Helping the developing world isn’t as easy as sending money and experts. Local values and customs have to be considered, and ultimately, the community has to become able to guide itself. M. Bernardine Dias is the director of Carnegie Mellon University’s TechBridgeWorld, a group that partners with developing communities to create sustainable technological solutions to problems within those communities. In advance of her appearance at the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT later this week, Technology Review talked with Dias about the role that technology can play in the developing world.
Technology Review: How does TechBridgeWorld use technology to help people in developing communities?
Bernardine Dias: The goal of what we do through TechBridgeWorld is to open up conversations with people living in underserved communities, and really start to talk about their needs and the ways that technology can meet these needs. We find ways to collaboratively build solutions to these problems. We have two golden rules in how we operate. We never go anywhere unless we’re invited–that translates to having a strong partner within that community. Second, what we do is always framed as a sharing process. We only go in as experts of technology, not to try to dictate where the community should head or what they should be doing, or should not be doing, on a larger scale. It’s about empowerment rather than just dumping technology.
We provide infrastructure [and find] the right partners in a given community. We help students and faculty to formulate a problem into a project, find the right partners, and look for funding. We also introduced courses that teach students to be good technology consultants, and to understand especially issues of poverty: what does it mean to live on $2 or less a day? What are the challenges it brings if you want to introduce technology? What is the real role technology can play? As a global community, I would say we don’t really have good answers to some of these questions.
TR: You emphasize forming partnerships. Does the work benefit people at both ends of the partnership?
BD: We approach this in terms of sharing rather than being a one-way conduit. While part of our goal is to expose developing communities to what technology could do for them, it goes beyond that. What we would really like to do is encourage and help create technology experts in these communities, because they have the advantage of knowing in much more depth what the community needs and its challenges. But we also have things to learn from them. At a talk I gave at NASA, someone suggested that in space exploration, technology is sent to areas that don’t have a power grid. While the level of funding is very different, obviously, there are certain things in common with developing communities. So if you want to do drilling in space, maybe there’s some technology that can be shared with drilling for water in Africa. The whole point is to start people thinking more broadly about what kind of technologies are applicable.
TR: You grew up in Sri Lanka. Has your background influenced your work in this area?
BD: It was actually the primary motivation. I grew up with a very strong passion for technology. I really wanted to learn more about it because it seemed like any problem Sri Lanka faced when I was growing up, we used to fly in experts. They would come up with a solution, and often it didn’t really reflect our cultural needs or traditions. Often it failed, but we would spend all this money on it. I grew up with this feeling that we really needed Sri Lankan technologists and technology experts so we didn’t have to fly people in. Probably since I was about 10 years old, this idea has been formulating in my mind.
TR: How do you bring new technologies to a community in a way that’s comfortable for people unfamiliar with the technology?
BD: We were working at a school for the blind, where we designed a Braille tutor to help students learn to read and write Braille. There was a wire that connected the stylus to the rest of the tutor, and, when we got there, we found out that the kids were really scared of it. We learned that in India, blind children are taught to stay away from wires. One of our students working on the project took the stylus and rubbed it on her face with a child holding it, to show that it was safe. To communicate with different groups, you sometimes have to come up with very different approaches.
TR: Could you tell me one of TechBridgeWorld’s success stories?
BD: We went to Ghana two summers ago, and helped design and teach the first robotics course in that country at the university level. Last year, two of the students who took our course graduated and formed a startup company. They’re making intelligent wallets, which allow you to do financial transactions through your phone. They contacted us for additional references on certain topics. That is really exciting–empowering a whole new generation there to look at things through different eyes.