’s M.DevEng program walked across the stage of campus’ Sibley Auditorium in the Bechtel Engineering Center on Saturday to receive the country’s — if not the world’s — first master of development engineering degree. The 44-student Class of 2022 — pioneers of the burgeoning discipline that originated at Berkeley — will leave Blum Hall for careers in social impact, technology, and sustainability or to further their educational careers.

Congrats, M.DevEng Class of 2022! Members of Inaugural Cohort, Themselves Pioneers in DevEng, Graduate
The M.DevEng Class of 2022 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The M.DevEng Class of 2022 (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program are the first students — possibly in the world — to receive a graduate degree in the field. (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
The inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program are the first students — possibly in the world — to receive a graduate degree in the field. (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

After 16 months, three semesters, 44 internships, 26 capstone projects, and countless hours in the classroom and out in the field, the inaugural cohort of UC Berkeley’s M.DevEng program walked across the stage of campus’ Sibley Auditorium in the Bechtel Engineering Center on Saturday to receive the country’s — if not the world’s — first master of development engineering degree. The 44-student Class of 2022 — pioneers of the burgeoning discipline that originated at Berkeley — will leave Blum Hall for careers in social impact, technology, and sustainability or to further their educational careers.

Students and their families, many of whom flew in from around the world, gathered at dusk for an intimate ceremony and reception to celebrate a group hailing from 15 countries and with backgrounds as diverse as education, electrical engineering, finance, and nursing. During their three semesters, the graduates studied a multidisciplinary curriculum focused on design and management of technology, application of emerging technologies, evidence-based assessment techniques, economic development, social problem solving, cross-cultural collaboration, and community engagement. From their first class, they’ve been devising and implementing technological solutions to complex societal challenges in low-resource settings.

Student speaker Mathews Tisatayane (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Student speaker Mathews Tisatayane (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

“Regardless of the path each one of us is taking, we all agree the world would be a better place if we all put our efforts together,” said student speaker Mathews Sapemba Tisatayane, who took the stage to raucous cheers from his peers.

He began by asking the room to take a deep, collective breath. That breath, he pointed out, is an interaction of, and made possible by, all sorts of elements, from air molecules to lung cells, tissues to organs. “Although all these cells are different in some ways, by working altogether they maintain life as we know it,” he reminded us.

If togetherness is so vital to making the world work, why, he asked, is modern society so resistant to working together to solve climate change and poverty? We’ve been taught to work as individuals and to think of our divisions as almost natural, he said. “But it’s not. I came to UC Berkeley to find minds who could help me challenge these divisions. And I’m happy to tell you I found them,” he said, gesturing to his erstwhile classmates in the front rows. “They’re right here. Through different interactions with each other, faculty, and capstone projects, we researched and found our differences are what bring us closer.” 

Tisatayane turned to Nelson Mandela for how the cohort could turn its togetherness into action: “‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity. It is an act of justice,’” he quoted. “‘Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade. And it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. … Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. And you can be that generation.’” 

“Let us be great. Let us be that generation that Nelson Mandela was talking about,” Tisatayane added. “Let our greatness blossom together. Let’s go out in the world to do actions to positively impact the planet and the lives of those living in poverty. In togetherness, we believe.”

From left: Malika Sugathapala, Daniel Huang, Curtis Wong, and Eleanor Chin (Photo by Sam Goldman)
From left: Malika Sugathapala, Daniel Huang, Curtis Wong, and Eleanor Chin (Photo by Sam Goldman)

Tisatayane cited his own capstone project as a product of togetherness. It was a reincarnation of an unsuccessful attempt at sustainable development in Malawi, where he was born and raised. He had teamed up with Sean Mandell, a Haas School of Business student he had met in his first DevEng class, to found Umodzi — “togetherness” in Tisatayane’s native language, Chichewa — which allows women-led co-ops in Malawi to raise quail in a 100-percent sustainable, self-contained system. His classmates’ capstone projects included a business for seamstresses in rural Ghana to sell their high-quality wares, a toilet that recycles the nitrogen from urine to use in fertilizer, advancing an initiative to bring arsenic-safe drinking water to rural cities in California, and a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers.

“What you’ve done with your projects is remarkable,” said DevEng and Energy and Resources Group Prof. Dan Kammen in a recorded message to graduates. “You’ve launched this program with your passion and all the projects you’ve done.”

Commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Commencement speaker Prof. Maya Carrasquillo (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Maya Carrasquillo, the newest member of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, which offers the M.DevEng, gave the commencement address.

“When I learned that this was the first cohort — the first cohort — for the Master of Development Engineering, I felt myself awestricken,” she said.

“You have become the precedent for what this program can and will become: a program marked by educating and equipping changemakers to develop innovative global solutions. What a powerful vision, and each of you embodies that so much,” Carrasquillo said. “It takes a certain kind of individual to step out into unproven, untested grounds. … You’re the ones who dare to do something different, in pursuit of something greater than yourselves. You are the ones not motivated by titles or prestige but by an inner voice that reminds you there has to be more than the way things have always been.”

Carrasquillo offered reflections shared at a book-tour event she attended for former First Lady Michelle Obama’s The Light We Carry: “To treat yourself and others with gladness.” 

“In a world and in a profession where we are constantly striving to do good, it is all too easy to forget to be good,” she said. “And more than just being good — being kind — and even then, it is far too often that we are kind to others and less kind to ourselves. As you all go out to do all the amazing, undoubtedly life-changing things that you have been prepared to do in this world, never forget to greet yourself and others with gladness.” 

Shubham Salunkhe (left) and Sara Almusafri with Prof. Alice Agogino (Photo by Amy Sullivan)
Shubham Salunkhe (left) and Sara Almusafri with Prof. Alice Agogino (Photo by Amy Sullivan)

Early in the ceremony, the M.DevEng program honored retiring Prof. Alice Agogino for her years of service in developing and guiding Berkeley’s DevEng programs, in which she chairs the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, serves as the Blum Center for Developing Economies’ education director, leads the M.DevEng’s Sustainable Design Innovations concentration, led DevEng seminars, mentored many students, and held innumerable office hours with both enrolled students and prospective ones. Director of DevEng Programs Yael Perez presented Agogino with a scrapbook of photos and messages from the DevEng community, and Kammen highlighted her career of developing opportunities for students, faculty, and others to collaborate across disciplines and focus their STEM work on social impact. “What an honor and pleasure to work with you,” he said.

Bioengineering professor and Blum Center faculty director Dan Fletcher closed out the ceremony by noting how clearly the commencement showcased the tight-knit and supportive community the graduates had formed over their three semesters. Each grad walked across the stage to not just a reading of a self-written, third-person statement detailing their accomplishments, but to the cheers of their fellows. 

Though classes are over, Fletcher said, “the connections among you continue.” He called out how fitting it was to conclude the students’ recognition with the ending of the final student’s statement: “And she loves you all very much.”

Past Big Ideas Winner Blackbook University Brings Together Resources, Opportunities, and Networking for Cal’s Black Student Community

Blackbook University is a digital platform that equips Black students with relevant information, opportunities, and a network to connect with their peers. It was launched to meet the needs of Black students on UC Berkeley’s campus — and to be a model that can be replicated across California, and eventually the nation.

Past Big Ideas Winner Blackbook University Brings Together Resources, Opportunities, and Networking for Cal’s Black Student Community
Blackbook University team members at their first event in collaboration with Berkeley's Black Student Union. In a panel discussion, titled "How I Succeeded as a Black Professional," speakers discussed their experiences navigating their careers. (Blackbook University photo)
Blackbook University team members at their first event in collaboration with Berkeley’s Black Student Union. In a panel discussion, titled “How I Succeeded as a Black Professional,” speakers discussed their experiences navigating their careers. (Blackbook University photo)

By Anehita Okojie

In 2018, the USC Race and Equity Center released a report that measured postsecondary access and student success for Black undergraduates at public colleges and universities across the United States. In this report, the University of California, Berkeley received a C in representation equity and a D when it came to completion equity. According to the report, Black students at UC Berkeley are graduating at a rate of 75.4 percent — 15.9 percent less than the overall graduation rate. 

Ibrahim Baldé is a Bay Area native and UC Berkeley alumnus who graduated from the Haas School of Business with a BS in Social Entrepreneurship and Finance in December 2020. The Report led Baldé and a team of peers to question the implications of UC Berkeley’s ranking for Black students and how “community organizers and groups [could] use this to challenge or call out the narrative of UC Berkeley.” Baldé believes that the prestige surrounding UC Berkeley tends to downplay and often erase recognition of the barriers and challenges that underrepresented communities face. He wanted to do something. Blackbook University was the answer. 

Blackbook University is a digital platform that equips Black students with relevant information, opportunities, and a network to connect with their peers. It was launched to meet the needs of Black students on UC Berkeley’s campus — and to be a model that can be replicated across California, and eventually the nation.

In its research, the team discovered the legacy of the African American Student Handbook, which served as a resource guide for Black Students at UC Berkeley in the 1980s and 1990s. This resource guide, dubbed Blackbook, listed Black faculty, advisors, student organizations, alumni, and Black-owned businesses that would support students during their time at UC Berkeley. It was a tool “for the community to streamline networking and belonging the moment that someone [touched] base on this campus,” Baldé says. 

In 1996, Proposition 209 was passed in California, elimating “state and local government affirmative action programs…based on race, sex, color, or national origin.” Once this proposition went into effect, it significantly decreased the number of Black students admitted to Berkeley, as the University of California system could no longer provide outreach, counseling, and tutoring services targeted at individuals based on sex, race, or ethnicity. Baldé notes that the impact of Proposition 209 on UC Berkeley’s campus was that the infrastructure of the Black community started to diminish and “the resource guide was no longer maintained.” 

The Blackbook team came together in 2019 to discuss the importance of the resource guide for students in the past and how they could modernize it to meet the needs of current Cal students. The team included UC Berkeley students Chase Ali-Watkins ’20, Nahom Solomon ’21, Farhiya Ali 23, Nicholas Brathwaite ’20, and Imran Sekalala 22. Kyle Parkman, a 2020 UC Santa Cruz graduate, rounded out the founding team. 

To assess need, the team polled Black students on campus and found that around 90 percent of Black Cal students wanted a platform for Black students built by Black students. Blackbook was founded on three pillars: an accessible mobile application for students, university programming to empower the professional development of students, and storytelling to highlight the success of Black students and professionals. Blackbook University’s mobile platform connects students to events, opportunities, and programs led by on campus organizations. The team is currently in the process of reaching out to Black student leaders on UC Berkeley’s campus to get them onboarded and to begin utilizing the platform to communicate with Black students. 

“We’ve made it so that any Black student can enter the platform and understand exactly what resource or experience is available and optimal for them,” Baldé says. 

Currently, the mobile application is available on the App Store and the Google Play Store for download. Blackbook’s goal is to have 500 active users on the platform by the end of the 2022–23 school year. 

Blackbook University founder Ibrahim Baldé at the 2021 Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day. (Blum Center photo)
Blackbook University founder Ibrahim Baldé at the 2021 Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day. (Blum Center photo)

The 2020–21 Big Ideas Contest gave the Blackbook University team the ability to take Blackbook from an idea to a tangible product. The competition helped the team challenge themselves, offered them access to advisors, and helped them structure the model of Blackbook. One of their advisors was Bill Allison, the current campus technology officer at UC Berkeley. Baldé notes that Allison offered insight on how to “think about and navigate both the development of the platform and the onboarding process for our users in our pilot [and] also at scale.” Big Ideas also allowed them to network with several other entrepreneurs who have built other university-based platforms. The networking opportunities showed the Blackbook team it was on the right track, Baldé says. He also credits Big Ideas workshops and advising sessions with helping Blackbook solidify its approach to building their program. 

Since winning Big Ideas, Blackbook has continued evolving through app development, a pilot program, and continued involvement in the Black community at UC Berkeley. In late 2021, it created a pilot in collaboration with African American Student Development on Berkeley’s campus to work on projects to integrate Blackbook further into the Berkeley ecosystem. This pilot program consisted of five interns who worked on thinking about and tailoring solutions related to the complexities of Blackbook. They pitched different ideas about the trajectory of Blackbook and how to further leverage technology to positively impact the experience of Black students. The team continued to connect with the Blackbook interns over the summer to ensure that their input was being integrated into updates to the Blackbook application and marketing strategies. 

This past summer, the Blackbook team connected with high school Black Student Unions and community colleges to continue their outreach and upliftment of the Black community across the Bay Area. It hopes increased contact with high school and community college students will allow the platform to create meaningful connections with these students and communities before they arrive at a four-year institution. 

“We are working to make the Blackbook platform accessible beyond the UC Berkeley campus,” Baldé says. “Our goal is to build a Blackbook presence on every campus in the US, starting with major campuses and the UC system. We see university recruiting as a huge aspect of the growth of our model moving forward — we intend to position Blackbook as the access point for companies and organizations to hire Black talent.”

GPP’s Peer Advisors on Tackling Poverty While Building Community in their Minor

Global Poverty & Practice peer advisors use the experience they’ve gained in completing most of the minor to counsel their newer peers. Learn how four of them found and added to the GPP community and pursued tangible social impact in their summer practice experiences.

GPP’s Peer Advisors on Tackling Poverty While Building Community in their Minor
Bhat with a community health worker she interviewed in Karnataka. (Samhita Bhat photo)
Bhat with a community health worker she interviewed in Karnataka. (Samhita Bhat photo)

The Global Poverty and Practice minor was the reason Grace Elam ended up at Berkeley in the first place. The university was “way too close to home” for the San Franciscan, and she felt skeptical that Berkeley’s reputation for real-world change had continued to live up to the 1960s’ Free Speech Movement. After receiving an admissions letter, she snuck over to Cal Day to scope things out. She only remembers attending one event: a GPP alumni panel that “shared their experiences building a schoolhouse in Ghana and working in carceral reform in California.” She knew where she wanted to go for college.

Grace Elam photo
Grace Elam photo

The fourth-year, who’s majoring in rhetoric and minoring in both GPP and public policy, has spent the past two summers working full-time in the legal office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest region, and continues working there part time. Much of her work focuses on the EPA’s engagement with other governments, including those of Navajo Nation, Guam, and California, as well as tracking civil rights compliance of grant recipients, processing the public’s requests for agency records, tracking citizens’ environmental lawsuits, researching the history and cultural practices of Native nations, and looking into the community impacts of polluters. 

Through “tricks of timing and my own desire to make the most of GPP’s foundational praxis,” the EPA job became her GPP practice experience, the hands-on component of the minor where students apply in the field what they learn in the classroom. Elam is also one of seven GPP peer advisors who use the experience they’ve gained in completing most of the minor to counsel their newer peers.

“I found that GPP was the most welcoming community I had come across at Cal,” said fellow peer advisor Samyukta Shrivatsa. “From the staff to the faculty and students, I owed so many of my best experiences to the encouragement and warmth extended by them. Finding meaning in one’s college experience can be a lonely journey, and I wanted to pass on the support I received to other similarly lost students!”

“Expanding how I look at the world”

Mahima Sinha’s passion lies in increasing access to healthcare in communities. It drove the fourth-year, pre-medical track public health student to take GPP 115, “Challenges and Hopes,” in the first place. What stuck out to her was how the program could be tailored to students’ personal experiences, combined theoretical frameworks with real-world action, and promoted reflection on learnings and experiences. “I learned to think critically about poverty and inequality in a way that I had never thought of before,” Sinha said.

 Mahima Sinha photo
Mahima Sinha photo

But it was the program’s community that also drew her in. “I loved how supportive everyone was of each other and how inclusive it felt.”

Sinha has stayed close to home with her practice experience, which can take students around the world. She continues to work remotely with Transitions Clinic Network, a San Francisco–based nonprofit providing healthcare services to those transitioning out of incarceration, doing data analysis of patient demographics, designing a manual for the TCN’s healthcare hotline, writing articles for San Quentin Prison’s social justice–oriented news site, and interviewing TCN’s community health workers — folks who have been incarcerated whom TCN hires to “create a supportive healthcare experience for patients and support their autonomy,” Sinha says.

“I have been able to learn so much about the effects of mass incarceration and how that impacts health specifically,” she said. “It has been challenging because I have never worked with the reentry population before and I am learning a lot as I go, such as the proper language to use, the harmful stigmas associated with incarceration, and the increasing need for reentry services in the United States.”

Expanding her perspective has been a key element of her overall GPP experience, which is open to all majors, allowing for a wide array of outlooks and frames of reference.

“This has really expanded how I look at the world and analyze what I see in the news,” Sinha says. “The minor has also offered me a lot of insight into how I can incorporate these frameworks into my future career, regardless of what I end up doing.”

“A lot of ownership for this project”

Also a fourth year, Samhita Bhat studies public health and molecular and cell biology. 

Over this past summer, she worked at Public Health Research Institute of India (PHRII), a nonprofit in the southern city of Mysore that researches women’s reproductive health, runs education and screening programs, and offers health services. As her practice experience, Bhat evaluated the impact of PHRII’s cervical cancer screening program through interviews with local community health workers, who were often overburdened managing the health of thousands of rural community members. She brought with her fluency in Kannada and, “as the daughter of immigrants from the state of Karnataka, a lot of personal knowledge and deep-rooted connection to the poverty that community members experience there.”

Her internship work resulted in a research abstract she presented at a conference and will be published soon in Annals of Epidemiology. “I felt a lot of ownership for this project as I was able to conduct interviews on my own,” Bhat said.

What’s helped cement her interest in continuing to work with healthcare-oriented grassroots organizations, she says, has been a curriculum that’s allowed her to better confront her own privilege and recognizing “the harm that my own actions may have in conducting poverty alleviation and how to mitigate that.”

“GPP has been a really special and unique part of my Berkeley experience, and I felt like I found a really strong community within my GPP classes and cohort,” Bhat said. Being a peer advisor, she added, allows her to transmit that experience to others while connecting with peers who have similar interests to hers. “I love hearing about the various passions and experiences that such a diverse group of students have within the minor.”

“Challenging these systems in my professional and personal life” 

“I was very aware of the privilege that an education at Cal gives me,” recalled Samyukta Shrivatsa, a senior studying environmental engineering science, “and was interested in understanding the education system I grew up with, the role education has to play in social and economic mobility, and how we can better serve students who go through the system.”

Samyukta Shrivatsa photo
Samyukta Shrivatsa photo

Shrivatsa came to the US from Bangalore. “Navigating college as an autistic student during COVID-19 was very challenging.” But it brought with it an awareness “of the complexities of privilege and power omnipresent in my life” and the desire to find a way to leave the world better off than how she’s found it. GPP 115 convinced her that “engaging in meaningful activities of solidarity” was where she wanted to be.

To these ends, she returned to Bangalore this past summer with Parikrma Humanity Foundation, which provides a holistic education to students from marginalized socioeconomic backgrounds. She had been intrigued by the way the school supported its students emotionally, medically, and financially since meeting some of those students in high school.

“I realized very quickly that my role as a temporary volunteer was miniscule, and that I had to think carefully about what kind of work I could do that would be most helpful to teachers with decades of experience,” she said. Shrivatsa observed the love with which the teachers approached their students’ difficulties. Her own days varied widely: playing football with students one day, talking K-dramas another day, introducing them to parliamentary debate yet another day, and all the while hearing out their backstories, hopes, and dreams.

For Shrivatsa, the practice experience and her classes have been a source not only of extensive knowledge, a realization of how much she doesn’t know, and how to be critical of “the systems and rhetoric surrounding issues of poverty and development,” but has given her the tools to “challenge these systems in my professional and personal life.” 

“Celebrating the importance of their work and passion” 

“I’ve landed in a front-row seat for US federal environmental governance, which is fascinating to watch, and extremely complex to be a part of,” said Elam of her EPA job. Some of the public’s preconceptions about the federal government, she found, aren’t far off, like dense bureaucracy and “high-level political indifference” slowing the pace of the government’s justice work. But that front-row seat also hit home that the EPA and its sibling agencies are made up of people at every level, who do good work and bad, “occupying different roles and having different impacts, and most importantly, responding to different pressures as ordained by their roles.”

In her second year, in an unrelated campus organization, she got to know a peer advisor, who became a mentor not only in GPP but for her whole Berkeley experience and work in social change. “I missed her when she graduated, and thought of her immediately when last spring I received an email from the GPP minor suggesting I apply to be a peer advisor,” she said. “Partly in her honor, and partly because I was flattered by the anonymous nomination, I did so and applied, and now I’m here!”

During advising sessions, Elam continues to draw inspiration from the peers with “their passion, drive, and ideas for their own GPP trajectories.”

“I believe in those students, and I want to celebrate the importance of their work and passion, and to set them up as well as I can  to have their desired impact on the world and their issue of choice,” she added. “I’ve found that I leave every advising appointment I have with a smile.”

DevEng Professors Publish “Introduction to Development Engineering,” the Field’s First Textbook

So in true development engineering fashion, Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon, part of the professional faculty at Haas School of Business, teamed up to publish Introduction to Development Engineering: A Frame with Applications from the Field — the discipline’s first textbook. It was published by Springer as an open access title on Sept. 9.

DevEng Professors Publish “Introduction to Development Engineering,” the Field’s First Textbook
Cover by Springer

UC Berkeley helped pioneer the field of development engineering more than a decade ago. Yet for many years, the professors teaching Berkeley’s foundational class, DevEng C200 (“Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies”), didn’t have a textbook for their students. The discipline — which integrates engineering with economics, business, natural resource management, and the social sciences — focuses on technological interventions that can address the needs of low-income communities, at scale.

When the field of development engineering was first getting started, “we had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find case studies for the students to understand and debate,” explained Prof. Ashok Gadgil, Rudd Family Foundation Distinguished Chair of Safe Water & Sanitation and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

So in true development engineering fashion, Gadgil and colleague Temina Madon, part of the professional faculty at Haas School of Business, teamed up to publish Introduction to Development Engineering: A Framework with Applications from the Field — the discipline’s first textbook. It was published by Springer as an open access title on Sept. 9.

“We want to make this a topic of academic research because, whether it’s business or engineering or economics, everybody is too fractured intellectually and looks up their own stovepipe and doesn’t solve the problem,” Gadgil said. “They just go deeper and deeper and get narrower and narrower in viewpoint.” 

“The big picture question,” he continued, “is how are we going to meet the U.N. sustainable development goals and still not blow our planet’s carbon budget?”

Ashok Gadgil
Temina Madon

The textbook is available online at no cost and in its first few weeks was downloaded from publisher Springer’s website more than 30,000 times. The Development Impact Lab, a USAID-backed initiative co-led by the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) and the Blum Center for Developing Economies, supported the expenses of creating the book, which included honoraria for contributing authors and other costs associated with open-access publishing.

Introduction to Development Engineering isn’t Berkeley’s only effort to formalize the field of DevEng. Gadgil, Madon, and Paul Gertler, an economics professor at Haas and the School of Public Health, launched Development Engineering, an open access research journal, in 2015. 

“We are going to launch this journal and it’s going to be open access,” Gadgil recalled telling the chairman of Elsevier — the world’s largest, and one of the most expensive, research-journal publishers — at a reception for a prize Gadgil had won. “Because otherwise the journal isn’t going to be useful for people and for the institutions in the countries where poverty is widespread.” To Gadgil’s surprise, the company wanted to get into open access publishing and was willing to take a loss for the first five years of the journal to ensure that DevEng could establish itself as a discipline.

That open access belief carried over to the book. 

After Springer expressed interest, Gadgil and Madon talked to EECS Professor Emeritus Eric Brewer, Haas’ Prof. Catherine Wolfram, economics Prof. Edward Miguel, and CEGA, among others, and knuckled down on the book “well before COVID” — as early as the beginning of 2019, Gadgil reckons. Some three and a half years later, anyone can download a free copy or purchase a hard copy from Springer’s website.

Whether or not other colleges’ efforts in this area use the term “development engineering,” there is no longer a need to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” for teaching materials.

Clocking in at 650 pages, the textbook features 19 DevEng projects that graduate students can use as case studies, ranging from fintech for rural markets in Sub-Saharan Africa to stopping arsenic poisoning in India to protecting electoral integrity in emerging democracies. The DevEng practitioners who authored a set of invited chapters have included open-ended discussion questions for students to consider the pros and cons of a project and debate other decisions that could have been made. None of the questions have simple answers, Gadgil said: “It’s still an evolving field.”

Yet rather than just presenting “a bunch of projects put together and stapled into a book,” Gadgil, Madon, and co-editors led the development of four framework chapters at the beginning to provide the intellectual history, ethical challenges, and philosophical underpinnings of development engineering. This is important, Gadgil noted, given the history of white-collar and often-white researchers and engineers going into poorer areas without the context or cultural fluency to ask the right questions, include the right people, or solve the right problems. An instructor can start with those four framework chapters and then select any subsequent projects from which they would like to teach. 

“Top-tier universities across the U.S. and across the world have courses that recognize that engineering is not just about solving existing problems of big industry,” Gadgil said. “They recognize that it must also be about solving pressing problems of society.”

Diverse in Discipline and Distance, United in Ambition: Meet the New M.DevEng Cohort!

Integrating her background with her education, Andono aims to center the environment when creating architecture, from its design process, construction, and operation, to create lasting, sustainable change.

Diverse in Discipline and Distance, United in Ambition: Meet the New M.DevEng Cohort!
The students of the cohort come from various backgrounds and disciplines, yet find commonality in wanting to use their education to innovate and create change in low-resource areas across the world. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

By Alisha Dalvi

When the pandemic forced Kristi Andono to move back home to Jakarta from Los Angeles during her undergraduate education, she was able to turn adversity into opportunity and take on a brand new role — the head of the Corporate Social Responsibility team for the Indonesian Energy Corporation. As she balanced taking classes online to fulfill her real estate and architecture degree, she was simultaneously designing shelters for victims of gender-based violence in remote villages, renovations for disintegrating orphanages, and infrastructure for water accessibility. “Growing up in Indonesia has exposed me to degrading environmental conditions and its constant battle with economic growth, where one has to be sacrificed for the other,” Andono said. Integrating her background with her education, Andono aims to center the environment when creating architecture, from its design process, construction, and operation, to create lasting, sustainable change.

From left to right, Esther Mburu, Diane Kabanyana, Martin Ssemulugo, Anjali Ravunniarath, and Charity Fang stand together in an ice breaker activity during orientation where they learn the numerous countries their peers are from. (Photo by Chetan Chowdhry)

Looking to equip herself with new skills to become a holistic changemaker, Andono applied and was accepted to UC Berkeley’s Master of Developmental Engineering program, housed at the Blum Center. This three-semester professional degree is a new program that attracts students across various fields, from business to engineering to economics, to develop technological advancements that address the needs of low-resource communities across the world.

Andono and 32 other students in the new cohort — the program’s second ever — attended the masked-up M.DevEng orientation on August 23. Through an interactive presentation, students gained insight into UC Berkeley as well as the program specifically. Afterward, students had the chance to mingle and meet for the first time, get to know M.DevEng staff, and go on a tour of Blum Hall — their new home for the next 15 months. This cohort is only the second in history, making them pioneers in the discipline and a fundamental group to shape the future of the program and the field.

Blum Center Faculty Director Dan Fletcher welcomes the new cohort during orientation in a speech that highlights UC Berkeley as a place of initiative, support, and creativity. (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

“The M.DevEng program is the shining star of educational activities at the Blum Center,” said Dan Fletcher, the center’s faculty director. “It is about finding creative people with initiative, who support each other, bringing them together, and tackling real problems.” Students of the new cohort will take three semesters of development engineering classes as well as elective classes focused on their concentration area, along with one summer internship in between. But the development engineering classes don’t follow one discipline; rather they center around “research and practice that combines the principle of engineering with economics, entrepreneurship, design, business, and policy,” said Yael Perez, the director of Development Engineering programs.

Director of DevEng programs Yael Perez shows the new cohort the new room dedicated to the M.DevEng program, located at the Blum Center. Students can look forward to a space to collaborate and use the new coffee machine! (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

That multidisciplinary element is essential to the program. During the orientation presentation, students were asked one word to describe developmental engineering. “Interdisciplinary” was the most common, appearing the largest on the computer-generated word cloud. The integrative approach of the program is especially important for Ash Seth, a product designer from Dubai who pursued a mechanical engineering undergraduate degree at Stanford University and who values the intersection of technology and social impact. As a designer herself, she has prototyped and tested affordable greenhouses for hundreds of smallholder farmers in India. But, as a strategist for an urban design nonprofit, Seth also understands the significance of dialogue across numerous disciplines, from scientists to policy specialists.

Diane Kabanyana, a business and economics major from Rwanda, is not only excited to learn from her peers through their previous academic endeavors, but from the various countries and backgrounds they come from as well. “I’ve only been here a week, but Berkeley is so diverse!” Kabanyana said. “I live at International House and it seems like every country is represented.”

The new M.DevEng cohort itself is composed of students from over 10 different countries. But being an international student is certainly not a prerequisite. Rachel Dersch is an energy engineer from Michigan. While Dersch has developed solar power projects in Peru and Tanzania, both still up and running today, she also found the need for energy consumption reduction in her own community. By spearheading pilot programs and technology demonstrations, Dersch has been able to work to reduce energy waste in Michigan. When looking to further her education in humanitarian engineering, Dersch found that development engineering is not just a new curriculum, but a new concept in colleges all together. The M.DevEng stuck out as one of the few existing programs that was truly targeted at creating impact in low-income communities. And it didn’t hurt that it’s offered at the top public university in the nation.

On a bright and pleasant day, the new cohort is taken on a tour of the Blum Center during orientation. The new Berkeley residents continuously mention the beautiful weather the Bay seems to have! (Photo by Alisha Dalvi)

Yet for all the diversity in the cohort’s educational and cultural backgrounds, one statement seemed to unite them all: “The food in Berkeley is so good!”

With students already raving about Boichik Bagels, just a few blocks away from campus, and local coffee shops, the new cohort seems to know where to fuel up before tackling projects which will make a meaningful and measurable impact on low-resource communities across the world.

After Two Years Without In-Person Gatherings, the Global Poverty and Practice Class of 2022 Celebrates at an Iconic Graduation Ceremony

As the Campanile rang twice, indicating 2 p.m., students wearing blue and gold stoles over their formal attire found their seats below the iconic clock tower.

After Two Years Without In-Person Gatherings, the Global Poverty and Practice Class of 2022 Celebrates at an Iconic Graduation Ceremony
The GPP Class of 2022 poses in front of the iconic Campanile after an exciting graduation ceremony commemorating their accomplishments.
The GPP Class of 2022 poses in front of the iconic Campanile after an exciting graduation ceremony commemorating their accomplishments. (All photos courtesy of the Blum Center)

As the Campanile rang twice, indicating 2 p.m., students wearing blue and gold stoles over their formal attire found their seats below the iconic clock tower. It was a beautiful, warm day, with the sun shining down to highlight the sight of smiling faces and students mingling. After months of remote sessions, followed by masked-up classes, the 70 graduates of the Global Poverty and Practice minor finally got to experience a physical sense of community. Being the first in-person GPP graduation ceremony in three years, it was only appropriate to have it at the most quintessential UC Berkeley location. “After so much time having passed since we had a graduation, we returned to the heart of the campus,” recalls Chetan Chowdhry, director of student programs at the Blum Center for Developing Economies and GPP’s lead advisor.

Abigail Lomibao, a Cognitive Science major, delivers her spoken-word poem in front of her peers at the graduation ceremony.
Abigail Lomibao, a Cognitive Science major, delivers her spoken-word poem in front of her peers at the graduation ceremony.

The Global Poverty and Practice minor is an interdisciplinary program that provides students with theoretical frameworks, methods, and practical skills necessary to engage with global poverty and inequality in effective ways. This valuable program certainly deserved an exciting ceremony. Alice Agogino, education director of Blum Center, the home of GPP, welcomed attendees, followed by a speech by Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor and Vice Chancellor for Research, Kathy Yelick. A special part of this year’s ceremony, though, was honoring Richard Blum, founder of the Blum Center, who passed away earlier this year. Agogino, Yelick, and Annette Blum, daughter of Richard Blum, recognized Blum and his family for his contributions and dedication to the center. Following these emotional parting words were two student speeches, both impactful and touching — a clear sign that the community cultivated within the minor is unlike any other.

“One of the things I always loved about being in GPP — we could always count on each other to care,” said one of the speakers, Madison Luzar, a molecular environmental biology major. “We knew that, at the very least, we could rely on each other to work together to try to overcome these obstacles and not just give up on the world.” 

Abigail Lomibao, the other student speaker, delivered a spoken word speech, poetically recounting how GPP students and faculty shaped her experience at Cal. The ceremony, too, strengthened relationships built within the minor; as each student walked down the Campanile Esplanade to receive their certificate, they read a statement for the following student. Rounding off the ceremony was a keynote speech from 2011 alumna Natalyn Daniels reflecting on the minor as a formative experience that shaped her commitment to activism and advocacy. “This campus and the world are lucky to have felt your presence and impact!” Daniels told the graduating class.

Madison Luzar, a Molecular Environmental Biology major, waves to the audience after delivering a powerful and emotional speech.
Madison Luzar, a Molecular Environmental Biology major, waves to the audience after delivering a powerful and emotional speech.

Students from all backgrounds and fields participate in this program; this year’s graduating class spanned 30 majors, ranging from architecture to public health to environmental economics. While there are only a few required classes, the program revolves around a student-arranged practice experience, where students connect poverty theories learned in class to tangible experiences by working extensively with organizations addressing poverty. “The practice experience is what many students find significant to them,” Chowdhry says. “It’s why the program even has its own graduation.”

But prior to fulfilling one’s practice, students must take two mandatory classes: GPP 115 and then GPP 105. In the former, students examine and critique popular ideas of poverty alleviation in the 21st century. By understanding 20th century development, students grasp the institutional framework of poverty ideas and practices. GPP 105 specifically prepares students to undertake their practice experience by learning the ethics of global service as well as methodological frameworks to work with organizations.

Victoria Osanyinpeju, a Conservation and Resource major, stands with Education Director Alice Agogino (left), and Annette Blum, daughter of Richard Blum (right) after receiving her diploma.
Victoria Osanyinpeju, a Conservation and Resource Studies major, stands with Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino (left), and Annette Blum (right), daughter of Richard Blum after receiving her diploma.

To formulate a practice experience, or PE, students are guided by their own interest and curiosities to identify a facet of poverty alleviation — from healthcare accessibility to food security to economic justice — that they want to focus on. With the assistance of the Blum Center’s network of connections, they then locate an organization, such as an NGO, a government agency, or a social movement which can foster hands-on community work. PEs can be arranged domestically or internationally and must be done for at least 240 hours over six weeks, although most students engage in their PEs much longer than this minimum. Graduates in the class of 2022 completed their PEs across the world, focusing on a variety of disciplines. Rhea Manoharan, a data science major, completed her practice experience in Moorea, French Polynesia working as an invasive species and pesticide management researcher with the French Polynesian government. Using data science and field research, she advised on environmental policy to find the safest and most equitable pesticide practices. Eniola Owoyele, an integrative biology major, worked on a USAID-funded research project focused on postpartum hemorrhage management and respectful maternity care for the Fitovinany and Atsinanana regions of Madagascar.

Following their practice experience, students take a course in which they reflect on their PE and learn to utilize the knowledge beyond the confinements of the curriculum. Students identify lessons which can be applied to public discourse and civic engagement by exploring the tensions between power versus privilege, tourism versus travel, and community service versus engagement.

 Friends and colleagues, Careena El-Khatib (left) and Celine Wheritt (right), smile for a picture in their seats as they wait for the ceremony to begin.
Friends and colleagues, Careena El-Khatib (left) and Celine Wheritt (right), smile for a picture in their seats as they wait for the ceremony to begin.

Completing the practice experience did not come easy for the class of 2022, though. With many having practice experience opportunities lined up, only to be canceled due to the pandemic, they were forced to adapt to abnormal circumstances. While some were able to pivot and arrange for their PEs to be done remotely, others did not have that option. For example, while many students originally had work arranged within the healthcare sector, addressing COVID-19 dominated the interest of those organizations. These organizations could no longer manage hosting students, as their priorities completely shifted. The GPP program, too, worked to be as flexible as possible to ensure students were able to complete the minor. In the summer of 2020, students were able to do slightly fewer hours or work remotely if needed. For students who weren’t able to do the full amount of time, they were given the opportunity to do an optional summer study, which allowed them to address the problem they had originally wanted to study in their PE by conducting research around a question they came up with themself.

Chetan Chowdhry, the Director of Student Programs, congratulates students at the 2022 GPP graduation ceremony.
Chetan Chowdhry, the Director of Student Programs, congratulates students at the 2022 GPP graduation ceremony.

The class guided them through exercises and methods to help them explore an area of interest centered around group disparity. Questions ranged from, “How might we decolonize and increase Indigenous sovereignty in environmental science and environmentalism?” to pandemic-related questions such as “How might we harness the catalyzing power of COVID-19 to radically reconstruct our social welfare policies and programs?” Students used these questions as a jumping off point for their topic of study, then identified and interviewed community members to obtain various perspectives and complete their practice experience in this unique manner.

Despite adversity making completing the minor much more difficult, students remained dedicated to the cause.

“Students were willing to take this opportunity as a way to learn. That is one of the things I greatly appreciate about the minor — students are coming into this program seeking to learn,” says Chowdhry. “In the face of such challenges, everything falling apart, it could’ve been really easy for a student to no longer want to take on this minor. But these students did whatever it took to complete it.”

And this years’ Big Ideas Grand Prize Award Goes To…

In its annual Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration on May 4, judges of the UC-wide Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest awarded the 2022 Grand Prize to the “SMART Cookies” project from UC Irvine, a community-based solution to iron-deficiency anemia. The Grand Prize award winner takes home $10,000 on top of any earlier awards earned in the past year.

And this years’ Big Ideas Grand Prize Award Goes To…
Daniel Haik showing the framed certificate for BIG IDEAS Grand Prize for Smart Cookie.
Fourth-year UC Irvine medical student Daniel Haik of SMART Cookies, the 2022 Big Ideas Grand Prize winner.

BERKELEY, May 6, 2022 – In its annual Grand Prize Pitch Day and Awards Celebration on May 4, judges of the UC-wide Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Contest awarded the 2022 Grand Prize to the “SMART Cookies” project from UC Irvine, a community-based solution to iron-deficiency anemia. The Grand Prize award winner takes home $10,000 on top of any earlier awards earned in the past year.

SMART Cookies is the brainchild of UCI fourth-year medical student Daniel Haik and Ghanaian partners from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Dr. Marina Aferiba Tandoh and Abigail Owusuaa Appiah. Through this collaboration, their team has developed “a bioavailable, plant-based, iron-supplemented biscuit” made from turkey berries, a tropical fruit packed with iron, antioxidants, and vitamins A and C. In a randomized, controlled trial at a school in Ahafo, Ghana, the fortified biscuits were found to be far more effective than a UNICEF initiative similarly aimed at lessening iron-deficiency anemia in adolescent girls. 

“Working with Big Ideas introduced our team to a vast network of experts in international development economics and clinical trial design in the earlier stages of our growth,” said Haik. “Their support will enable our team to begin a nationwide distribution of SMART cookies, which is a dream come true.”

Three men are presenting at a "Big Ideas @ Berkeley" event. The man in the center is speaking into a microphone, while the other two stand attentively beside him. They are dressed in white shirts and dark trousers, and each has a name tag. The backdrop displays the event's logo repeatedly.
The Madojo team, (L-R) Daniel Huang, Victor Okoro and Joshua Iokua Albano, winners of the Binance-LIFT “Blockchain for Social Good” Grand Prize. (Credit: Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering)

The other big winner of the night was the Madojo team, inventors of a blockchain-certified recruiting platform enabling Nigerian students to close the gap between job seekers and employers. They won the inaugural Binance CharityLIFT Initiative Award. Binance Charity and the Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT) have partnered with Big Ideas to nurture students and young social entrepreneurs working on Fintech and Blockchain solutions that promote legitimacy, humanitarian relief, financial health, gamification solutions, and workforce development, among many others. The Lab for Inclusive FinTech (LIFT), established with generous support from Ripple Impact and Binance Charity, is a research partnership led by IBSI aiming at unlocking the potential of digital financial technologies to benefit underserved populations around the world. LIFT has three major thrusts: research, experiential learning, and community building. 

“This is only the beginning for Madojo,” said Victor Inya Okoro, a Master in Development Engineering student on the all-MDevEng Madojo team. “We plan to use the network we built during the program to continue to iterate on our idea, and the funding will help us get started in the right direction.”

Other Grand Prize finalist teams included UC San Diego’s Algeon Materials, creating biodegradable and sustainable bioplastics from kelp to replace traditional petroleum-based packaging; the Foot Powered Cooler from UC Davis, a low-cost, energy-efficient cooling system designed to reduce post-harvest food losses at marketplaces in Uganda; and Carbon Pricing DAOs from UC Berkeley, a decentralized autonomous organization tool that enables the most accurate and scientifically rigorous pricing of carbon.

Of nearly 200 Big Ideas applications received last fall — from 700 grad and undergrad students representing every University of California campus and more than 70 disciplines — 16 finalists were selected in February, across the Social Impact Tracks of Global Health, Food and Agriculture, Financial Inclusion, Energy and Resources, Education and Literacy, Cities and Communities, Data and AI, and Art and Social Change.

An event with a masked woman applauding and speaking into a microphone while others sit nearby, some in masks.
Pitch Day judges, Rhonda Schrader (center), Francis Gonzales (left), and Rick Rasmussen (right).

“The multidisciplinary focus was incredible — all of the finalists harnessed the power of their teammates to provide powerful solutions,” said Rhonda Shrader, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship and NSF I-Corp program at Berkeley Haas School of Business and one of three Grand Prize judges. “So inspiring to see the energy, imagination and connectivity across all of the UCs — we’re stronger together.”

Founded in 2006 at UC Berkeley, and managed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies,  Big Ideas has grown from an annual contest at Berkeley to an innovation ecosystem that serves students at all 10 campuses across the University of California, with year-round programming including industry and alumni speakers and mentors, toolkits, and courses and workshops on innovation and social entrepreneurship. Over its history, Big Ideas has supported over 3,000 innovations, involving more than 9,000 students, and awarded $3M in funding to 500 winning projects that have gone on to secure approximately $1B in additional funding. 

Dan Fletcher named Blum Center Faculty Director

Daniel Fletcher, Blum Center Associate Director of Research, CellScope inventor, and Berkeley bioengineering faculty since 2002, has been named the new Faculty Director for the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. The position will start on July 1.

Dan Fletcher named Blum Center Faculty Director
Daniel Fletcher, Blum Center Associate Director of Research, CellScope inventor, and Berkeley bioengineering faculty since 2002, has been named the new Faculty Director for the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. The position will start on July 1. Since 2018, Dan has served as Associate Director of the Blum Center, leading an expansive research portfolio and supporting the Big Ideas program, the premier social impact ecosystem for students at UC Berkeley. Dan is also the Founder and Director of the Health Tech CoLab, a new multidisciplinary collaboration space in Blum Hall working to increase access to healthcare by accelerating the development of health technologies. The CoLab is the “first pillar” of the College of Engineering’s “Engineering Better Health” Initiative, for which he serves as special advisor to the college. Dan is the Chatterjee Professor of Bioengineering and Biophysics and a faculty member of the Bioengineering Department, an affiliated faculty of the Molecular and Cell Biology Department, and a Visiting Investigator of the Gladstone Institutes at UCSF. He is also a Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator, Faculty Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, member of QB3 Berkeley, and Co-director of the Physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory.  He and his research laboratory develop new technologies to study the role of mechanics in biology and detect diseases in low-resource settings. Their cell biological work is identifying how molecular-scale forces drive spatial organization and movement of immune cells and pathogens, and their diagnostic work is introducing new mobile tools to fight infectious diseases with collaborators around the world.  He received a DPhil from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, a PhD from Stanford University, where he was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, and a BS from Princeton University. His research has received an NSF CAREER Award, a National Inventors Hall of Fame Collegiate Award, and was designated “Best of What’s New” by Popular Science magazine, among other awards. He has been a Miller Professor, a Bakar Fellow, a Hellman Fellow, and served as a White House Fellow during the Obama administration. “My work at the Blum Center is inspired by the Center’s mission to spur innovation, scholarship, and entrepreneurship to improve lives,” said Fletcher, “I am honored and eager to take on the challenges of directing the Center’s efforts to further expand our impact.”

Pickering Lab to Increase Clean Water Access with $1.9M Award

Development Engineering Prof. Amy Pickering, Blum Center Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice at UC Berkeley, and Dr. Katya Cherukumilli, a postdoctoral scholar in Pickering’s lab, have won a $1.9 million award to increase access to clean and safe water in low-income urban communities around the world. The Open Philanthropy grant will go toward scaling up and deploying the Venturi, the in-line (passive) chlorinator device that was originally designed by local engineers in Bangladesh, Kenya, and the U.S.

Pickering Lab to Increase Clean Water Access with $1.9M Award
A man and a woman are standing next to a water dispensing device in an outdoor setting.
Amy talks with an entrepreneur in Kenya selling water disinfected by the chlorine doser she developed in collaboration with an international team of engineering students

Development Engineering Prof. Amy Pickering, Blum Center Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice at UC Berkeley, and Dr. Katya Cherukumilli, a postdoctoral scholar in Pickering’s lab, have won a $1.9 million award to increase access to clean and safe water in low-income urban communities around the world. The Open Philanthropy grant will go toward scaling up and deploying the Venturi, the in-line (passive) chlorinator device that was originally designed by local engineers in Bangladesh, Kenya, and the U.S.

Pickering, Cherukumilli, and their team will collaborate with field-implementation partners CARE and Davis and Shirtliff in Kenya, as well as Prof. Jenna Davis at Stanford University, to test the device in new settings including healthcare facilities and schools. The team has also been working with product design and engineering graduate students on campus to “assess the performance of the Venturi using liquid chlorine produced via electrochlorination and to lay the groundwork for using passive chlorinators at handpumps in the future,” says Cherukumilli.

A group of children are gathered near a small, colorful building labeled "Mboto Kaka-Koka Water Project Implemented by KWAHO" in a rural area. The building has a blue door and signboard with various instructions. Several yellow water containers are scattered around the area.
The chlorine doser installed at a water kiosk in peri-urban Kenya

Water can get contaminated on its way through inadequate piping, sewage, and drainage systems — an issue exacerbated by growing populations and increased reliance on intermittent water supplies. The Venturi works at the spot where people collect water, such as taps, and automatically adds a precise dose of liquid chlorine to the water that disinfects it while remaining undetectable to users — all without requiring electricity, moving parts, or frequent input on the part of users. 

The possibilities are huge. The Joint Monitoring Program has estimated that over 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water, including a quarter of the world’s healthcare facilities. The consequences can be staggering, including 300,000 or so children who die before the age of five each year due to diarrheal disease. Not only is the Venturi easy to operate and maintain, but diluted bleach needed to make the liquid chlorine is easily found in low-resource settings, and each unit of the device is expected to cost only $35 at scale. The team’s field testing has already shown that this approach to water purification could reduce child diarrhea cases by about 23 percent.

“We are excited about setting up manufacturing of the Venturi in Kenya and working with our partners on viable implementation models for increasing access to safe water in schools and health care facilities,” says Pickering.

Join Health Tech CoLab at Speaker Series

Makesh Ramalingam of HCL Technologies explains the process of bringing devices to market and the unique challenges posed by individual countries’ regulatory standards at the latest talk in the Health Tech CoLab spring speaker series. The event will be held in person in Blum Hall 120 and streamed live online. Click for more details.

Join Health Tech CoLab at Speaker Series

HealthTech CoLabMakesh Ramalingam of HCL Technologies explains the process of bringing devices to market and the unique challenges posed by individual countries’ regulatory standards at the latest talk in the Health Tech CoLab spring speaker series. The event will be held in person in Blum Hall 120 and streamed live online. RSVP here for agenda and Zoom details.

63rd Readiness Division hosts first NSIN Bootcamp

The 63rd Readiness Division kicked off the unit’s first National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) Bootcamp, hosted virtually in February 2022, to discuss improving services pertaining to Personnel, Readiness, Sustainment and Training. The workshop was led by two instructors from UC Berkeley in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit.

63rd Readiness Division hosts first NSIN Bootcamp
U.S. Army: The 63rd Readiness Division kicked off the unit’s first National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) Bootcamp, hosted virtually in February 2022, to discuss improving services pertaining to Personnel, Readiness, Sustainment and Training. The workshop was led by two instructors from UC Berkeley in partnership with the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit. “NSIN Bootcamp is practice-first, and our experience with applying the methodology to diverse problems as facilitators is the key driver of our relationship to our Bootcamp partners,” said Vivek Rao, one of the two NSIN Bootcamp instructors and a lecturer and researcher at the Haas School of Business and the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley. “To this point we have run Bootcamps with 27 organizations across the DoD, so we have a lot of experience working with diverse challenges and diverse mission partners.” Read more: https://www.army.mil/article/255133/63rd_readiness_division_hosts_first_nsin_bootcamp

How Indigenous burning shaped the Klamath’s forests for a millennia

Combining scientific data with Indigenous oral histories and ecological knowledge, research by Blum Center Associate Director for Sustainable Development Matthew Potts shows how cultural burning practices of Native people of the Klamath Mountains helped shape the region’s forests for at least a millennia prior to European colonization.

How Indigenous burning shaped the Klamath’s forests for a millennia
A dense forest of tall evergreen trees with a variety of shades of green, creating a lush and serene landscape. The forest floor is not visible, but the lower part of the trees shows a mix of green shrubs and vegetation.
Dense stands of Douglas fir trees surround South Twin Lake in California. (Photo by Clarke Knight, summer 2018)

Combining scientific data with Indigenous oral histories and ecological knowledge, research by Blum Center Associate Director for Sustainable Development Matthew Potts shows how cultural burning practices of Native people of the Klamath Mountains helped shape the region’s forests for at least a millennia prior to European colonization.

Berkeley Alumnae Tackle Language Gaps in Wildfire Emergency Communication

In the Fall of 2019, Abby Yue Gao’s first semester in UC Berkeley’s Master of Architecture program, her classes had to repeatedly pause due to another severe California wildfire season. Berkeley was spared the flames, but still suffered power shut offs and dreadful air quality thanks to that year’s worst blaze, Sonoma County’s Kincade Fire. Tens of thousands had to flee their homes; hundreds of thousands faced blackouts. A quarter of the county’s population speaks a language other than English at home — a major hurdle during disasters, when critical information from first responders goes out primarily in English.

Berkeley Alumnae Tackle Language Gaps in Wildfire Emergency Communication
A zoom video call screen with 6 people.
The WEmap team — Abby Yue Gao, Virginia Wong, and Yuquan Zhou — meet with Berkeley advisors Vivek Rao, Sukh Singh, and Thomas Azwell. (Abby Yue Gao image)

In the Fall of 2019, Abby Yue Gao’s first semester in UC Berkeley’s Master of Architecture program, her classes had to repeatedly pause due to another severe California wildfire season. Berkeley was spared the flames, but still suffered power shut offs and dreadful air quality thanks to that year’s worst blaze, Sonoma County’s Kincade Fire. Tens of thousands had to flee their homes; hundreds of thousands faced blackouts. A quarter of the county’s population speaks a language other than English at home — a major hurdle during disasters, when critical information from first responders goes out primarily in English.

The following spring, Gao enrolled in a Development Engineering course, “Innovation in Disaster Response,” taught by Vivek Rao, a lecturer at Haas School of Business and a researcher in mechanical engineering, and Rachel Dzombak, a former lecturer and researcher at Berkeley and now a full-time researcher and adjunct faculty at Carnegie Mellon University. Gao was interested in designing a digital product to solve a real-world problem, and the class pushed students to think about the best way to use technology in a disaster situation. 

After research, stakeholder interviews, prototyping, and more, Gao and her teammates, including then–Master of Landscape Architecture student Virginia Wong, created EvacMap, a prototype app for getting out up-to-date evacuation information during wildfires. A little over a year later, EvacMap became WEmap, a research project examining language-based needs in the dissemination of wildfire emergency information. It’s informing the way some of Marin County’s residents with limited English proficiency receive emergency information and resources.

“Sometimes when they receive the alerts or search for information about an emergency,” Gao said, “they might face different problems than native-English speakers.”

“They had very strong user insights,” said Urvashi Agrawal, head of experience for Genasys, the parent company of Zonehaven, a platform that facilitates communication between first responders and communities during emergencies. It’s also the platform on which WEmap prototyped its ideas. Agrawal said Zonehaven is now looking at how the WEmap team’s recommendations and other ideas spawned by them can be incorporated into the platform.

Developing ‘social–technical fluency’

“Innovation in Disaster Response” grew out of Dzombak and Rao’s interest in the skill sets needed to solve messy complex problems, including in humanitarian assistance and disaster response: framing and solving those complex problems, experimenting with emerging technology, taking a systems mindset and approach to solving problems, and working in interdisciplinary teams. It was a Development Engineering class, and only half the students came from engineering and computer science. The class was gender-balanced and welcomed undergrads.

A key aspect of the class — and of all DevEng curriculum, said Dzombak —  is “giving students agency so they feel like they can step into these hard problem spaces and make a difference.” That means taking a community-centered approach and understanding who’s already living and working in a community or problem space. 

“How do I find leverage points?” asked Dzombak. “How do I start to drive change at those leverage points in a way that is culturally appropriate, that aligns with the humans who are embedded in the system, that acknowledges the power dynamics of the system? And also, what role can technology play to change circumstances?” 

One can’t just be a hard-core technologist, but have what she and Rao call social–technical fluency. Students went deep in unpacking disaster-related problems in order to build the right solution — not build a solution in hopes of finding the right problem.

“Innovation in Disaster Response” has since grown into “Innovation in Disaster Response, Recovery and Resilience” (IDR3), thanks to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), a program office under the U.S. undersecretary of defense for research and engineering that connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems. Now, student groups team up with Department of Defense partners involved in, well, DR3. 

“Not only are you giving students a real-world problem for which they can make a tangible difference, but you’re also showing real-world entities and government entities that they can come to an academic institution like Berkeley and find plausible solutions to issues they’re facing,” said Kaitie Penry, NSIN’s program director at Berkeley, which is housed at the Blum Center. 

Gao and Wong “were really passionate but not sure of their place in an engineering class,” recalled Dzombak, who was a key developer of UC Berkeley’s Development Engineering curriculum and who still teaches virtually at Haas’ Executive MBA program. “But they quickly realized that their willingness to engage was way more important than whatever background they had.” 

The class had hardly ended and they were already looking for how to take their project forward, Dzombak said. “They cared so much about the outcomes. They cared so much about the work they had put into it.” 

Going to the next level

Last year, Gao and Wong brought in another 2021 Cal graduate, Yuquan Zhou, who did her master’s in city planning and whose concentration in environmental planning and healthy cities made her a perfect fit. They were also introduced to Sukh Singh, a researcher at Berkeley’s SCET and co-founder of Fire Foundry, and Thomas Azwell, a Berkeley environmental scientist who runs the Disaster Lab, which is currently focused on wildfire technology. Singh and Azwell had roots in the Marin fire scene and put the trio in touch with fire personnel and Marin County officials. 

Wong, meanwhile, discovered a design challenge put out by San Jose social enterprise Wonder Labs: “Reimagining 2025: Living with Fire,” which sought to “enable student-led teams to closely engage with communities in processes of reimagining inclusive, just, and sustainable pathways to living with fire.” Azwell and Singh assisted in their entry proposal, and Rao served as faculty advisor. “One of the reasons I believe in project-based learning is the potential for real-world impact,” Rao said. “I was thrilled that Abby and the team sought out the Wonder Labs competition, and we were excited to leverage the Blum Center’s innovation ecosystem to support them.” 

WEmap didn’t win, “but we really appreciated their idea, in particular their community-partnership approach with the Fire Safe program in Marin County,” said Wonder Labs co-founder Shefali Juneja Lakhina. Wonder Labs wanted to see WEmap come to life and find immediate traction in industry. As advisor to Zonehaven, Lakhina knew the company was expanding into Marin County, so she worked with Zonehaven to create a summer project for Gao, Wong, and Zhou. Wonder Labs eventually expanded its 2021 Design Challenge cohort to provide funding support and mentorship to the WEmap project team. 

“The project just made so much sense to bring Zonehaven in and not create yet another application. It was a very natural fit,” said CEO Charlie Crocker. “We’re always looking for how to innovate in this space and we found that with this project.”

Bridging the language gap

Using census and Wildland Urban Interface data, Gao, Wong, and Zhou found that households with limited English were more concentrated in Marin County’s more fire-prone areas. To hear directly from some of these residents, they homed in on Spanish-speaking San Rafael residents with limited English proficiency and — with the help of Marimar Ochoa, Marin County’s public information specialist, and Sofia Martinez, the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion analyst — they talked to folks at a Spanish-speaking community center, handed out surveys in Spanish, and sent out surveys on Reddit and Facebook groups. The team wanted to understand how these residents received emergency information, obstacles to receiving it, and how they feel and what they do once they have it. 

2 people are standing outside a store, discussing some papers.
One of WEmap’s community partners, Marin County public information specialist Marimar Ochoa, helped with outreach to Spanish-speaking residents of San Rafael. (Abby Yue Gao photo)

“The biggest takeaway is that English proficiency is highly correlated with how people react and respond to emergency alerts,” they wrote. Simply translating an alert into another language isn’t always enough to deliver the vital information or prompt the desired action. 

Out of these realizations came recommendations for Zonehaven to incorporate into their platform: understanding residents’ language preferences within the evacuation zones that Zonehaven divides communities into, and making emergency information available in those zones’ preferred languages. They also recommended including actionable resources in emergency alerts, providing a form for residents to sign up for non-emergency assistance in their preferred language, and providing opportunities for community volunteers to translate pressing information and become key nodes between emergency personnel and residents who are on the information-pipeline fringes. 

One of the most interesting findings of the WEmap survey, Azwell said, was “most people rely on a friend or family member for critical information — who probably relies on another friend or family member, who relies on another one.” Working with the most connected individuals in communities, Singh pointed out, is why Marin County’s eligible Latinx residents are closing in on a 100-percent vaccination rate. Putting translation into community members’ hands adds nuance and cultural fluency that might be lost in a Google Translate version. 

A Zoom meeting interface showing multiple participants in a virtual presentation. The main slide titled "Community support from translators to late" features two black-and-white illustrations: one of a woman with a bun holding a laptop, labeled "Volunteers sign up to help," and another of a person wearing a hat, labeled "Late receivers need assistance." The Zoom interface displays participant video feeds on the right side.
Abby Yue Gao presented WEmap’s findings and recommendations last August to Zonehaven, a platform that facilitates communication between first responders and communities during emergencies. Gao and her partners collaborated with the company on their project. (Abby Yue Gao image)

“I think the project has been a good example of true convergence research that applied disciplinary expertise to real-world problems by enabling an industry partner, Zonehaven, to improve their offerings and bringing in community experiences, perspectives, and insights,” Lakhina said. “And I think the timing of the project and the partnerships that it’s built on are truly a lasting contribution, both in terms of developing industry best practices as well as developing community capacities to respond to more just and inclusive evacuation planning.”

Rao celebrated the team’s journey, moving from the class in Spring 2020 to presenting their final work in front of Marin County civic leaders in August 2021. “Here is a team that took a very early stage concept from our course, used research data they collected to reframe the opportunity multiple times, and partnered with a dynamic startup to take their project to the next level and address an overlooked community need. They used the tools of design to execute at a high level and bring in key government stakeholders. This is the work we love to do at the Blum Center, and I’m so thrilled for what the team has accomplished.”

‘Creating a conversation’ 

WEmap and its partnerships and collaborations, Lakhina added, have established a robust methodology and foundation for developing these kinds of insights, which can be used to tackle other gaps in community-driven and inclusive disaster response, such as for those with disabilities and in places with poor internet.

“This is not something that we want to encourage students or research teams to sit in their labs and develop, but to get out there, work with industry partners, and co-develop with communities,” Lakhina said. “I think that is the single largest learning from this project.”

“This project really helps create a conversation within the disaster-response area that equity and cultural consideration are also worth focusing on, rather than just understanding the severity of fire and where the fire personnel are,” said Wong. “For us, it’s a new way of thinking about a problem, and I think we achieve it: trying to create a conversation in this industry.”

Richard Blum, Blum Center founder, benefactor, and friend of the university, passes away

The University of California, Berkeley, mourns the loss of Richard C. Blum, alumnus, business leader, philanthropist, UC Board of Regents President Emeritus, Berkeley Medal recipient, and founder of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. As a UC Berkeley alum, Richard Blum combined a fierce love for his alma mater with an equally fierce passion for addressing global poverty with the establishment of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, a multidisciplinary research center addressing urgent global challenges of poverty and inequity through education and technology. The Center was built on and continues to live out this vision and dedication.

Richard Blum, Blum Center founder, benefactor, and friend of the university, passes away

Laura Tyson, Chair of the Blum Center Board of Trustees and S. Shankar Sastry, Blum Center Director, issued this statement on the passing of our beloved Richard Blum:

Richard Blum
Richard Blum

The University of California, Berkeley, mourns the loss of Richard C. Blum, alumnus, business leader, philanthropist, UC Board of Regents President Emeritus, Berkeley Medal recipient, and founder of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. Richard died on February 27 at his home in San Francisco.

As a UC Berkeley alum, Richard Blum combined a fierce love for his alma mater with an equally fierce passion for addressing global poverty with the establishment of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, a multidisciplinary research center addressing urgent global challenges of poverty and inequity through education and technology. The Center was built on and continues to live out this vision and dedication. He will be missed tremendously, and all of us offer our sincere condolences to his family – particularly to his wife Dianne and daughters Annette, Heidi, and Eileen, who together with Richard have been great champions of the University and the Center. 

Richard Blum graduated from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business (BS ’58, MBA ’59), becoming a successful investment banker and founder and chairman of the private equity firm Blum Capital Partners. As a financier and philanthropist, he served on the boards of many companies and organizations, sharing his business acumen and his generosity.

Shankar Sastry, Richard Blum, and George Shultz
Left to right, Shankar Sastry, Richard Blum, George Shultz at the 2010 Grand Opening of Blum Hall.

His life was transformed by extensive travels and mountaineering in the Himalayas starting in the 1960s, which inspired his commitment to improve lives in the impoverished region. He established the American Himalayan Foundation in 1980 to build hospitals and schools, to combat the trafficking of girls, to combat poverty and to support culture, art and the environment in Tibet and Nepal. In this work, he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the two became lifelong friends. 

In 2006, a gift from Blum launched the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Describing his vision, Blum said in an interview at the time, “A lot of people don’t help with poverty around the world because they don’t know about it, they don’t feel it in their bones. With the center, we’re going to… inspire students here on campus to learn about the developing world, take courses, have an interest in the field – and hopefully, it will bring about an awareness that may lead them to develop careers working to make life better in different countries.”

The Center’s Global Poverty and Practice program, which has graduated almost 1,000 students, with practicums in more than 70 countries, is now one of the most popular minors on the Berkeley campus. From this beginning, the Blum Center has launched the new field of Development Engineering, expanding academic offerings to a Masters program and a Designated Emphasis for the Ph.D. program in Development Engineering. Also under Blum’s wing is the UC-wide Big Ideas Contest.

Research programs at the Center range from designing the Berkeley-Darfur Stove to reduce risks for women gathering firewood, to testing remote wireless technology in a village in New Guinea, to diagnosing tropical diseases – and other maladies common in low-resource settings – with accessible mobile phone technology.

The Center has since expanded to all the campuses of the University of California and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with each campus having its own special focus. Our federation of Blum Centers has a shared commitment to bringing development and prosperity across the globe.

In 2007, groundbreaking began for Blum Hall, a bold new reconstruction of the Naval Architecture Building and construction of a dazzling new adjacent building to house the Center, tying all together in a new front door for the campus. Nobel Prize winner and Former Vice President Al Gore addressed the crowd, saying, The faculty and students at the Blum Center can change the world – their efforts can have a truly significant impact on global poverty for years to come.” 

With construction completed in 2010, Former Secretary of State George Schultz and member of the Blum Center’s Board of Trustees gave the inaugural address, giving tribute to a center combining a spirit of can-do technology innovation with an understanding of America’s place in the world. Also in 2009, Richard Blum was awarded the Berkeley Medal, the university’s highest honor, with the 14th Dalai Lama in attendance.

Blum served on the boards of many distinguished organizations including the Wilderness Society, the Brookings Institution, the National Democratic Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the National Geographic Society. He was a trustee of the Carter Center in Atlanta. Both Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama are honorary members of the Blum Center Board of Trustees.

Fellow Blum Trustee Arun Sarin, former CEO of Vodafone Group, says Richard Blum was “a big man in every sense of the word, and he will be missed in a big way. He was a successful businessman, generous philanthropist, and a global diplomat at his core. His ability to attract people of differing views to serve a common cause was extraordinary – the sign of a great leader.” 

Richard dedicated his life to programs to combat poverty through compassion, innovation, research and education. We, along with the outstanding professional staff at the Blum Center, are honored to continue his mission and to honor his legacy. 

2022 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists Announced!

Of the nearly 200 pre-proposal applications that were received in November from students across every campus of the UC system, sixteen projects were selected from a diverse portfolio of innovations spanning a variety of social impact tracks, including global health, food and agriculture, financial inclusion, energy and resources, education and literacy, cities and communities, data and AI, and art and social change. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC San Diego, and UC San Francisco all have projects in the finals. Half of the team leads for the finalist projects identify as female. A quarter of the projects are led by undergrads.

2022 Rudd Family Foundation Big Ideas Finalists Announced!
A classroom full of young students dressed in yellow and blue uniforms, sitting at wooden desks.
Biscuits fortified by turkey berries were distributed to students at a school in Ahafo, Ghana. In a randomized, controlled trial, they were found to be much more effective than a UNICEF initiative at addressing iron-deficiency anemia in adolescent girls. (Daniel Haik)

Abigail Woolf was reading a research paper in her AI for Healthcare class about the success of a convolutional neural network — artificial neurons used to analyze visual imagery — that could detect referable diabetic retinopathy, a preventable but major cause of blindness around the world. The paper impressed her, but it was mum on actually utilizing an algorithm with so much potential in clinical settings. “I asked in class why the technology hadn’t been deployed,” said the UC Berkeley Master of Development Engineering student, “and the professor said that it was complicated to standardize the data and processes behind everything.”

Her aunt, who has diabetes, has to make frequent treks to the doctor’s office to get her eyes checked. Woolf also knew there were cheap lenses that could be attached to iPhones for use in clinical settings. What if she could combine these powerful algorithms for detecting diabetic retinopathy — which can be more accurate than doctors — with these lenses that diabetics could use at home? It would save folks like her aunt time and money, while allowing ophthalmologists to spend more time on treating cases and less on diagnostics. Woolf, a member of Berkeley’s Health Tech CoLab, envisions “a data/camera package that can be sold or donated as a single unit to clinics for automated DR diagnostics.”

Divya Menon
Divya Menon, UCLA MBA candidate and founder of Maiden, a trading application for single-family home equity. (Chithra Nair)

The idea earned a final-round spot in the 2022 Big Ideas competition. Of the nearly 200 pre-proposal applications that were received in November from students across every campus of the UC system, sixteen projects were selected from a diverse portfolio of innovations spanning a variety of social impact tracks, including global health, food and agriculture, financial inclusion, energy and resources, education and literacy, cities and communities, data and AI, and art and social change. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Merced, UC San Diego, and UC San Francisco all have projects in the finals. Half of the team leads for the finalist projects identify as female. A quarter of the projects are led by undergrads.

Read more about the finalists and their innovations here.

Message to Friends of the Blum Center

S. Shankar Sastry has announced that he will step down as faculty director of the Blum Center at the end of the academic year. In his message, he expresses his thanks and reflects on the many successes of his tenure as director from 2007 to the current academic year.

Message to Friends of the Blum Center
Shankar Sastry, Blum Center Director. Photo Copyright Noah Berger / 2017

         S. Shankar Sastry has announced that he will step down as faculty director of the Blum Center at the end of the academic year. In his message, he expresses his thanks and reflects on the many successes of his tenure as director from 2007 to the current academic year. The UC Berkeley campus has a search underway for his successor, who will start on July 1, 2022.
       “Richard [Blum] told me early on that he wanted the Center to be a “do tank” rather than a “think tank.” I believe we have done just that. It has been a privilege to serve as the Director of the Center – the experience of a lifetime for me.” — S. Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director, Blum Center for Developing Economies, UC Berkeley

Read the announcement from Blum Center Faculty Director Shankar Sastry

New Cal Students Tackle Social Entrepreneurship in Berkeley Changemaker Big Ideas Class

UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a key campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen.

New Cal Students Tackle Social Entrepreneurship in Berkeley Changemaker Big Ideas Class
A modern classroom with rows of students seated at tables, listening to a presentation. Six presenters stand at the front of the room, each wearing masks. Two large screens display slides with market size data, including terms like "Total Addressable Market (TAM)" and "Serviceable Addressable Market (SAM)." The students are engaged, taking notes on laptops and tablets.
A group of students pitches their social venture on the final day of the Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas class. (Jorge Calderon photo)

Anvitha Tummala sees many unhoused people on her walks to class, and it raises an uncomfortable thought for her: She and her peers are earning a world-class education at UC Berkeley with access to all sorts of amenities, while those living on the streets in her neighborhood constantly live without stable sources of food or shelter.

“Seeing that every day opened my eyes, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.

Tummala found an outlet in UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas. The class, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a key campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen.

In the Big Ideas course, teams of students identify a social or environmental problem, develop an impactful solution that can be implemented through a business model, and ultimately pitch their startup concept to a panel of expert judges. Teams also draft applications to the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems. The course ran the first eight weeks of the fall semester.

Read more about Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas here.

Professor Dan Kammen to Serve in Biden Administration

Blum affiliated faculty member Dan Kammen has been selected to serve as senior adviser for energy, climate, and innovation for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Kammen, a leading expert in renewable energy science, technology, and policy, will primarily work with the agency’s PowerAfrica team to develop partnerships with African nations, with the goal of expanding access to sustainable power.

Professor Dan Kammen to Serve in Biden Administration
Dan Kammen
Photo credit: Elena Zhukova

Blum affiliated faculty member Dan Kammen has been selected to serve as senior adviser for energy, climate, and innovation for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Kammen, a leading expert in renewable energy science, technology, and policy, will primarily work with the agency’s PowerAfrica team to develop partnerships with African nations, with the goal of expanding access to sustainable power. 

Read more here.

Blackbook U wins Big Ideas Grand Prize

The UC-wide Big Ideas Contest, based at the Blum Center, awarded the 2021 Grand Prize to Blackbook University, a team of Berkeley undergraduate students led by Ibrahim Balde that designed a platform to equip Black students with communities, resources, and opportunities to help overcome institutional inequities in higher education and employment.

Blackbook U wins Big Ideas Grand Prize

Blackbook University founder Ibrahim Baldé at the 2021 Big Ideas Grand Prize Pitch Day, talking into a microphone.The UC-wide Big Ideas Contest, based at the Blum Center, awarded the 2021 Grand Prize to Blackbook University, a team of Berkeley undergraduate students led by Ibrahim Balde that designed a platform to equip Black students with communities, resources, and opportunities to help overcome institutional inequities in higher education and employment.

Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny made the announcement at the September 23 Grand Prize Pitch Session, featuring all six Grand Prize finalists, along with People’s Choice winners. Learn more about all of the 2020-2021 award-winning Big Ideas and Watch the September 23 Grand Prize Pitch Session and Awards event recording.

The Big Ideas Contest is an annual UC-wide innovation competition that provides funding, structure, and mentorship to interdisciplinary teams of students who have creative solutions to pressing social challenges.

Big Ideas is now accepting pre-proposal applications for the 2022 round. See the BigIdeasContest.org website for more information, or attend upcoming information sessions.

The Big Ideas Information Session on Tuesday, November 2, at 6-7 pm will feature the 2021 Grand Prize winning team, Blackbook University. The Blackbook team will discuss their winning strategies and entrepreneurial journey. Register at https://bigideascontest.org/apply to attend the hybrid event, which will be held online and in-person at Blum Hall.

Blackbook Info Session Flyer

Berkeley X-Force Fellows Team Up with Military Sponsors to Solve Real-World Problems

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

Berkeley X-Force Fellows Team Up with Military Sponsors to Solve Real-World Problems
A group of people, both men and women, are gathered outdoors, likely on a military base. They are dressed in military fatigues and tactical gear, including helmets and vests. One man in uniform is standing and appears to be instructing or briefing the group.
The X-Force Fellowship gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to tackle real-world national security issues in DoD agencies. (Photo courtesy of NSIN)

By Sam Goldman

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

“This is among hundreds of other tasks and things we have to do to get everything ready,” said TSgt. Darin Pugh, Ellsworth’s maintenance training section superintendent, who oversees the process with MSgt. Samantha Rohrenbach, the base’s education and training manager.

The hefty time commitment “prevented us from being able to extrapolate useful things out of the data and come up with solutions because we were so focused on just getting the data into something that was presentable,” said Rohrenbach.

To solve their problem, Pugh and Rohrenbach applied to participate in the X-Force Fellowship program, which pairs the technical and entrepreneurial skills of students with Department of Defense (DoD) organizations, to address real-world military problems. For example, rather than ask a group of college kids for a shiny, all-or-nothing “Corvette-of-a-solution,” thought Pugh, “let’s have them build us a skateboard.” Because of his experiences with these types of arrangements in the past, he had seen contractor solutions sometimes fizzle out when the teams adopting the solutions couldn’t figure out how to use them.

In June, Rohrenbach and Pugh laid out their operational problem to three X-Force Fellows, including Lisa Huang, who had just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in cognitive science and a minor in data science.

Using only basic Microsoft Excel functions, the students automated the base’s laborious process, which saved the airmen significant time. The Ellsworth training team has implemented their solution into its routine, and other Air Force bases have expressed interest in implementing the solution as well.

“We asked for a skateboard and they gave us a really awesome, deluxe scooter,” expressed Pugh.

“It’s [the fellowship] really cool and rewarding,” said Huang, “because they [the airmen] can’t stop saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve saved us so much time. We’re already done. You’ve cut us back, like, a week.’”

Sharing UC Berkeley insights and innovation with the military

The X-Force Fellowship is an initiative of the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), which is a program office under the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. NSIN connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems. This summer’s 11-week, virtual program comprised 277 fellows from 36 universities across the U.S.

At 16 fellows, UC Berkeley had one of the largest cohorts from any individual school this year. Some of their projects included building out data-literacy products with the Naval Air Force, creating an algorithm that categorizes and tracks physical changes at commercial seaports with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and helping the Army Research Laboratory-West modernize tech and bring it to the market. “By the end [of the fellowship], some project sponsors would have hired their fellows on the spot if they could,” said Pamela Sharma, NSIN X-Force program manager.

“They didn’t just meet expectations, they blew past them,” explained Sharma. “What’s always really exciting to hear and really exciting to see is that people are coming in and coming up with solutions that are more innovative or more complex than people thought possible, and in such a short period of time.”

‘It could impact the entire Department of the Air Force’

Huang admitted to feeling a little intimidated and overwhelmed when the program let her know she had been accepted and that her project would involve data analysis and data visualization. She wondered if her limited experience from her data-science classes would be enough. Moreover, she was busy teaching at Girls Who Code.

After hearing about other, buzzier projects, Huang and her two teammates — from the University of Texas, San Antonio and George Mason University — weren’t exactly thrilled. “We were like, ‘Oh. Excel program,’” Huang said. “But we didn’t expect the results to have such a drastic effect on the Air Force.”

Huang spent the beginning of summer mastering the ins and outs of Excel, including power query and pivot tables, and her team exemplified true service and went to work on a solution. None had much experience with Excel — “which was amazing,” Pugh noted in hindsight. Huang and her team met virtually with Pugh and Rohrenbach twice a week, usually for an hour, corresponded over email, and sometimes met one-on-one. During their time together, they’d revise models of the solution, test data, and even found ways to expand the scope of the project.

Huang and her team called their solution “Tool Assisted Analytics Process,” and it automated Ellsworth’s training-data analysis by using only Excel’s pivot tables and power queries. Not only did they hand off to their project sponsors the slicers and graphs, but also a user manual and documentation that covered how they developed the process. “It’s not what we thought we wanted before the project,” said Rohrenbach, but in the end, it was “exactly what we needed it to be.”

When it came time for Huang and her team to demo their project to other X-Force teams and DoD agencies, Tool Assisted Analytics Process was 100 percent successful. “The ownership they had toward the end, it was kind of awe-inspiring to me,” said Pugh. In addition, their solution caught the eye of other DoD organizations. The team’s solution has been shared with Air Force Global Strike Command and all the Maintenance Groups in the Command, which account for all bomber and missile bases in the U.S.

Their solution wasn’t the flashy, complicated solution Pugh had seen flop before. “They kept it simple,” he said. “Any DoD computer has Excel on it.” Aside from paying their fellows, the Tool Assisted Analytics Process costs “zero money to implement, maintain, or upgrade.”

“After only working on something for 11 weeks, that it could impact the entire Department of the Air Force — that’s incredible,” Sharma said. “That’s phenomenal — something to be really proud of.”

‘Something no one has ever done before’

Huang wasn’t the only UC Berkeley student to change the way the DoD solves problems this summer. Edison Guanuna is an electrical engineering and computer science major who saw the X-Force Fellowship program in one of Berkeley Engineering’s newsletters. “I thought, ‘That’s a super-cool name, so I’ll check it out.’” He took 30 minutes to apply, not expecting to get in.

He was accepted and teamed with Jaylan Pierce from San Diego State University. They were paired with a couple of innovative professors including Rob Semmens, a systems engineering researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and Michael “Misha” Novitzky, a robotics researcher at West Point.

Together, they spent the summer exploring robot behavior, which comes in two forms: hard-coded behavior, where the robot’s actions in any situation are dictated precisely by its pre-written code, and machine-learned (or reinforcement-learned) behavior, where the robot begins to make its own predictions for how to act based on its previous experiences.

Guanuna tested these two approaches by simulating robots playing aquatic capture the flag, which is a game of defending one’s own territory and flag while remaining undetected and trying to capture their opponent’s flag. The game had been played before by Novitzky, who had led a project at MIT called Aquaticus, where two teams, both composed of humans and robots, would face off in Boston’s Charles River. But coordinating humans’ and robots’ behavior is difficult. Just telling a robot, say, to snatch a flag means it has to hear the command and translate it into a series of actions: figure out where it has to swim, then orient itself in that direction, scan for the flag, go to it, snatch it up.

Teaching a robot commands is of keen interest to the military.

“The fewer people we can put in harm’s way because the robot can do the job, the better,” said Semmens.

Guanuna’s primary focus was to develop machine-learning defensive behavior for the robots — “which no one had done before,” he noted. After studying up on Aquaticus, reading through documentation, and performing research, Guanuna hand-coded robot behaviors and created machine-learning algorithms to facilitate more robot behaviors.

The results came as a surprise. “In the defense, the hand-coded behaviors are better than the reinforcement-learning behaviors,” said Semmens. “But in the offense, it’s the opposite.”

Guanuna and Pierce had “proved very plainly that machine learning and AI are not the solution for every problem that’s out there,” he added. “So I think it was a pretty great 10 weeks with them. Even though it started off as a summer internship, I fully expect them to get publications out of this. They deserve it.”

Berkeley undergrads and graduate students interested in making their own tangible impact on practical national-security problems can get started now: Applications for the full-time, paid Summer 2022 X-Force Fellowship open October 18 and close December 17.

A New ‘Pipeline for Social Innovation’: HealthTech CoLab opens in Blum Hall

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

A New ‘Pipeline for Social Innovation’: HealthTech CoLab opens in Blum Hall
Several people, all wearing face masks, are gathered around a table in a bright, well-lit room with large windows. On the table, there is medical equipment, including a device with tubes and a screen displaying "RespiraWorks."
RespiraWorks, which produces ventilators and respirators for low-resource settings, demos one of their devices at the CoLab opening. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

By Sam Goldman

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

Housed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the HealthTech CoLab will be unique among the many accelerators and incubators at Berkeley and around the Bay Area. While those programs have launched Berkeley students’ and alumni’s ideas — from smart power grids to new forms of plant-based meat — into the laps of VC firms and toward adoption, less profitable innovations are often left without a pipeline to viability — including many tech innovations focused on improving lives in low-resource regions.

A speaker standing behind a white podium, is addressing a seated audience in a bright, modern indoor space with large windows. The audience is seated in rows and includes men and women, many wearing face masks.
Prof. Dan Fletcher welcomes guests to the HealthTech CoLab’s grand opening on Sept. 23. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

“That’s certainly the case with many global health technologies that are being developed,” said Dan Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering and the Blum Center’s associate director of research. “They’re not something that a VC is looking to fund right now. How do we support those projects that have the potential to really transform lives but aren’t the ones that are being sought after by people with money?”

Enter Fletcher’s brainchild, the HealthTech CoLab.

In addition to a virtual and in-person space for undergraduate, graduate, and faculty teams to harness their human experiences, trade stories, and start dialogues, the CoLab will provide space for student teams, host workshops and talks, and be a place for teams and industry to connect and share each other’s know-how.

“Having an impact on health requires input from a lot of directions — from clinicians, from technologists, from patients, from healthcare providers,” said Fletcher. “It’s such a complex problem that I think we need a space where we can focus attention on that collaboration and not just the technology development.”

The need for this kind of space, unconstrained by profit-first notions of success, was made all the more pressing by the pandemic, which revealed serious inadequacies in healthcare systems — from delays in receiving Covid-19 test results to difficulties even accessing quality care. “It makes this an exciting and urgent time to try and change that,” Fletcher said. “There is a dire need for expanding access to quality healthcare.” 

“The CoLab will be a hub of cross-pollination within and beyond campus,” said CoLab Manager Karenna Rehorn. “Great innovation doesn’t happen in a silo, and developing a medical device that truly addresses a pressing need in healthcare should incorporate the perspectives of those it’s intended to benefit as well as those who know how to bring the initial idea into the field.”

Once Fletcher and crew had the vision in hand, a spate of supporters also keen on changing the way healthcare is delivered stepped in to get the lab off the ground, including the Harvey and Leslie Wagner Foundation, Mitsuru and Lucinda Igarashi, former Vodafone CEO and Blum Center trustee Arun Sarin, and the CoLab’s first corporate partner, HCL Technologies.

A group of young adults, both men and women, are gathered around a table in an indoor setting. They are all wearing face masks. On the table, there are various technical devices and equipment, including a tablet and what looks like a microscope or similar apparatus. A woman on the left is speaking and gesturing with her hands, possibly explaining something to the group. The group appears engaged and attentive to the explanation.
Researchers show off the Fletcher Lab’s CellScope, which can make a high-quality microscope out of a smartphone camera. (Judah Marsden photo)

Last month, the CoLab was officially introduced in a grand-opening ceremony with balloons, HealthTech CoLab merch, and, of course, CoLab face masks. On display or being demoed during the opening were social tech innovations of the sort that will eventually develop in the CoLab: We Care Solar, KovaDx, RespiraWorks, CellScope, and Sal-Patch — most of which originated at UC Berkeley, many through the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, also housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems.

“The HealthTech CoLab will help upcoming Big Ideas health projects by offering access to everything from industry feedback to the space and resources needed to further their social ventures to the point where they know they have some traction,” said Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny.

The 3,000-square-foot lab is home to a new conference room and small meeting room with video-conferencing systems. The main space hosts electrified work tables, A/V capabilities, and lockers for teams. The set-up allows the CoLab to seamlessly transition between, say, several in-person team meetings and a virtual symposium. 

“What astonished the Dean’s Office was how quickly this came together,” recalled Karl van Bibber, professor of nuclear engineering and the college’s executive associate dean, at last month’s opening. “When I got the email that said, ‘Could you come here? We’re having the opening,’ I said, ‘Already?’”

Eight inaugural teams will be selected later this fall semester for up to a year’s stay in the CoLab.

“The real work begins now,” said Fletcher. “The set up is done, but now the work of inspiring and organizing and encouraging student teams and faculty labs begins.”

Kris Kohler Joins Dev Eng, GPP Programs

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes.

Kris Kohler Joins Dev Eng, GPP Programs
Kris Kohler
Courtesy of Kris Kohler

By Sam Goldman

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes. Kohler holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in sociology from UC San Diego and a B.A. in Black studies and political science from UC Santa Barbara. 

Kohler’s research and teaching has centered on transnational activism and social movements, international development (or “underdevelopment,” as he notes), and global sociology. He has lived and worked in two dozen countries, most notably in Zambia, and has served in the Peace Corps, worked as a rural health volunteer, and is a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellow. Kohler also has over 80 courses under his belt, including lectureships at San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara, Montgomery College, UC Merced, Stanislaus State University, and Mount St. Mary’s University. 

“UC Berkeley is probably the finest public university in America, if not the world,” he says. “I am a product of California, and the UC system, and the opportunity to teach at UC Berkeley is an honor.”

GPP 115 is a core course of the undergraduate Global Poverty and Practice Minor and focuses on 20th-century development and 21st-century poverty alleviation, and Kohler brings a wealth of first-hand, on-the-ground experience.

“I consider myself a ‘citizen of the world,’ and the challenges of social inequality, poverty, power, and oppression have been concerns of mine for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I majored in ethnic studies, I studied abroad, I participated in the Peace Corps and various social movements. I have studied transnational social movements and international development for a very long time as well. The Global Poverty and Practice course is a wonderful fit for me, providing the opportunity to highlight the role of power and movements in questions of poverty and development.”

“We are excited to have Kris join the teaching team of the GPP Minor,” says Chetan Chowdhry, the Blum Center’s director of student programs and GPP’s lead advisor. “GPP 115 isn’t an easy course to teach, but students in the course have already expressed how much they are learning from it just a few weeks into the semester.”

Kris Kohler speaking in a Zoom call
Kohler teaching DevEng 202: Critical Systems of Development

DevEng 202 is one of two required courses for first-semester Master of Development Engineering students, the inaugural cohort of which started classes last month. M.DevEng students learn a variety of methodological frameworks, the skills needed to participate in the sustainable-development field, and the history and ethics of global development. “I am a ‘pessimistic optimist,’ Kohler says. “I know that ‘another world is possible,’ but strategies for positive social change must be grounded in sophisticated understanding of the challenges which face us.”

“It’s been exciting to sit in the class and see how engaged the students are with the material. It is often hard to stop the conversation for the sake of moving to the next reading and topic,” says M.DevEng program coordinator Yael Perez. “The power of the class was particularly evident when one of the students asked to turn off the recording for a question that he didn’t want to have on any record due to its political sensitivity in the country he is from.”

No one or two perspectives or disciplines are enough to capture the realities of poverty and development. Kohler grounds his teaching in a “globalized, transnational, and international world of experience and scholarship” and “emphasizes cross-national and cross-cultural comparison of sociological concepts,” and pulls from a diverse array of media to accommodate students’ various learning styles and to facilitate cross-cultural communication. Importantly, his courses’ concepts and research are not merely theoretical. “I take great pains to outline the relevance of social and political theory to the lives of real, flesh-and-blood people,” Kohler says.

“We are thrilled to have Kris aboard to teach such pivotal courses in the M.DevEng and GPP programs,” said Prof. Alice Agogino, education director of the Blum Center. “He not only brings a deep and first-hand familiarity with his subjects but also years of experience and passion for teaching the next generation of effective changemakers.” 

Every class, Kohler notes, is an opportunity to debunk myths and hegemonic ideas. “Students in my courses are constantly challenged to interrogate dogmatic understandings of globalization, economics, democracy, freedom, justice, crime, race, gender, culture, and nation,” he says.

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Host Organizations

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Berkeley Program Director​

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