Bernard Amadei: Technology with Soul at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

Good evening, everyone, and thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. My talk is about engineering and science and technology for the other five billion people on the planet.

Five billion people whose job is to try to stay alive by the end of the day. Paul Polak calls them “the other 90 percent,” so I’m going to talk about engineering for the other 90 percent. Who are they? What do they do? What do they want? The talent they have. And I’m also going to talk about engineering solutions for the other 90 percent. How do they look like? How do we bring billions of people out of poverty in their own ways, using the talent? Alright, so that’s the title of my presentation: Engineering for the other 90 percent.

And how did it start for me? Well, I was exposed to engineering for the other 90 percent in 2001. I was asked to visit a small Mayan village in Belize. And in that small Mayan village I noticed a little girl, and she’s on the slide here. Her job, as I was told, was to carry water from the river to the village…, as a result, she could not go to school. They asked me to do something about it, and a year later, I came back with 12 students, for a total budget of $14,000.

We designed a pump, a ramp pump, 200-year-old technology, nothing new – it tapped into the energy of nature. Tapped into seven feet of waterhead, and we were able to push the water 120 feet without electricity or without any fuel. Why? Because there’s no electricity in the middle of the jungle, and two, because the community could not afford that type of fuel.

Three things came out of that trip. First one, lots of young people excited about doing “real engineering” under “real conditions,” not virtual engineering like we teach at the universities. They created “Engineers Without Borders” – ten of us – and now Engineers Without Borders, ten years later, consists of 12,000 members. We are working in 48 different countries, and we have about 400 projects and 325 chapters across the United States. Talk about the power of the youth here!

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Another thing that came out of that trip for me: It was a life-changing experience. I had done engineering for the one billion rich people, that’s completely useless. I decided that for the rest of my life, I would do engineering for the other five billion people on this planet.

And third, I noticed that we don’t teach that kind of engineering in engineering schools. Literally, we teach engineering to address the needs of one billion rich people. There are no users manuals on how to do engineering for the five billion people, for the other 90 percent. So I started a program at the University of Colorado, that is also very successful, where we offer master’s degree and PhD programs that emphasize this kind of engineering where students have to do real hands-on work.

So who are those 90 percent? The other 90 percent? Well, all the other 90 percent, five billion of them, make less than $10 a day. Two billion of them make less than $2 a day. One billion of them make less than $1 a day. They don’t have much water; they don’t have much sanitation.

Thirty thousand of them die every day for reasons that are purely preventable. Causes: malaria, TB, HIV/AIDS, indoor air pollution and poor water and sanitation. They live in the dark. And they live in the dark or in places in between points of light. Some of them have electricity – 1 6 billion people in the world do not have energy; they are energy poor.

Imagine being energy poor where you don’t have energy or even one light bulb. No hope whatsoever in terms of education, business development. You know what you get when you have no electricity? You get babies! Lots of them! And you’ve got to do something, you know, after 6 pm, 6 pm to 6 am are on the equator so that keeps you busy, so among other things, bringing one light bulb, at least people can check out what they are doing, can change people’s lives.

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So what is engineering for the other 90 percent? Engineering for the other 90 percent is creating set, stable communities, secure communities, peaceful communities, sustainable communities. It’s teaching people about knowledge and resources so that they can solve their own problems. Engineering for the other 90 percent is giving people the fish first. I don’t like charity, but it is hard to see someone who doesn’t have food in his stomach or her stomach to take a shovel and start a project, and start this charity. Then we teach people how to fish.

And that’s not the end of the story. We teach them how to create fishing industries and fishing markets so that people can buy the fish. Now, if you are a fisherman, you want to be healthy. Health is very important in engineering for the other 90 percent.

You want to be able to go to the river, right? “Security” is important for the other 90 percent. I’ve worked in Afghanistan for the past seven years, and I can tell you that security is not for granted, as you can imagine. That person who goes to the river bank, has to find water in the river, by the way. That water has to have fish in it. That’s the whole field of environmental justice.

That person needs to be able to have good fishing nets. That person needs to be able to skin the fish, can the fish, sell the fish and create a market. Yeah, it’s one thing to create a business in the developing world, but if nobody can buy the treadle pumps or the cans of fish, it’s completely useless. So engineering for the other 90 percent is not just about technology. It’s about public health.

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