The National Security Innovation Network, a program office within the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Blum Center have expanded their partnership to connect students, researchers, and entrepreneurs at the University of California, Berkeley, with the DoD. This collaboration allows NSIN to help bring the university’s energy and talent to solve important defense and national security problems.
It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.
It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.
Bert joined the Blum Center Board of Trustees in 2016, and in 2019 he came to Blum Hall to serve as a senior health advisor because he could not fully retire. Although his career had been long and illustrious—he had served as the former president, CEO, and research director of Children’s Hospital Oakland for more than 40 years—there was still much he wanted to do.
And indeed, there was much he did do. He advised students from our Global Poverty & Practice program in their quest to reduce health inequities in California and beyond. He brainstormed with us to further the impact of the Blum Center’s Big Ideas Contest, Development Engineering programs, and healthcare technology innovations, specifically CellScope.
Months before his death, Bert was working the phones and sending emails at all hours to support Project PreVENT, to make backup ventilators available at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. He helped pull together a coalition of scientists and healthcare professionals that included College of Engineering Dean Tsu-Jae King Liu and Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell. “If there’s anything I can do to help,” was Bert’s constant refrain, during a time he was weak and fatigued from battling brain cancer.
Dr. Lubin leaves many legacies. He is widely known for advancing the concept of the social determinants of health and health equity, which include such varied factors as early child development, food security, housing, social support, education, housing, and poverty. A national expert in pediatric hematology, particularly sickle cell disease, he launched the first newborn screening program for hemoglobinopathies in California, which became the national standard, saving thousands of largely African American children’s lives. He started the first sibling cord blood banking program in the world for children with hemoglobinopathies; co-authored the first clinical best practice guidelines for sickle cell anemia; and supported the application of gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for children with hemoglobinopathies.
At Children’s Hospital Oakland, he also mentored over 1,000 aspiring healthcare practitioners from underrepresented, minority high school, college, and post-baccalaureate institutions. The CHORI Summer Research Program was Bert’s way of saying: My parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t come from money, but now I develop groundbreaking health care programs for all children—you can, too.
In an interview for an October 2019 Blum Center article, Bert said: “I think we have to have healthcare leadership involved in public policy. If you don’t get policy and implementation together, then you’re not going to move the needle. We need to stop pursuing small economic advantages. We need to focus on big impacts for society.”
Thank you, Dr. Bertram Lubin. We will carry your inspiration and vision with us.
—Blum Center Faculty and Staff
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963
In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, we remember Dr. King’s words about the rippling effect of injustice and oppression. We are horrified by the senseless racism and abuse of privilege and power that remain prevalent in parts of our society. And we stand in support of the peaceful exercise of grief, horror, and desire for systemic change for those who are injured and attacked for the color of their skin, the location of their home, or the assertion of their rights.
The mission of the Blum Center is to promote social justice, inclusiveness, and greater economic and social opportunity for all. We believe that racial, ethnic, and religious harmony, empathy, and a shared sense of purpose are critical to solving the big problems confronting us today: the pandemic, global warming, poverty, health inequities, and racial and social injustices, to name a few.
To create an atmosphere for working collectively on these large problems, we need to strengthen our networks of mutuality and speak a language that embodies a spirit of community, nationally and globally. We need to speak of historical sins and understanding, of the stark need for cultural, economic, and racial justice. We need to reaffirm loud and clear, Black Lives Matter. This must be part of the language with which we give power to a new culture based on solidarity, humanity, and progress.
Although we are in a moment of multiple crises: health, environmental, economic, and political, we harbor the hope that this moment can yield new understandings, futures, and destinies. Let us work together to create a more just, equitable, inclusive, healthy, and prosperous world.
Faculty, Staff, and Students of the Blum Center
When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.
When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao—who both earned PhDs in Engineering at Cal, have expertise in design and innovation, and lecture for the Blum Center and the Haas School of Business—that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.
For their 23 students—comprising even shares of graduates and undergraduates, technical and non-technical majors, and women and men—determining appropriate technological interventions to disaster-driven problems became visceral. And as the class moved online, connected by Google and Zoom instead of open studio space, the students observed how all manner of organizations were struggling to use technology to protect lives and livelihoods due to the fast-moving coronavirus.
Ethan Stobbe, a Master of Engineering student, recounted that the class started with different readings about drone technology. One reading was written for and by engineers whose view of drones was promotional and laudatory, and the other was written by and for government employees who warned about public policy problems presented by unmanned aerial vehicles.
“I realized there was this massive disconnect between the people who develop the technology and get excited about it and push it,” he said, “and the people who have to use technology to make life in a disaster zone more bearable. That’s the beauty of this class—to see both sides—and to understand how to bring technology that’s less than a decade old into a disaster response zone.”
Stobbe was assigned to the “cash disbursements” team with a fellow engineer and two lawyers. They included: Karen Olivia Jimeno, a Master of Development Practice and Fulbright student from the Philippines; Mozheng (Edward) Hu, a Master of Engineering student focused on product design from China; and Ifejesu Ogunleye, a Master of Development Practice student who trained in law at University of Manchester and the Nigerian Law School. As they conducted interviews about cash disbursement with representatives from FEMA, Give Directly, and other organizations, they were guided by Dzombak and Rao not just to focus on the mobile technology, but on “framing and reframing” their understanding of how to make cash disbursements more effective.
The team’s first framing question was: How might we help streamline the disbursement of cash relief while maximizing its impact in disaster response? This prompted the students to question how the disbursement process works, why particular steps in the process are difficult, which organizations are the largest, and what existing standards govern the field. After conducting several interviews with practitioners, they learned that cash allocation can be enhanced through crowdsourced information and public accountability, but that targeting people is a challenge and enrollment and verification takes time. So they reframed their question to: How might we speed up the distribution of cash transfers by improving the enrollment of and verification process of disaster survivors?
The team’s final idea, which included a prototype website presented over Zoom in early May, was “biometric pre-registration” along with a policy guide to address legal concerns. The idea was to compel individuals in flood, hurricane, and other disaster zones to pre-register their biometric information on a website, in order to receive cash disbursements more easily in the event of a calamity. The point, argued the team, is to work around the problem of identification, as driver’s licenses, social security documents, and birth certificates often disintegrate in disasters. During their final presentation, the team acknowledged how seeing the rollout of the CARES Act, in which tax returns were used as a verification method, validated the need for solutions that enable quick access to cash for citizens.
Dzombak and Rao see the educational approach they offer to the cash disbursement and other teams as part of the emerging discipline of Development Engineering. “Development Engineering embraces complexity as a sub-discipline in itself,” explained Rao. “A lot of ways that design-based problem solving or technology-driven problem solving is taught—the problem isn’t engaged in a multi-dimensional way.”
Dzombak underscored that although the course teaches design methodologies, “The actual project is the focus and outcome of the class. The projects themselves demand that one builds technical and social fluencies and specifically how to move back and forth between the two to solve problems that matter.”
Dzombak feels strongly that STEM education needs more problem contextualization, more emphasis on ethics, and more rigor around collaboration and teamwork. She was drawn to Development Engineering during her PhD at UC Berkeley because she wants to see academic inventions tested and applied but also because she believes that well implemented technologies, devised in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way, can improve and even save lives.
Rao explained that there is a long orthodoxy in higher education that you must learn theory before exploring applied technologies or solutions—an orthodoxy that stems from the need for deep knowledge before tackling complex problems. “But there is also an urgency to many problems,” said Rao. “Students have a hunger for them and there are many ways to contribute to problems before you have a PhD in a specific field.”
Rao noted that the accessibility of technology is changing who gets to intervene in disasters and how. “The ability to manufacture a mechanical part would previously have required a high degree of fluency in several knowledge areas and toolkits,” he said. “Now, a rough prototype of that product can be designed and built with a credit card and a few clicks. In many cases, the learning curve on technical tools has eased to the point where you can engage with tools and theory simultaneously and cater to students where they are.”
Dzombak noted that the augmented reality and data visualization sessions of their course would not have been possible four years ago when she and Rao were working on their doctorates. “Every student would have needed a background in programming and hardware in order to engage in that space. But given where toolkits are now, students were able to download software, do some reading, and then engage in a meaningful way.”
Since technologies will alway be advancing, Dzombak and Rao believe there is a growing space for people who are tech savvy but not tech specialized and can frame questions while leveraging the latest tools. “We’re trying to teach students how to learn how to learn in a very explicit way,” said Dzombak. “Because of the way jobs are shifting, people are going to be forced to get up to speed on new technologies and figure out how to use them to tackle problem areas.”
The student team that explored drone imagery is an example of this approach. They were excited to apply drone technology to fire mitigation in California. But after talking to fire chiefs, image processing researchers, and drone operators and designers, they surfaced several problem areas in which they did not have the expertise to make a contribution. For example, they knew that one of the challenges in using drone video footage during disasters is how best to parse the massive amount of data generated. And they also knew that drones suffer from flight mechanics and battery power issues during disasters, but those issues are best handled by drone manufacturers. Where could they make an impact?
One area where they found less activity is how to leverage public and private drone operation after the first hour of a disaster. The “Rapidash” prototype—developed by Master of Development Practice Student Aaron Scherf, Master of Engineering Student Wai Yan Nyein, Cognitive Science Student Meera Ramesh, and Data Science Student Jinsu Elhance—is an app that enables public and and private drone operators to collaborate during disasters by providing maps of high vulnerability areas and access by firefighters to this information. The idea is to get firefighters crucial information about the direction and density of a blaze as soon as possible and especially when public drones are too far away.
Katie Wetstone, a Master of Development Practice student who was assigned to the “disinformation” team, said that this kind of idea formation has been a strength of the class. “We were given a structured way to process information after interviews and organize different insights,” she said. “This approach is different from other courses, in that we have more time to research and understand a problem space rather than jumping to a solution.”
Wetstone said it wasn’t until the last third of the class, after interviews with Alex Diaz at Google.org and Chris Worman at TechSoup, that her team homed in on the idea that disinformation is a “public sector problem in a private sector space.” They also realized that immediately after a disaster there is an “information vacuum period” when a lot of disinformation spreads, making people vulnerable to news that increases anxiety and bad decisions.
“This whole problem is a balance between education, technology, and policy,” said Master of Development Practice Student Sadie Frank. “Until the policy mechanisms around enforcement and regulation of social media change, or until private social media companies make significant personnel investments, our best approach might be to teach people how to recognize and avoid disinformation.”
During the final projects showcase, the disinformation team presented “Compasio,” a downloadable device extension that filters potentially inaccurate information on social media through pre-verified accounts and geolocation. The software essentially warns users when information is suspect or unverified.
Dzombak notes that “Innovation in Disaster Response” is not meant to jumpstart social enterprise ideas, such as new apps and web services, though it might. “The training is meant to prevent unintended consequences once students go into the workforce. That’s why we spent a lot of time on critical thinking, ethics and values, decision-making, and teaming.”
Deniz Dogruer, an Engineering Education PhD Student and COO of Squishy Robotics, who served as the graduate student instructor for the course, noted that the range of disaster-related problem spaces students explored—drones, disinformation, evacuation, disaster documentation, and cash disbursement—made the course particularly complex to teach but also advantageous for development engineering training.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the course online gave faculty and students a chance to consider the importance of technology during disasters, Dzombak said it’s been a “mixed bag.”
“In some ways, it gives students an excellent way to connect with their learning. The disinformation team, for example, was inundated with so many examples of how their problem can manifest,” she said. “On the flip side, so many people think the future of education is purely online. But the intangibles that we’re trying to teach—collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, process iteration, emotional connections—are just drastically changed. I think the irony is that solving complex societal problems requires people collaboration as much if not more than advances in technology. We need to be present with each other, not just with the machine.”
Around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses that will help developing and developed countries alike.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
So began T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land about madness and death, trauma and hope, and the confusing world of the early 20th century. A century later, we find ourselves in another cruel April, one witnessed and suffered by the whole world due to the coronavirus disease pandemic: COVID-19.
At the Blum Center, we like all centers and departments and schools have been shifting to online teaching, advising, and working—as well as closely following the spread of the disease to low-income countries and regions. As you know, the news is bad. The COVID-19 crisis threatens to disproportionately affect developing countries, not only as a health crisis but as a devastating social and economic crisis.
For poor countries, the socioeconomic fallout from COVID-19 could take years to recover from, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report released on March 30. The report warns that income losses are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries, and nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost:
“With an estimated 55 per cent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition. Under-resourced hospitals and fragile health systems are likely to be overwhelmed. This may be further exacerbated by a spike in cases, as up to 75 per cent of people in least developed countries lack access to soap and water.”
But there is room for hope and more for action. As Berkeley Economics Professor Edward Miguel points out in a recent Cal news article, Africa has certain strengths for combatting COVID-19. Unlike much of Europe, the median age of many African countries is young: 20 years old. That could mean the proportion of people who die could be much lower in African countries. That might also be true for India, where the median age is 26.8. Miguel, who is faculty director of the Center for Effective Global Action, also notes two other strengths: Even though Africa is rapidly urbanizing, a large share of the population still lives in rural areas, where social distancing is more possible.
He continues: “Another strength is the regional experience in sub-Saharan Africa dealing with Ebola in the last five or six years. There was infrastructure put in place to screen people, to contain an epidemic. I know Ebola and COVID-19 are quite different, but that capacity building may help now. And Africa has 30 years of dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Partially due to local initiatives, partially due to global aid initiatives, African health systems are much stronger than they were 20 years ago, or 15 years ago.”
Still, there is much to fear and prepare for. Multilateral agencies, international foundations, and all manner of aid organizations focused on poor countries are moving funds and resources toward saving lives. A UNDP-led COVID-19 Rapid Response Facility has been launched with an initial $20 million; however, UNDP anticipates a minimum $500 million need to support 100 countries. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have urged debt relief to poorer countries hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with bilateral creditors playing a major role.
“Many countries will need debt relief. This is the only way they can concentrate any new resources on fighting the pandemic and its economic and social consequences,” said World Bank President David Malpass at a March 26 meeting. Malpass reported that the bank has emergency operations under way in 60 countries and its board is considering the first 25 projects valued at nearly $2 billion under a $14 billion fast-track facility to help fund immediate healthcare needs. Meanwhile, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have pledged $274 million in health and humanitarian assistance. And Bill Gates is spending billions to set up factories that will make the seven most promising coronavirus vaccines.
Around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses that will help developing and developed countries alike. The first target of a new AI research consortium, the C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute (of which I am co-director), is research that addresses the application of AI and machine learning to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Bioengineering Professor and Blum Center Chief Technologist Dan Fletcher and his lab members have come up with a way to adapt the fluorescence microscopy function of their mobile phone microscope, the CellScope, to assist in rapid testing. Fletcher and his colleagues have been working with virology expert Melanie Ott of the Gladstone Institute and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, among others, to provide the rapid remote detection portion of the team’s CRISPR-based COVID-19 RNA detection method. Dr. Bertram Lubin, the Blum Center’s and College of Engineering’s senior advisor in health, has been working with a coalition of UC Berkeley engineers led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell, emergency room doctors, and critical care pulmonologists to turn sleep apnea machines into ventilators. And Development and Mechanical Engineering Student Paige Balcom is in Uganda (where there are 55 ICU beds with oxygen for a population of nearly 43 million people), using her social enterprise Takataka Plastics to manufacture face shields for doctors and staff in the town of Gulu.
In this issue of the Blum Center’s Innovation Chronicle, we salute these and others working stop the spread of COVID-19 and educating the next generation of Berkeley changemakers. Fiat Lux!
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and Siebel Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Bio-engineering and Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley.
In anticipation of the expansion of its Development Engineering programs and continued growth of the Big Ideas Contest and global problem-solving initiatives, the Blum Center welcomes two new members to its board of trustees.
Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA, a leading humanitarian organization that fights global poverty and provides lifesaving assistance in emergencies. CARE works in 93 countries and directly reaches 63 million people annually. Nunn took the helm of CARE in 2015 and has since invested in innovative new programs and partnerships with private corporations and other nonprofits. Among her initiatives, Nunn has set a goal of increasing CARE’s micro-savings program from 7 million participants to 60 million participants by 2028.
Before joining CARE, Nunn built an illustrious career of civic and public service as a social entrepreneur, a nonprofit CEO, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. She co-founded the volunteer-mobilization organization Hands On Atlanta, and expanded it from a single entity to a national network of more than 50 affiliates. Nunn oversaw that group’s merger with Points of Light, creating the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, with affiliates across the globe engaging more than 70,000 corporations and nonprofit organizations.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, Nunn majored in history with a minor in religion and earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She also received a Kellogg Fellowship to study faith and social justice in more than a dozen countries, from Peru to Namibia to Jordan.
Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss is the founder and CEO of RockCreek, a leading global investment firm that applies technology and innovation to sustainable investments. Previously, she was managing director and partner at the Carlyle Group and president of Carlyle Asset Management. She was treasurer and chief investment officer of the World Bank and worked at Shell International and J.P. Morgan. Beschloss has advised central banks and regulatory agencies on global public policy and financial policy. She led the World Bank’s energy investments and policy work on sustainable investing in traditional and renewable energy and power projects to reduce carbon emissions. She founded its Natural Gas Group to invest in natural gas and power projects in emerging economies.
Beschloss serves on the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the World Resources Institute, and the American Red Cross, among others. She is a member of the World Economic Forum and the Council of Foreign Relations. Beschloss is a past Trustee of the Ford Foundation, where she chaired the Investment Committee.
Beschloss is a recipient of the Institutional Investor Lifetime Achievement Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award. She was recognized as one of American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking. Beschloss holds an MPhil (Honors) in Economics from the University of Oxford, where she taught international trade and economic development. She is the co-author of The Economics of Natural Gas and author of numerous journal articles on energy, finance, impact, and sustainability.
Said Professor Shankar Sastry, faculty director of the Blum Center, “We are delighted Michelle Nunn and Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss have agreed to lend us their intellect, ear, insights, and sage advice to further the Blum Center mission to educate the next generation of global citizens and support breakthrough interdisciplinary research for the widest societal benefit. In Fall 2021, we will launch the first professional master’s degree in Development Engineering, piggybacking on what we have learned from our faculty innovations, our Big Ideas Contest, our undergraduate program in Global Poverty & Practice, and our PhD programs in Development Engineering. We are grateful these two exceptional people will be helping us with that and other efforts.”
Erica Stone, who has served as president of American Himalayan Foundation for close to 30 years, came to her job through an unusual path.
After graduating from Cal with a BA in Sociology she met Gil Roberts, an Alta Bates emergency room physician whom she describes as “part climber, part doctor, part Hells Angel.”
“Gil said, ‘Would you like to go camping?’ I was smitten so I said, ‘Sure.’ Then I asked ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Everest Base Camp,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ So, we went camping. We walked from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp. This was 1991; it took a month. We fell in love and then we went back to Nepal a lot.”
Roberts was among the first Americans to climb Hidden Peak in the Karakoram range in Pakistan and almost lost his life scaling Everest in 1963, when a 30-foot-high slab of ice tore loose and killed his climbing companion. Through the climbing community, he later met UC Regent Richard Blum, who started the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF) in 1981 to alleviate the widespread poverty he had witnessed on his trips to Nepal.
“Gil was on the board of AHF,” explains Stone. “I went to a meeting or two. At one point, Richard was looking around for someone to grow it because it was tiny, with revenues of $60,000 per year. By then I had an MBA from the Haas School of Business and was working as a consultant. At first, I was reluctant but then I thought, Why not? So, I traded my crampons and duffle for a laptop and garment bag.”
Stone’s adventurous spirit and sharp business skills have been a driving force behind the American Himalayan Foundation’s steady expansion, which now gives away around $4 million a year. The nonprofit has a diverse portfolio of programs—from supporting girls’ education and restoring ancient temples to building health clinics and protecting tigers. Its staff is intensely loyal; in addition to Stone’s 29 years at the helm, Vice President Norbu Tenzing has been with AHF for 27 years, Nepal Country Director Bruce Moore for 20 years, and Deputy Director Charu Pradhan for 17 years.
Stone says much has changed—particularly travel to and communications with one of the world’s more inaccessible regions—and much remains the same. “We had a startup feel about us in the early days and that has not changed,” she notes. “If you want to operate in Nepal, you need to be willing to pivot at any point and in any direction, because it’s not a country that you can predict.”
The foundation’s reaction to the earthquake in 2015 illustrates this flexibility. The Gorkha earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people and injured almost 22,000, which meant that AHF had to continue programs and add new ones in a country that was literally convulsed. Thanks to its educational programs, AHF could mobilize its local partner networks on the ground to help distressed students and their families. AHF and it partners deputized teachers to distribute “blue bags” with food, water, clothes, toothbrushes, and other essentials. The foundation also built 54 temporary schools and later rebuilt or repaired a hospital, elder homes, and schools.
Stone’s approach to philanthropy is marked by this kind of practicality: do what makes sense, meet people where they are. Although its headquarters are in San Francisco and AHF employs a staff of six in Kathmandu, the foundation is largely leveraged—meaning it always works in partnership with local people and organizations to identify, implement, and improve its programs.
“In the early years especially,” relates Stone. “I would go and look for local rockstars—people who are driven, passionate, savvy, and can actualize. We would sign onto their vision and help them build capacity.”
STOP Girl Trafficking is one the initiatives that has grown from a local rockstar’s vision. In 1993, the AHF board—which now includes dignitaries like former Ambassador Peter W. Bodde and celebrities like Sharon Stone—began to hear rumblings about rural Nepali girls being sex trafficked, largely to India. Stone convened a meeting of local people working against trafficking at Malla Hotel in Kathmandu. Eighteen people showed up, including Nepali doctor Aruna Uprety.
“Aruna was clearly the star,” remembers Stone. “She had seen Nepali girls trapped in brothels in Mumbai. They said to her, ‘It’s too late for us. What you need to do is go back and stop other girls from coming here.’ Aruna had this vision for preventing girl from being trafficked—it’s cheaper, easier, and prevents so much suffering. She led us to keep girls in school, and to educate them so they are more valued in their families.”
The American Himalayan Foundation started with 54 girls in 1997 and now supports 12,000 females in 500 schools annually, with 25,000 still in school or having graduated. Funding is always challenging, but STOP Girl Trafficking resonates with people and has been easier to fundraise for than some other AHF initiatives, says Stone. Richard Blum has been very supportive.
Another local star identified by Stone and her colleagues is Dr. Ashok Banskota, an American-trained pediatric orthopedic surgeon who Dr. Gil and Stone met in Nepal in 1988. He asked AHF for a $4,000 donation to buy an autoclave sterilizer for his small clinic. In the 1990s, health clinics in Nepal were ill equipped and poverty was rampant—with an estimated 80 percent of the population living on less than $2 per day. A child’s serious injury or disability could debilitate an entire family and destroy their life chances. Dr. Banskota was among the few doctors with the skill to fix club feet, twisted spines, and fractured arms and the passion to do it for low or no cost.
“I started to go back and see Banskota,” remembers Stone. “He moved from that clinic to another one in a rented house in Kathmandu. [Blum’s wife] Senator Dianne Feinstein came and saw the clinic and said, ‘Richard this is great stuff. He’s astonishing. His dedication to his kids is amazing.’”
Over the past three decades, AHF has supported Dr. Banskota’s Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children, including helping to build a new 100-bed hospital in Banepa, just outside Kathmandu. Banskota’s son, Bibek, has followed in his father’s footsteps as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and has joined him at the hospital that now employs 230 staff and provides 25,000 consultations and 2,300 surgeries annually. Over 95,000 children have been healed since AHF’s first visit.
Stone may still see herself as an accidental nonprofit president, but she says she never changed jobs because of the draw of Nepal, its people, and especially its vulnerable girls. Although she grew up far from the Himalayas (in Montreal), she has been a longtime student of female empowerment through her practice of Taekwondo, a martial art she took up as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley after being stalked on its streets. She has 5th degree black belt and for 35 years has run an all-women studio in Berkeley as a community service.
“Empowering women is really important,” says Stone of her JLAG/Wild Crane Rising martial arts studio. “I have heard it said that men are afraid women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them. How do we teach women to defend themselves, not just physically but psychologically? If you neutralize the balance of physical confidence between men and women, it makes a lot of other stuff more possible.”
Stone is psychologically astute about cultural differences as well. She was quick to realize that American approaches to work don’t translate well in the Himalayas. “In South Asia, if people don’t see you, they don’t believe in you,” she says. “You have to show up and sit down and talk to them. That’s the only way I know how you can have a trusting, lasting relationship. So Norbu and I meet with every single partner once or twice a year.”
The doctor-climber who introduced Stone to Nepal died in 2000 to cancer. Yet she says the country Gil Roberts brought her to remains reverential. “When I first went,” remembers Stone, “we were coming into the Kathmandu Valley by plane. It was dusk and I looked down and there was not much electricity in the city, but you could see all these little lights. People were cooking over fires. It was completely magical. I just fell in love. I’ve been about 50 times since, and I’m still in love.”
By Shankar Sastry
In a recent poll from Oxford University’s Our World in Data, a majority of Americans said that the share of the world population living in poverty is increasing—yet one of the trends of the last 50 years has been a huge reduction in global poverty. In fact, per World Bank data, the proportion of the Earth’s population subsisting on about $2 a day or less has dropped by more than 75 percent over the last four decades—from 42 percent in 1981 to 10 percent in 2015.
Just as remarkable, annual worldwide deaths of children under 5 have plummeted since 1990. Thanks to health interventions in respiratory infections, diarrhea, and preterm birth as well as massive success in vaccinations for measles, tuberculosis, and malaria—global child death rates have dropped by more than a half. We also are approaching 90 percent adult literacy and seeing large gains in girls’ education.
So why are so many Americans unaware of these tremendous global gains?
One reason is that whereas poverty, health, and educational outcomes are improving in developing nations, in the U.S. poverty shot up to 1960s levels in 2009 and the cost of health, housing, and higher education is thwarting socioeconomic mobility for too many Americans. The regional, racial, and class details of this phenomenon are constantly in the news. In fact, in America— thanks to our always-on, click bait media—we are drowning ourselves in bad news.
Yet here on the UC Berkeley campus and at the Blum Center, we find students are not just well informed—many are brimming with hope and commitment to continue to fight extreme poverty in developing nations and to reduce inequality and work for social and economic justice in the United States. We also finding that in addition to students lending their energy and intelligence to established organizations, some are seeking to form news ones through startups and through incubators and accelerators like Big Ideas, CITRIS Foundry, and Skydeck.
There is also growing understanding among Blum Center faculty, staff, and students that higher education must adapt to the future of work. As my good friend Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian pointed out in a recent World Economic Forum article, “There is an undeniable need to train the next generation in emerging digital competencies and to be fluent in designing, developing, or employing technology responsibly. At the same time, 21st-century students must learn how to approach problems from many perspectives, cultivate and exploit creativity, engage in complex communication, and leverage critical thinking.”
In this issue of the Blum Center’s Innovation Chronicle, we invite you to read about students combining these skills sets for a fairer planet. Please read about Kaloum Bankhi, a sustainable housing organization in Guinea led by Big Ideas winner and recent UC architecture graduate Aboubacar Komara. We also have an article about the forest economics research group led by Professor Matthew Potts, who is Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. And we invite you to listen to our Global Poverty & Practice students about their poverty action fieldwork in the Philippines, San Francisco, India, and Colombia.
All their efforts, combined with the larger story of global poverty reduction, make me think that 2020 is a year for great hope and hard work for global progress.
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.
By Shankar Sastry
This winter, the Blum Center was among the many groups in academia and development to celebrate the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT and Michael Kremer of Harvard were lauded for their innovative use of randomized control trials and behavioral economics to evaluate the effectiveness of global poverty interventions—and for a body of scholarship that has transformed the field of development economics.
Stated the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: “This year’s Laureates have introduced a new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty. In brief, it involves dividing this issue into smaller, more manageable, questions—for example, the most effective interventions for improving educational outcomes or child health. They have shown that these smaller, more precise, questions are often best answered via carefully designed experiments among the people who are most affected.”
One of Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer’s innovations—strengthened by other leading development economists like UC Berkeley’s Edward Miguel—is to emphasize the importance of field work and the contribution of teams. Previously, development economists worked largely in isolation; today, their studies often include dozens or even hundreds of people representing government, nonprofits, civic organizations, and private firms. This approach leads to greater transparency of both the data collected and the methodology used, as well as a richer inquiry into which poverty reduction programs and policies should be studied and whether or how they should grow.
At the Blum Center, we are studying how advances in development economics are part of a new and emerging field, which we call “global problem solving” and “development engineering.” This field is responsive to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the fact that, in many cases, we have the scientific and technological tools to meet the United Nations’ 17 goals but not the financial will or transformative tools for changing people’s behavior to achieve them. Development engineering builds on what development economics has revealed—which poverty interventions are succeeding—and then modifies or scales or re-invents them for implementation elsewhere.
In this way, development engineering is both deeply indebted to development economics as well as a transdisciplinary field for our time. Its rigor is in understanding complex societal challenges—such as the need to build earthquake and typhoon-resistant homes around the globe—and then devising the technological, cultural, financial, policy tools, and work force development to implement these problem solutions.
Elizabeth Hausler, who received her PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Cal, and went on to found Build Change to empower people to live and learn in safer homes and schools, is an exemplary development engineer. When she visited the Blum Center recently, she said her organization’s greatest challenge is not in seismic technologies but in all that surrounds resilient construction in developing nations: community buy-in, policy frameworks, government advocacy, financial product availability and affordability, and ensuring local construction workers are well trained.
Hausler called her efforts “Money, Technology, People” or “The Financial, The Technical, and the Social,” describing a kind of holy trinity of development engineering demands. Another way to describe development engineering is that it enables iterative problem identification and solution formulation propelled by interdisciplinary teams. In essence, we are advocating a transdisciplinary approach that combines the insights-oriented rigor of development economics with the solutions-oriented rigor of engineering. We also aim to integrate business, natural resources, public health, and social sciences into development engineering in order to appropriately and ethically create, implement, and scale new technologies to benefit people living in resource-deprived regions.
Over the next year, the Blum Center will take steps toward realizing the promises of development engineering by partnering with the College of Engineering and the Haas School of Business to hire two tenure track professors. One will be an assistant professor whose focus area may include: engineering better health, the nexus of food, energy and water systems, accessible low-cost energy technologies, the digital transformation of societal systems, climate change mitigation, or sustainable design and communities. Applicants will be hired 50 percent into the Blum Center and 50 percent into a home department in Bioengineering, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Operations Research, Materials Science & Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, or Nuclear Engineering.
The second hire will be an assistant, associate, or full professor in Entrepreneurship in Developing Economies who will split his or her time between the Blum Center and the Haas School and whose research topics may include productivity, innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises, financing for entrepreneurial activities, start-ups, venture capital funding, incubators, and policies to promote new businesses.
These professors will help us realize the promises of development engineering and be leaders, with their future students, in the achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.
By Shankar Sastry
At the Blum Center, women using their entrepreneurial and discipline-specific talents to start innovative projects and organizations has been a goal since our founding. The difference today compared to 13 years ago is that there are more networks and investment opportunities for female founders. Yet barriers still exist (to be broken).
At the October 1 CITRIS Women in Tech Initiative “Inclusion by Design: Practical Tips for Improving STEM Equality,” the Blum Center’s Phillip Denny was part of a panel discussing ways to increase the participation and success of women and under-represented people in entrepreneurship.
“Networks and mentors are extremely important for female innovators, as they are for everyone,” said Denny who directs the Big Ideas Contest.
Recently, Denny documented in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article that in Big Ideas there is a correlation between female participants’ success and the number of female judges in the pool. The researchers also found that women mentors, who advise on project plans, offer much needed perspectives and networks and have a better understanding of some of the types of products and services that women are proposing.
In this month’s newsletter, we are featuring several women entrepreneurs who have come through Blum Hall.
Maria Artundauga, 2019 winner of the Big Ideas Contest, discusses how her personal and professional experiences led her to found Respira Labs, a Skydeck startup, and how she navigates male-dominated spaces as a woman of color and an immigrant.
Also in this month’s newsletter is an interview with Jill Finlayson, Cal graduate, longtime Big Ideas Contest mentor, and director of Women in Technology Initiative at CITRIS (Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society) at UC Berkeley, where she supports research and initiatives to promote the equitable participation of women in the tech industry.
Also featured is the work of Vicentia Gyau, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and Global Poverty & Practice alumna, who co-founded the nonprofit Education Redefined for All to improve public education and workforce development in Ghana.
In addition, October was another tremendous month for Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino and her startup Squishy Robotics, which makes shape-shifting robots for first responders in disaster situations. The Professor of Mechanical Engineering was named one of the 30 women in robotics by Robohub, and her invention won the Grand Winner Award at 2019 Silicon Valley TechPlanter competition in the global accelerator category.
Please join me in the celebration of these and other women founders and social entrepreneurs at the Blum Center, at UC Berkeley, and beyond.
And please take a look at Jason Liu’s article on the Development Engineering course Design, Evaluate and Scale Technologies (DevEng200), which is being taken by 44 UC Berkeley STEM and social science students, more than half of whom hail from outside the U.S.
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.
Career paths are both visible and hidden to UC Berkeley students, probably because college is both a time to prepare for the workplace and analyze its history. At the Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) Post-Practice Retreat on September 7 at Blum Hall, five GPP alumni shared their experiences navigating work and life after Berkeley. The retreat provides support for current GPP students as they consider their personal and professional journeys at Berkeley and beyond.
Amber Gonzales-Vargas, now a senior program manager at the Latino Community Foundation, said she sought work with an organization whose values aligned with her own and that could allow her to create solutions to systemic problems present in the United States. She also wanted to work locally and serve Latinx communities. At the Latino Community Foundation, Gonzales-Vargas says she is inspired and challenged each day to push through barriers to enact greater change within Latinx communities. She also said she is constantly being challenged in how she approaches problems—learning from which she adopted from her GPP coursework and practice experience.
Similarly, Priya Natarajan says she considers her work with Teach for America a “long-term practice experience.” Since being placed to teach elementary special education at a Voices Charter School in the Bay Area, Natarajan says she has been reminded of the power and the value of community, a theme commonly discussed in GPP coursework. Teaching special education has also made her reflect on the GPP minor’s emphasis on structural and systemic failures and the power dynamics present within the workforce.
Like Natarajan, panelists Jennifer Fei, Ryan Liu, and Alison Ryan spoke about their own journeys after graduating from UC Berkeley and echoed the sentiment that figuring out the best fit professionally requires experimentation and a lot of trial and error.
Jennifer Fei, currently a program manager at the Immigration Policy Lab, shared her experiences working at Berkeley Consulting and Goldman Sachs as well as her decision to get a master’s degree in international policy from Stanford University, which helped her land her current job managing the Lab’s refugee research portfolio. Fei’s advice to GPP students is to never underestimate the importance of putting your best foot forward in every project and professional relationship. Fei said people are willing to advocate for you when they remember your quality of work. Fei also advised GPP students to make space for themselves by attending to their mental well being. Gonzales-Vargas agreed that making space for herself allows her to better serve the communities she represents. She says self care “helps to build my resilience and in spaces where I may otherwise have thought there was no hope.”
Similar to Fei, Liu’s postgraduate experience was not linear. Liu graduated from Berkeley with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, but was interested in finding work outside of what he saw as the rigid structure of the field. As a result, he explored an array of industries—from working at an NGO in Nicaragua to taking on positions in corporations, startups, and national laboratories. He eventually completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. Liu is now a product designer at Fenix International, an energy and financial inclusion company with offices in San Francisco, Kampala, and Lusaka. He says the completion of the GPP minor has allowed him to develop a more critical lens, one that encourages him to question power dynamics and to evaluate his own role within hierarchies.
Like Liu, Alison Ryan says GPP is ever-present in her work and shapes the way she thinks about and interacts with the world. She said that the GPP minor has heightened her awareness of problems with equity and how employers can contribute to making people feel valued. Ryan graduated from Berkeley with a degree in political science, and went on to receive her master of public health in epidemiology from UCLA. Ryan now works as a surveillance officer at the California Emerging Infections Program. Like fellow panelists, she said the trajectory of her career was much different than what she had anticipated during her undergraduate days at Berkeley. “You refine over time what you want and what you’re looking for and that changes as your career develops,” she said.
— Dalia Elkhalifa
Last April, the Anti-Trafficking Coalition at UC Berkeley gathered researchers and advocates from academia, industry, and the nonprofit sector to discuss how AI and machine learning can help prevent child exploitation and combat human trafficking. The panelists included Dr. Bob Rogers, expert in residence for AI at the UCSF Center for Digital Health Innovation; Lisa Thee, vice president of Bark.us, a child monitoring app; and Roger Martin, former Chief IP Strategist of Qualcomm and co-founder and CEO of Humans Against Trafficking.
The Blum Center was asked to replicate the panel for the San Francisco Collaborative on Human Trafficking’s symposium, held September 27, and hosted at the California State Building. The full-day conference attended by representatives of law enforcement, businesses, service providers and volunteers explored best practices and policy solutions for survivors’ protection, restitution, and socio-economic inclusion. Plenary and breakout sessions focused on effective partnerships and innovative programs aimed at addressing the root causes of human trafficking.
During the closing plenary session, “The Role of Data Science in Preventing & Rescuing Survivors of Human Trafficking,” panelists and moderator Chloe Gregori from the Blum Center discussed significant milestones, challenges, and opportunities in the tech field to keep protect people and prosecute traffickers.
Rogers and Thee discussed their work with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which took place when they were working at Intel. Rogers and Thee explained that when a child is reported missing, time is of the essence. Thee recounted that in 2013, NCMEC employed 25 analysts, receiving and disbursing about 500,000 reports to law enforcement. Cases determined as “urgent” were automatically dispersed to a government agency, while others went to a 30-day backlog.
In 2017, through Rogers and Thee’s leadership, machine learning was introduced as a key part of the pipeline. A team of engineers automated the IP addresses and cell phone information of victims and predators. Since then, case turnaround is down to 24 hours, and the time saved has allowed analysts to focus more deeply on specific cases. In addition, the Center for Missing & Exploited Children was able to handle 16 million cases in 2018, up from 8 million in 2017.
“This is exemplary of what AI can accomplish to accelerate analysis of data and allow humans to do work that machines cannot do,” said Rogers. “AI is not going to take jobs away. We’ve shown it can accelerate human work and bolster law enforcement and expertise.”
Although machine learning is being used to assist law enforcement in locating victims, panelists Thee and Martin also noted the importance of using machine learning to prevent children from being trafficked in the first place. They said children are at risk of being “groomed” by traffickers through texting and communications via social media channels.
Thee believes that smartphones, unmonitored by parents, put children in great danger. She recommended parental control and monitoring apps like Bark, where she works as vice president of strategic partnerships. Bark enables parents to monitor children’s text messages, YouTube accounts, and 24 social media networks to flag potential safety concerns. Thee emphasized the crucial connection between child safety and technology in addressing child trafficking, but reminded the audience that parents are always the frontline for safety for their kids.
Holding up her smartphone, Thee quoted John Clark, CEO of NCMEC: “Handing your child a smartphone is like dropping them off in the most dangerous city in the world and walking away.”
Martin, founder & CEO of Humans Against Trafficking, is piloting machine learning solutions at his organization to identify at-risk youth before they are recruited by traffickers through social media platforms.
“We need to understand that predators search the web for public profiles of children to gauge their vulnerability,” he said. “This needs to stop and we can develop the tools to do it.”
By Shankar Sastry
How do we educate students to become lifelong learners? University professors are continually grappling with this question, as we aim to spark students’ curiosity and engage them in thought-provoking coursework.
This fall, I am re-engaging in teaching undergraduates after 11 years, leading a 200-person course on robotics and intelligent machines. Although I will need to extensively supplement the textbook I wrote more than 20 years ago for the course, I am excited to connect with students in my field and take part in a changing undergraduate pedagogy at the nexus of technology, design, and problem solving.
Students today learn differently than my generation and have new tools at their disposal. In my class, all lectures will be recorded and made available online. This allows students to engage with the material in new ways. If they miss a lecture, they can catch up afterward. If they have questions or find a topic challenging, they can consume the lecture at their own pace, pausing to make sense of information or look up answers to questions as they arise. Indeed, it is common for students to have class-viewing sessions in their dorms. And if students are familiar with a topic area, they can watch at 1.5 speed or just focus where they need deeper understanding.
This approach is a boon for faculty as well. It frees us up to answer more substantive questions and workshop homework or challenges rather than respond to the students’ request “to explain that theorem one more time.” Giving students the ability to learn at their own pace and in their own style is one way to make learning more self-directed. It also transforming the role of faculty from holders of knowledge to knowledge guides and exploration counsellors.
Another way we are trying to inspire lifelong learners is by engaging curiosity. For the second time, we are offering a Development Engineering graduate section of our core undergraduate Global Poverty & Practice class. By opening up a graduate section designed for engineers, we aim to encourage engineering graduate students to pursue knowledge they might otherwise not encounter. The class will connect critical debates around development and foreign aid with current issues around technology (such as data privacy) and research (AI and job churn).
Finally, if we are to educate lifelong learners, we must acknowledge we are aiming not only to expand students’ intellect but also their life choices. Attending Berkeley is a widely viewed as a catalyst to becoming an engaged citizen—but only if students have the time to reflect on their individual motivations and career trajectories. Too often at Berkeley, we don’t create enough space for students to have conversations about their individual growth and journeys. To that end, we are developing a toolkit that will help faculty better facilitate conversations around personal motivations, leadership skills, and offer student workshops that will help them design (and re-design!) lives that are purposeful and fulfilling.
The Blum Center reached out to Karla Tlatelpa and Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos to ask how the Global Poverty & Practice minor helped shape their understanding of and participation in the medical field.
Karla Tlatelpa and Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos, UC Berkeley graduates who majored in Molecular and Cell Biology and minored in Global Poverty & Practice, have recently been admitted to the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. They are attending UCLA’s Program in Medical Education-Leadership and Advocacy (PRIME-LA), which enables students to focus on underserved communities. Tlatelpa and Gutierrez-Palominos are both first generation college Latinx women who have defied odds and pushed through barriers to get to where they are now. The Blum Center reached out to Tlatelpa and Gutierrez-Palominos to ask how the Global Poverty & Practice minor helped shape their understanding of and participation in the medical field.
What inspired you to join the Global Poverty & Practice minor?
Leilani Gutierrez-Palominos: I wanted to apply a critical social lens to my understanding of poverty and inequality. I have experienced poverty on a downstream level, but I wanted to learn what upstream factors caused the poverty I had witnessed. My existence in this country, as a previously undocumented immigrant, is inherently political. Thus, I am personally invested in advocacy efforts regarding underserved communities. My clinical and personal experiences have shown me patients’ desire to feel represented and understood, both through language and culture. In addition to having my background drive my passion for addressing inequalities, minoring in GPP provided me with the historical, political, and economic knowledge necessary to analyze and address systemic forces contributing to poverty.
Karla Tlatelpa: Growing up, my family experienced many injustices that, at the time, I thought were only happening to us. As I grew older and learned more about the systems in which we live, I began to understand that our circumstances were not isolated and were part of systemic problems that other families like mine were experiencing. We were a low-income family of undocumented immigrants, so my parents worked two to three jobs at a time to keep us economically afloat. From the ages of 7 to 15, I worked 12-hour days with my grandma on weekends selling candy at the Oakland Coliseum flea market to help contribute to our food budget, especially since being undocumented meant we did not have access to social services like SNAP. With limited access to health care due to a lack of health insurance, my family’s health problems would sometimes go unattended. As I entered UC Berkeley, I wanted to gain a framework that would help me understand the disparities families like mine experience as a result of limited economic and social rights. On orientation day, I came across a student tabling for the Global Poverty & Practice minor and was immediately hooked!
How has the GPP minor changed your perspective on the field of medicine, if at all?
Gutierrez-Palominos: The GPP minor has made me more socially aware and fostered my sense of seeking to serve underserved populations. The minor has allowed me to delve deeper into wanting to understand upstream social determinants of health, which encouraged me to apply to the PRIME program at UCLA. I will be weaving an additional Master of Public Health year into my four years of medical education.
Tlatelpa: GPP helped me understand the role I will have as a physician beyond the clinical setting. I’ve always known that physicians are highly respected members of society, but GPP highlighted the extent of my privilege as a future physician. After GPP, my drive to study medicine shifted from a desire to help individuals in my community to also include a sense of responsibility to use the power and influence that being a MD provides to push for positive social change.
What lessons from GPP will you carry forward into your medical education and career?
Gutierrez-Palominos: Through the GPP minor, I considered the economical, social, and political dimensions involved around engaging in poverty work—which is relevant to my aspiration of providing care in low-income areas as a doctor. The GPP minor focuses on processes, such as the process of grappling with newfound concepts, which helped to further develop my critical thinking skills. Knowing that poverty doesn’t have a simple solution, I remained humble when engaging in poverty alleviation work since I always had to consider further implications, possibilities, and ways to improve. I became more conscientious of the decisions I made in ethical consumption, my support for certain organizations, and evaluating the effectiveness of certain methods/approaches when serving impoverished communities. Lessons of humility and critical thinking is what I will carry forward.
Tlatelpa: One of the greatest lessons GPP taught me was to always ensure I include the community’s voice in decision making that will affect them directly. As a medical student and eventually a physician, I will be regarded as an expert in many situations. However, I will take the teachings from GPP and my practice experience and remind myself and my colleagues that community members are the experts of their own lived experience and should always be included in the decision making process.
What’s the most important thing people should know about you as a Latina entering the world of medicine?
Gutierrez-Palominos: My clinical and personal experiences have shown me patients’ desire to feel represented and understood, both through language and culture. Underrepresentation causes low-income Latino communities to mistrust the medical field and lack mentors they can seek for guidance. Thus, this encourages me to gain more representation for my community and underserved communities like the ones I come from. There are few Latinas in medicine; at UCLA medical school I am not only representing myself, but a greater community—both the village it took to continuously support me on this journey and those who will come after me.
Tlatelpa: There are few Latinx in medicine; this field is certainly not representative of the general population. This meant that when my family had health insurance, we did not usually have medical providers who shared our language or culture. Being a Latina in medicine means that I will have the unique opportunity of improving health outcomes in the Latinx community and relate to my patients in the way my family would have liked to with our own physicians.
What do you hope to accomplish for yourself, your family, your community, or the great world in becoming a doctor?
Gutierrez-Palominos: I hope to have the agency to help in situations where a medical professional is desperately needed. For example, experiencing death and disease in my own family that could have been prevented had there been a doctor. I want to be an advocate for my community and give back to low-income areas like the ones I come from. Due to my background, my ultimate goal is to work in under-resourced global communities involving poor migrants.
Tlatelpa: In the future, I see myself working as a primary care physician in under-resourced, largely Latinx communities. I also see myself working at the policy level to increase access to healthcare for everyone, including undocumented and socioeconomically disadvantaged folks. As part of the Program in Medical Education-Leadership & Advocacy (PRIME-LA) at UCLA, I will take time off from medical school to pursue a Master’s degree in public policy. Through this additional training, I hope to gain the tools necessary to advocate effectively for my patients’ economic and social rights and to carry out policy work that may institutionalize protection for under-resourced communities to access care and other vital social services. As a physician, my voice will carry more weight and increase the impact I could have at the policy level to create changes that will positively affect people beyond those I can reach during individual consultations.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a grant to Berkeley in July 2019 to support the scaled-up production of the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based microscope developed by Blum Center Chief Technologist Daniel Fletcher and researchers in his bioengineering laboratory, to enable mapping of Loa loa prevalence and intensity in Central and West Africa.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1.9 million grant to Berkeley to support the scaled-up production of the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based microscope developed by Blum Center Chief Technologist Daniel Fletcher and researchers in his bioengineering laboratory, to enable mapping of Loa loa prevalence and intensity in Central and West Africa. The LoaScope uses video from the mobile phone-based microscope to automatically detect and quantify infection by parasitic worms in a drop of blood.
Loa loa, commonly referred to as African eye worm, is passed on to humans through the repeated bites of deer flies in West and Central Africa rainforests. Knowing whether someone has a Loa loa infection and the intensity of that infection is critical for mass drug administration efforts to eliminate onchocerciasis (river blindness) and lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis). There may be more than 29 million people who are at risk of getting loaisis in affected areas of Central and West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Fletcher Lab’s original device was developed with support from the Blum Center, USAID, KLA-Tencor, and the Gates Foundation to enable safe treatment of River Blindness with the potent anti-helminth drug ivermectin in regions co-endemic with Loa loa. The new project will update 30-year-old maps of Loa loa infections in partnership with the Task Force for Global Health. Fletcher, who is UC Berkeley’s Purnendu Chatterjee Chair in Engineering Biological Systems, said the mapping is necessary to identify regions where mass drug administration for River Blindness can be carried out safely and where precautions due to Loa loa co-infection may be necessary.
Among the LoaScope’s proof of impact is a November 2017 New England Journal of Medicine paper co-authored by Professor Fletcher and an international team of researchers describing how the device was used to successfully treat more than 15,000 patients with ivermectin without the severe adverse events that had previously halted treatment.
“This is not just a step forward for efforts to eliminate river blindness,” Professor Fletcher told Berkeley News in a November 2017 article, “but a demonstration that mobile microscopy — based on a mobile phone — can safely and effectively expand access to healthcare. This work sets the stage for expanding the use of mobile microscopy to improve diagnosis and treatment of other diseases, both in low-resource areas and eventually back in the U.S.”
What is the role of the university in the wider world? What is the role of scholarship in an era of vast digitally enabled knowledge?
These are two questions we at the Blum Center keep forefront in our minds, as we pursue forward-looking curricula and solutions scholarship related to development. During the 2018-2019 academic year, we sought to practice what we preach by holding interdisciplinary faculty salons on large development questions, both to bolster what we teach and how we can learn from one another.
The faculty salon series was kicked off by Michael Nacht, UC Berkeley’s Thomas and Alison Schneider Chair in Public Policy. The former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs explored the nexus of national security, diplomacy, and development—and gave a sober assessment of what that nexus might produce under the Trump administration. Michael concluded that development in low-income countries will not come out of the strategic interactions of the U.S.’s economic and foreign policy positions but likely will be spurred by the for-profit sector through advances in agricultural technology, artificial intelligence, and bioengineering.
In November, Robotics Professor Ken Goldberg and Business Professor Laura Tyson, Blum Center Chair of the Trustees and Business Professor, debated the effects of automation and machine learning on employment across nations and economies. Ken, who believes automation will both eliminate and create new jobs, proposed a “multiplicity movement” to foster uniquely human skills that AI and robots cannot replicate: creativity, curiosity, imagination, empathy, human communication, diversity, and innovation. He recommended the U.S. reinforce creative and social skills in high schools and universities, so that Americans are in a position to leverage machines with varying levels of automation alongside diverse groups of people to amplify intelligence and spark problem solving.
Laura pointed out that the substitution of intelligent machines for low-cost, low-productivity workers poses the greatest challenge in Africa, where by 2050 the continent’s youth population is estimated to increase by 50 percent to 945 million. She said we must focus our attention on how African countries will fare in global trade and global supply chains, when the availability of comparatively cheap labor is no longer a competitive advantage. She advocated that nations develop comprehensive educational and development strategies that support the livelihoods of their citizens—and that share the benefits of intelligent machines broadly.
In December, Bioengineering Professor and Blum Center Chief Technologist Dan Fletcher presented on his own solutions science related to the London Declaration of Tropical Diseases. Nearly a decade ago, the declaration brought together more than 80 global organizations to control, eliminate, or eradicate at least ten of the diseases by 2020. Progress has been made on some of the diseases, but they still affect nearly one billion people, even though major pharmaceutical companies have pledged to contribute the treatment drugs. The main problem now, explained Dan, is a health information gap—both in terms of who has the diseases and where they are located. His mobile microscopy device CellScope, developed over a decade plus, can fill this gap because it both identifies the infected through testing and provides effective treatment and monitoring, even in the most remote areas. Dan has proven his technological intervention in several major papers, and is now on mission to fund the implementation of this life-saving innovation.
In early 2019, we welcomed Joshua Blumenstock from School of Information, to the faculty salon. Blumenstock, director of the Data-Intensive Development Lab, cautioned that even though the application of machine learning to monitor and alleviate poverty has become a much discussed aspiration, new digital methods may serve more as a complement than a replacement to traditional approaches, especially in the area of economic assessment. However, he did point out that satellite imagery is becoming a key source for development research because it reveals basic physical infrastructure and quality of life trends. In his own research, Joshua has shown that by leveraging machine learning to analyze satellite data, we can draw conclusions about certain aspects of the quality of life with nearly the same accuracy as traditional, multimillion-dollar field surveys.
Technological interventions are never clear cut. This was illustrated in the April Faculty Salon by Professors Isha Ray of the Energy and Resources Group and Alison Post of the Political Science Department. They shared their analysis of the effects of the UC Berkeley-incubated social enterprise NextDrop, which designed a mobile phone intervention to alert Indian households via text when to expect water supply. Isha and Alison’s two-year study found the SMS service failed to have its intended time-saving effect due to a combination of oversights by NextDrop in terms of water service provision, mobile phone ownership, and other information gaps. “It is absolutely essential to understand the role of human intermediaries and how drastically the conditions and results of an intervention can change from one setting to the next,” said Isha.
In May, we discussed Kenya’s rural electrification efforts, studied by Ted Miguel, Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, and Catherine Wolfram, Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration. Although Kenya has received massive foreign assistance to achieve universal energy access, the economic benefits of rural electrification in the world’s poorest places are not straightforward. Ted and Catherine’s research team conducted a randomized control trial to study the effects of electricity connections in 150 Kenyan communities, and found no meaningful medium-run impacts on economic, health, and educational outcomes. The reason? Even when heavily subsidized, the cost of connecting was a significant burden for many households whose average annual cash earnings were $205. In addition, rural Kenyans had no money to buy time-saving, productivity-enhancing appliances like refrigerators or computers.
“Power isn’t like water,” said Ted. “It isn’t like turning on the tap and getting something that improves your livelihood. Power requires you to connect to an appliance. But if you are too poor to buy something to connect to power, the hypothesized effects are not there.”
The last faculty salon of the academic year was led by Dan Kammen, Distinguished Professor of Energy, and Solomon Hsiang, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, who engaged in a wide ranging conversation with interdisciplinary faculty on the economics, politics, and development impacts of climate change. Kammen has spent much of his two-decade career at UC Berkeley focusing on renewable energy research, with a focus on the role of developing economies. He underscored that in Kenya, which has a robust mobile money system, off-grid solar-generated energy is becoming the norm in many rural areas. This illustrates, he said, that around the globe—from California (which will reach its 2025 zero net carbon emission targets ahead of time) to Morocco (which is the only country meeting Paris climate accord goals)—solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources are proving to be implementable and economically viable.
The problem, of course, is that the transition away from fossil fuels to renewables is not happening quickly enough. However, Solomon, whose Global Policy Laboratory researches what we need to know to design global policy, said public interest in climate change modeling has increased dramatically over the last two years and the conversation among governments is now how detrimental will be the social cost of global warming, particularly for Southern Hemisphere countries. “This is where the role of information and academic research becomes economically powerful,” he argued.
The Blum Center Faculty Salons will continue in the fall. Stay tuned for more news about how faculty across the disciplines can collaborate on solutions science and scholarship for global public benefit.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, two out of three people, or 600 million individuals, still lack access to electricity. Given the massive scale of energy poverty, several large foreign aid institutions have launched major initiatives aimed at connecting millions of rural residences to the grid.
In 2013, the United States Agency for International Development commenced one of the largest public-private partnerships in development history, Power Africa, allocating more than $54 billion in commitments from more than 150 public and private sector partners. In 2015, the UK’s Department for International Development launched Energy Africa, an initiative to help Africa achieve universal energy access by 2030 through market-based off-grid energy to rural households. And in 2016, the African Development Bank started the New Deal on Energy for Africa, a partnership-driven effort to increase clean, renewable energy solutions and achieve universal energy access across the continent by 2025.
This massive push in foreign investment dollars is largely motivated by the assumption that rural electrification is a primary pathway out of poverty. However, new research from UC Berkeley demonstrates that, at least in the medium term, rural electrification may not be the silver bullet many think it is, especially if rural Africans are expected to pay a sizable portion of their income to get connected.
At an April Blum Center Faculty Salon, Ted Miguel, Oxfam Professor of Environmental and Resource Economics, and Catherine Wolfram, Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration, shared their findings from a multi-year study in Kenya, funded by the Development Impact Lab.
“We noticed a lack of experimental evidence on the economics of rural electrification,” explained Miguel, founder and faculty director of the Center for Effective Global Action. “We hoped our study would establish rigorous evidence in this space and improve the effectiveness of such massive investments.”
Together with Kenneth Lee from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, Miguel and Wolfram designed a randomized control trial in western Kenya in 2012 with the goal of answering the question: Does electricity help lift households out of poverty? (Randomized control trials, originally used for medical evaluations, are considered the gold standard of evidence for informing development policy.)
In Kenya, the electrical grid is unevenly distributed. To describe households located close to the grid (within a half mile) but unconnected, the research team coined the term “under grid.” The researchers created a dataset of over 20,000 geotagged homes across 150 rural under grid communities in western Kenya and partnered with Kenya’s Rural Electrification Authority to randomly select treatment and control groups from among 2,200 of these households. The treatment group received free electricity service or subsidized service at a 30 percent or 60 percent discount; while the control group households were not given any special incentives and expected to pay $400 per connection. The cost to the REA for the household connections was ultimately over $1,000, an amount subsidized by foreign aid donors.
The research team conducted a pre-survey and 18 and 32 months later a post-survey to collect data on 11 primary social welfare outcomes. Measured outcomes included changes in energy consumption, productivity, wealth, food, health, security, political knowledge, and education. The team also administered detailed English and math tests on children to measure if access to evening electricity improved academic performance, a widely held notion.
“We were very taken aback by the results,” said Miguel.“We found no meaningful medium-run impacts on economic, health, and educational outcomes or evidence of spillovers to unconnected local households.”
Their results showed that while the treatment group did experience a modest increase in electricity consumption, that group was no better off socioeconomically than the control group, even after nearly three years. Perplexed by these findings, which seem to contradict the rationale for current large-scale rural electrification investment projects, the researchers set out to analyze why those given free electricity did not experience any of the predicted benefits.
One startling finding was an overall lack of demand for household electricity, consistent with the result that demand for electricity connections falls sharply with price.
“We predicted demand would be twice as high as it actually was,” said Miguel. “Yet very few households connected at the 60 percent subsidy rate and still fewer connected at the 30 percent subsidy rate.”
The team, assisted by data and support from the Kenyan utility as well as REA, was able to trace out the demand and economics cost curve to more thoroughly interpret the data.
Wolfram and Miguel found several interacting negative factors in their research results. First, they postulated rural households were too poor to do much with electrical power once connected. Unlike the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems in rural areas of the United States—along with subsidies for productivity-increasing electrical appliances—Kenya’s electrification efforts have not fully been funded by its government or aid organizations. Households still face an upfront cost for rural residential connections, and there are no government subsidies for appliance purchases. In addition, rural Americans in the 1930s were several times wealthier than contemporary Kenyans; in other words, Americans were in a greater position to take advantage of the socioeconomic benefits of electrification, because they were rich enough to make complementary investments in appliances.
Said Miguel: “The cost of connecting, even when heavily subsidized, is still a significant burden for many of these households that have average annual cash earnings of $205 and three quarters of which practice subsistence agriculture.”
Miguel went on to explain that few of the Kenyan households were interested in or able to buying commercially valuable electrical appliances, like welding equipment, that would lead to greater economic benefit.”
Indeed, Miguel and Wolfram’s data found that the connected households used the equivalent of only $2/month on electricity, mainly for basic lighting and to charge a mobile phone. In addition, the researchers found other barriers to rural electrification: credit constraints, bureaucratic red tape, low grid reliability (frequent blackouts), and evidence of corruption such as over-invoicing for service.
“In the first year of our study, 19 percent of village transformers failed with a median repair time of four months. Thus, even if households could afford to pay for electricity, it was not reliable,” said Wolfram.
Wolfram added that unreliable grid quality can significantly inhibit economic growth for entrepreneurs and small businesses.
“Power isn’t like water,” concluded Miguel. “It isn’t like turning on the tap and getting something that improves your livelihood. Power requires you to connect to an appliance. But if you are too poor to buy something to connect to power, the hypothesized effects are not there.”
Wolfram and Miguel believe their research opens the door to at least two main lines of inquiry: 1) the extent to which electricity connection costs are too high and require further subsidization; and 2) the extent to which demand is being suppressed by poor service quality. There is also the larger question of whether, as Miguel put it, “We are too focused on power as a solution for development outcomes.”
“The research to date has been intellectually fascinating but disheartening; we are not maximizing positive development outcomes,” said Wolfram. “The billion people without power are also the world’s poorest billion. These are people who are struggling to meet their daily basic needs. Perhaps, to really benefit from electricity, we need diversified investments across multiple sectors.”
Higher education is having a disruption moment. Not so much in the sense that universities will no longer be physical places where professors instruct students—as has been the case since 859 when Fatima al-Fihri founded the University of Al-Qarawiyyan, which became the world’s first higher education institution to award degrees in mathematics, grammar, and medicine. No, higher education is in a period of intense transformation due to the increasing pace of new advances in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)—and the way the fields mutually reinforce each other to transform and advance society.
Why are we at a STEM moment? To put it simply, these four fields have done more to generate economic growth, advance scientific innovation, and create jobs than many others. Mind you, I do not think STEM inventions have been free of negative consequences. However, many of the beneficial technological advances of the decade plus—mobile phones, GPS, the Cloud, CRISPR, generative adversarial networks, machine learning, AI-based predictive analytics, electric vehicles, chatbots, and mass production of solar arrays—have originated in STEM fields.
Yet with each passing year it becomes obvious that the STEM fields need far tighter integration with the social sciences, arts, and humanities, especially for graduates focused on local and global challenges and seeking to advance socioeconomic mobility, jobs and sustainable manufacturing, and access to clean water and affordable health care. As Kofi Annan so eloquently said, “Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy, and sustainable human development.”
With this in mind, we at the Blum Center have been looking at the changing profession of global development. In speaking with former students and current employers, we have noted a distinct rise in the need for societal benefit professionals with advanced technology skills. But the story is more complex than that. Development professionals—whether at UN departments, municipal government agencies, multinational companies, foundations, or nonprofits—report the need for a combination of skills, such as the design and management of technology, knowledge of emerging technologies, evidence-based assessment techniques, economic development, social problem solving, and cross-cultural collaboration and community engagement.
The recent report “Next Generation Professional” published by USAID and Devex, for example, states: “Development professionals a decade from now will not look the same. One reason is technology. It’s easy to envision a time when drones streamline every agricultural development program, when every health worker is equipped with high-tech mobile diagnostics, and when artificial intelligence provides real-time data to guide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The shifting development finance outlook is another factor. Program managers, resource mobilizers, and partnership professionals might continue to seek grants from bilateral aid agencies, but they may also partner with private sector corporations, attract impact investment funds, or manage crowdfunding campaigns targeting specific causes. Tying all these together are the softer skills—like communicating across cultures and working in teams—that make the industry truly unique.”
I mention all this because the Blum Center has begun thinking about how to build upon its courses for the Global Poverty & Practice minor and the Development Engineering designated emphasis, to provide these in-demand professional skills in a time effective manner. We have seen many STEM students and professionals who are looking for careers with impact, but have few avenues to get the right tools for framing and solving societal scale problems. And we have seen many non-STEM students and professionals who need the technical skills the future development sector demands. These constituencies want us to offer a professional education with a focus on problem solving skills for complex societal problems at the nexus of new technologies, new business models, and changing communities and their needs.
What do you think of this? What are we missing? Come talk to us about this new era of global development training.
Two thousand and eighteen has been called a watershed moment in global poverty reduction. It was the year—according to two major analyses—that more than half of the world’s population moved into the “middle class.” And it was marked by a billion people moving out of “extreme poverty” in the time period 2000-2018.
In terms of the global middle class, Homi Kharas and his colleagues at the Geneva-based World Data Lab have written in a Brookings Institute report that this demographic is defined as households that spend $11 to $100 per day per person in 2011 purchasing power parity. Kharas acknowledges that middle class does not have a precise international definition, but is a way to understand the ability for 3.8 billion people to buy consumer goods like motorcycles, refrigerators, or washing machines, go to the movies or take a vacation—and, most important, be able to weather economic shocks like short-term illness or unemployment without falling into extreme poverty.
The global middle class is predominantly Asian and spread out in China, India, and South and South East Asia, where urban populations have mostly doubled in the past generation. The World Data Lab forecasts the global middle class markets in China and India will grow to 5.3 billion people by 2030 and will account for $14.1 trillion and $12.3 trillion, respectively, comparable in size to a U.S. middle-class market at that time of $15.9 trillion.
That is a remarkable turn of events of great interest to policy makers, corporate leaders, and of course academic researchers at the Blum Center. Questions include: What are the products and services that this global middle class needs and wants? What are the implications for food, energy, and water production, and laterally, for climate change due to this socioeconomic growth? What skills and education are required for this rising population to sustain its progress? How will societal digital transformations, such as AI and automation, thwart or abet the billions climbing the economic ladder? And to what degree is this new global middle class sustainable?
Rohini Pande of Harvard’s Evidence for Policy Design Initiative, pointed out in a recent New York Times article that the decline in poverty in Indian and China “has fed an erroneous belief in the West that economies rising into middle-income status are on track to end extreme poverty and no longer need assistance.” She warns that a “redirection of global aid risks neglecting the hundreds of millions who may never escape poverty despite living in countries that are becoming relatively rich.”
Some of Pande’s analysis is in reaction to the other big global demographic story of 2018, published in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Goalkeepers” report, which tracks progress on 18 key United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. According to “Goalkeepers,” extreme poverty (US $1.90/day) is on the decline, with 50 million people’s lives being saved due to advances in medicine since 2000. One aim of the Gates report is to warn that extreme poverty is becoming heavily concentrated in Sub-Saharan African countries. By 2050, that region is where 86 percent of the world’s extremely poor are projected to live, with the majority (more than 40 percent) living in just two countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.
The Gates Foundation advises: “the world’s priority for the next three decades should be the third wave of poverty reduction in Africa.” It also warns that if large numbers of poor people in the poorest countries are denied opportunities, the result will be “insecurity, instability, and mass migration …. Investing in young people’s health and education is the best way for a country to unlock productivity and innovation, cut poverty, create opportunities.”
As we at the Blum Center mull all this, we are asking: What can be done to sustain global middle class progress in Asia and enable economic and technological development in Sub-Saharan Africa? What can we as stewards of the world’s leading public research university do to improve livelihoods worldwide? How best can we train the next generation of leaders in equality, innovation, and global problem solving? And what are the research areas on which we should make our big bets?
On January 8, 2019, Blum Center faculty and staff met with our counterparts from CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, Haas Institute for Business and Social Impact, and Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation to think through our response to these and other questions. Most of these centers came out of the revolutionary changes that technology, globalization, and engineering advances have brought to high education and society over the past decade plus.
Since 2001, CITRIS has focused on creating interdisciplinary information technology solutions for California and beyond. Since 2005, the Sutardja Center has taught thousands of engineers and scientists to innovate, lead, and commercialize technology within a global economy. Founded in 2013, the Haas Institute for Business and Social Impact has addressed critical challenges facing the world through creative business solutions. Opened in 2015, the Jacobs Institute is as an interdisciplinary hub for learning and making at the intersection of design and technology. And founded in 2006, the Blum Center serves as the campus’ interdisciplinary hub for understanding and acting on devising solutions for global poverty and inequality.
These five UC centers have much in common because of the way they intersect on issues of technology and engineering, business and entrepreneurship, equality and social impact, and design innovation. Because of these commonalities, leadership from the five centers have decided to explore educational and research collaborations. We will be reporting on joint initiatives in future reports.
So please stay tuned, and let us know your ideas and projects that address this pivotal moment in global poverty reduction.
Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He is a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering.
By Rachel Dzombak
At the 2018 Autodesk University conference, a weeklong event bringing together representatives from the building, design, manufacturing, and construction industries, the skillsets required for the future workforce were a heavy focus. In her keynote speech, Beth Comstock, the former CEO of GE, discussed how multinational companies are reorganizing around digital information flows, asserting, “We can’t control change, we can’t predict the future, but we can be more adaptable.”
Throughout the conference, others asked: How do we build an adaptable workforce? How are educational needs shifting in response to emergent industry changes? What are the initial steps that we need to take to prepare for the transition?
These critical questions are being asked not just by industry leaders but by faculty and senior administrators at universities. The conversation at UC Berkeley is near constant, especially in engineering and business. Students and faculty alike want to know: How will companies operate? How will industries evolve? And how should socio-political systems best adapt to workforce changes?
There are pessimists and optimists. Among the optimists is UC Berkeley Robotics Professor Ken Goldberg, who argues that forecasts of mass unemployment are unfounded. He believes new jobs will replace old ones and even imagines, echoing Maynard Keynes, that automation will lead to elimination of mundane tasks, giving people time to be more creative.
A technology-infused world that abets humans must be a goal. We may even be on the brink of a golden age of intelligent collaboration—enabling new inventions and ways of thinking that come from the melding of disciplines, cultures, and fields. As Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford University computer science professor and former chief scientist at Google, points out, bringing technology to bear on societal issues will “require insights derived from fields beyond computer science, which means programmers will have to learn to collaborate more often with experts in other domains.” In other words, workers, especially those in the cutting-edge fields, will be compelled to integrate computation with linguistics, behavioral science with physics, economic development with history, and so on.
Historically, universities provided access to knowledge and skillsets that was hard to reach otherwise. Knowledge was held by faculty experts who achieved mastery in narrow subjects, and delivered material to students via lectures. With the rise of the Internet, content is now available at an unprecedented level. Students are learning to prove fluid dynamics proofs through YouTube, skipping economics class in favor of learning through Khan Academy, and asking Google or Wikipedia “How do I design a gray-water system?”
If students are then learning traditional material through other forums, what is the value of the university today? And what do students need to learn that cannot be taught online? The World Economic Forum cites the top six skills needed in 2020 as: 1) complex problem solving, 2) critical thinking, 3) creativity, 4) people management, 5) coordinating with others, and 6) emotional intelligence.
In this first article on the future of work, I want to underscore that three of the top six skills on this list—and many others—focus on collaboration. This is unsurprising, as work increasingly happens in teams regardless of industry. However, few (if any of us) have ever been explicitly taught how to work in teams. We learn through sports and project work, but team-based experiences often lead to frustration (“oh, I’m stuck doing all the work again”), confusion (“we’re all on different pages”), or conflict (“it’s really hard to work with people who are so different from me”).
Teaching students to collaborate across diverse teams will be a key priority of universities in the coming years. Speaking on cultivating the next generation of students, Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University and current president of Prairie View A&M University, commented in a recent New York Times article about the role of teaching students to collaborate. She said, “If we’re doing what we should be doing, we are acclimating students to an environment in which they have to learn to work with others who are very different from themselves. And that seems to me to be the first requirement of leadership. To actually learn to work with people in a respectful and inclusive way is inordinately important.”
At Berkeley, Professor Sara Beckman and I developed a toolkit called “Teaming by Design” for teaching students how to collaborate in teams. We provide tools and research grounded in human-centered design, organizational behavior, and systems engineering to educate on building self-awareness, working collaboratively with others, and growing capacity to achieve innovative outcomes.
In the toolkit, we outline four phases: Team Formation, Team Launch, Team Check-in, and Team Celebration. Within each phase, we give exercises teams can conduct to improve their dynamics and research to ground the importance of the phase as well as raise consciousness of common issues. We additionally provide guidance on what work should be done in teams. Too often in school, team work is confused with group work. Students quickly divide the work among themselves and meet only to staple the elements together.
A team, by definition, is a collection of people who are committed to a common purpose, whose interdependence requires coordinated effort, and who hold themselves mutually accountable for results. While in some Berkeley classes, teams are comprised of a mix of different students from the same majors (e.g., a mechanical engineer and civil engineer working on the design of a sensor), other teams cross the spectrum—bringing together students from business, art, history, and dance to address, for example, homelessness. Both experiences represent deep learning opportunities for students to become exposed to different ways of thinking and doing.
Our work aims to create change on several levels. First, it is a resource for faculty who may be unfamiliar with how to coach teams. Despite the changes coming to education, faculty (particularly at research universities) are still largely hired for expertise in a narrow field. A fluid dynamics professor who wants students to work in teams within her class may be great at coaching on mathematical modeling issues yet far less equipped at structuring projects that require interdependence or coaching on the socio-emotional challenges that come up within project teams—such as issues of mutual accountability, trust, and conflicts stemming from varied personalities. We work with faculty in business, engineering, art practice, and biology to teach them how to collect feedback and how to debrief the feedback with students, so that it becomes a learning mechanism and not only a tool for grading.
During the Autodesk University conference, advanced machines, XR headsets, and 3D digital models were prominently on display. But even more prominent were the opportunities that technology could enable. For example, advanced lighting systems that provide Internet, mood, music, and safety features—in addition to light—could lead cities to rethink public services. The role of the lighting designer will shift from thinking about delivering light to imagining ways people might navigate their environment. This new frame increases the importance of knowing how to draw out insights from residents and collaborating with relevant stakeholders. Advancing technology forces individuals and organizations to rethink the systems in which they are working, and who they are working with. The more diverse the collaboration, the higher chance for creative problem solving.
We need to start ensuring that students are equipped with the ability to collaborate across untraditional boundaries, because collaboration will be critical for their success in the rapidly evolving workplace.
Rachel Dzombak is a Research Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. She researches and teaches design, innovation, and system thinking.