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Tata Center Searches for Solutions for India’s Energy Dilemma

Three year-old MIT institute focuses on innovation for the developing world.
October 7, 2015

Founded in 2012 as part of the MIT Energy Initiative, the Tata Center for Technology + Design is focused on developing solutions to the problems faced by communities in the developing world, particularly in India: access to electricity, the availability of clean water and affordable health care, sustainable housing in a time of rapid urbanization, and so on. On Tuesday, at the Solve conference, Ratan Tata, the chairman emeritus of Tata Sons (the holding company for the Tata Group, one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates), sat down with Robert Stoner, the director of the MIT Tata Center, to review the center’s first three years of activity and to look ahead to the next phase.

Ratan Tata sat down with Robert Stoner on the Solve stage.

The center’s focus, said Ratan Tata, is “to find relevant solutions—not complex ones but those that fit into needs of the country and the people, whether it’s medical devices, solar pumps, artificial limbs, issues of education and health …Many of these have made or are in the process of making a difference on a wide scale.”

The center, Stoner said, supports 60 graduate students for two years each from all the schools at MIT, working on specific challenges in agriculture, energy, the environment, water, health, and urbanization. “It’s at the very center of MIT’s missions and activities,” Stoner added.

Those challenges are stark in India, where the population is expected to reach 1.7 billion in the next decade and where more than 300 million people today live without access to electricity. Since taking office in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made universal access to energy a central element of his administration’s program. If India follows the traditional course that China and the developed countries traced, its emissions of greenhouse gas could explode over the next 20 years, swamping any international efforts to limit the effects of global climate change. How India is attempting to solve this dilemma is the subject of my new feature for MIT Technology Review, “India’s Energy Crisis.” The story went online today and will appear in the November/December issue of the magazine.

“Rural india is lagging,” said Tata. “You can’t have growth without electricity. A villager wants her house to have light so her children can study for school. We are looking for a different kind of system to power our society.”

The Tata Center, said Stoner, is working to help India find alternative paths to move forward. “There may be ways to not do what the developed world has done.”

The fate of the planet could depend on it.

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