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

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

Bernard Amadei

Bernard Amadei – 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!

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.

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.

It is about social entrepreneurship. It is about dignity. It is about policy. It is about governance, and so on and so forth. Engineering for the other 90 percent is also about technology, of course. But not any kind of technology. The kind of technology that we talk about is appropriate to the people who are using it. It’s long lasting. It’s a technology that is owned by the people, understood by the people, that can be fixed by the people. It’s a technology that creates jobs in a respectful way.

Respectful to nature, respectful to the human beings, respectful to the environment. It’s a technology with a human face. And it’s a technology that taps into the local talent. Believe me, the traditional model of assuming that, “Oh, those poor people in Africa are poor. They don’t know what to do,” is completely out of whack with reality. There’s talent everywhere. I’ve been on this planet. Let’s stop fooling ourselves –

And talking about poverty reduction: Who are we to talk about poverty reduction? Why don’t we talk about wealth enhancement? Right? When someone is born with one head, two arms, two hands, two legs and a heart, that person is wealthy. And that’s our starting point, not poverty reduction. Excuse me, we don’t put people down. It is not putting them down, it’s bringing them up.

Technology for the other 90 percent is also about innovation, and that’s where, in the United States, we are missing the mark entirely. Your market is five billion people. Five billion people who need water, sanitation, energy, shelter. Come on, that’s a huge market! How come our universities don’t do research in such areas? How come businesses are not interested in the kind of technology for the other 90 percent? This is the field of frugal innovation. Good innovation, good technology, good quality control, good quality assurance. But affordable to the people. Look, here’s an example. I just took some examples from The Economist of April 2010.

A guy in India, not even a PhD – in fact, I think we have too many PhDs on this planet – I’m one of them. That guy created an EKG, an electrocardiogram, for 800 bucks, portable, rechargable, using solar energy, and is able to deliver EKG tests for $1 per patient. His market: five billion people.

Same thing about Tata – we came up with a water filter – $22 initial investment, capable of giving 3,000 liters, 200 days, for a family of five. That was done in India but was not done in the United States. There are huge opportunities for doing well by doing good.

There’s huge opportunities for universities and businesses to address the needs of those five billion people. Guaranteed. Two examples of application. One is a project that we are doing in Montana involving the Crow Reservation. This is a community that has 60 percent unemployment.

If you want to find poverty, you don’t have to go very far. You can go to inner cities, you will find poverty, and you will also find poverty in Native tribes. In this case, the problem was shelter. People live, essentially, in trailers that came from Louisiana after Katrina. And when the temperature is 30 degrees below zero. So the Bureau of Indian Affairs has asked the University of Colorado to develop two businesses. One is the making of compressed earth blocks. It uses the land. It uses clay, sand, water and some cement. And you compress them, you form big bricks. So two businesses were created: one, the making of bricks – they made 45,000 bricks of the stair; and construction of homes. There are two businesses that we created.

The second business employs now 25 people. Five homes – highly energy efficient homes built using those compressed earth blocks, linked to solar energy, closed-loop geothermal system. Five homes were created. This year 13 homes will be created. Another project that also deals with doing well by doing good, where science and technology can change the lives of people. I’ve been in Kabul for seven years, on and off, of course, and one project we did in partnership with an NGO called Afghans for Tomorrow was to empower the youth.

We took 20 children from the prostitution ring of Kabul, and we trained them to make fuel briquettes using waste that is available in the streets of Kabul. By the way, Kabul is a city with seven million people and doesn’t have a wastewater treatment system – that’s after spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan per year, by the way. So what we did was we took those children, we taught them how to make briquettes using, essentially, waste; and those briquettes are good replacement for the wood in that community. We designed pumps there when we designed presses, on the top left, for the children so they don’t hurt themselves, and on the right, we designed special presses for handicapped people. We took five handicapped people and we designed presses so that they can become valuable members of society.

In both cases, they make briquettes in the morning and school in the afternoon. So, we are facing some interesting challenges on our planet, and to address those challenges, I say that we need to change our mindset. I think it was alluded to in some of the presentations before. The problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them. There’s no doubt about it.

How does it apply to engineering for the other 90 percent? First, we need to change the mindset on how we look at the developing world and how we look at poverty in the world. As I mentioned to you before, this is not about poverty reduction, this is about wealth enhancement. This is not about international aid, it is about empowerment in a respectful way, with dignity, where we create capacity at the local level using the local talent.

Two: We need to change the educational system. Our educational system is completely out of whack with reality – I am sorry to say that. In all disciplines, including engineering, what we need are to create global engineers, global scientists, global doctors, global plumbers, global politicians, global religious leaders, not only global, but compassionate. Please, let’s include compassion into the education of our children, no? Imagine Imagine, a compassionate governor.

Imagine, a compassionate politician. Imagine, a compassionate economist, a compassionate teacher, a compassionate religious leader – and there’s not too many of them out there, by the way. Imagine how the world would be if only we were to acknowledge that we are compassionate beings. That’s the second thing that we need to do: changing the way we do education – education as if it really matters. Holistic education based on compassion – compassion in action. That’s the message I want to convey.

And third: Let me finish in saying about poverty. I am sick and tired of external poverty. I’m sick and tired of saying, “Let’s eradicate poverty.” My question to you is: What kind? Are we talking about external poverty here, or are we talking about internal poverty? As long as we do not address internal poverty, the world will always have external poverty.

Meister Eckhart had a quote in 1300: “The outer work cannot be great if the inner work is small.” What is the inner work of our institutions today? It is sick. We need to change our inner work. We’re talking about sustainability. Let me tell you point blank: A sustainable planet is a compassionate planet, or it will not be.

A sustainable planet is a peaceful planet, or it will not be. A sustainable planet is a planet where poverty has been eradicated, where people have dignity, where they are given a chance to make a life on their own with their own talent. That’s a sustainable planet. As long as we have inner poverty, we will always have external poverty, guaranteed. And that’s the most difficult thing for us to accept.

So, in my conclusion, I’m going to give you an assignment since I’m a teacher. But that assignment is fun. Each one of us has a gift. Each one of us has a unique gift and a mission statement. I don’t know of a single company that doesn’t have a mission statement.

If you do not know your gift, if you do not know your mission statement, you may want to think twice why you are on this planet. You might be a loose cannonball on the ocean of life. So my recommendation to you, my assignment to you is that over a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, write down your mission statement. Feel free to change it, like all companies change their mission statement, otherwise they would not stay in business. Find your mission statement, find your unique gift.

And I can tell you that the day you write that mission statement, the day you know that gift, and you walk the talk, then you better fasten your seatbelt. Thank you.

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