As I wrote this in late June, I was sitting on a lovely Pacific beach in Las Penitas, Nicaragua, essentially my first off day in nearly six weeks of traveling, teaching, speaking and consulting in India, Malaysia and Nicaragua. It was a good time for reflection.
As co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Acara program, my focus is on helping students and young entrepreneurs develop solutions to global environmental challenges. Summer is the time for me to get out of the classroom and into the world with current and past students. I spent three weeks in India helping my colleagues leading a class with 16 University of Minnesota students and four India student interns looking at sustainability challenges facing Bangalore, a growing city of 9 million people, and surrounding areas. I took a side trip to Malaysia to give a keynote address at the 1st International Conference on Empowering Entrepreneurship. After a few days back in Minnesota, Acara assistant director Brian Bell and I went to Nicaragua to teach Iowa State students doing an in-country product design program and to investigate starting a Latin America program for Acara.
By both predilection and professional experience, I am, as the joke goes, the typical engineer to whom the glass is neither half full nor half empty but twice as big as it needs to be. That steady sense of balance served me well in a previous career in technology and business development and today in an institute with a focus on large complex climate and sustainability issues. However, arriving at that state often entails extreme swings in both directions. Reflecting on the trip, I recall a number of things that gave me “half full” or “half empty” thoughts.
Water Availability and Quality
- Half empty: Seeing a lakeside luxury high-rise apartment building in Bangalore dump untreated wastewater into the lake. The lake outlet, next to a low-income community, was full of suds and the water was literally on fire the previous day.
- Half full: In Nicaragua the beach was clean and unspoiled, with a small, sustainably run eco hotel (eco in reality, not just in marketing) nearby, and seemed to be in good shape.
- Half empty: In all three countries I visited as well as the U.S., changing rain patterns are causing major disruptions to agriculture businesses.
- Half full: There is a growing recognition that these changes are likely permanent and resiliency is growing in importance.
- Half empty: Driving through a nasty dust storm blowing off large corporate farm fields near Leon, Nicaragua.
- Half full: Spending time with amazing young entrepreneurs from MyRain and EOS International, both of whom are making available sustainable farming solutions to small farmers around Madurai, India, and San Isidro, Nicaragua.
- Half empty: Large tobacco farms in Nicaragua that make heavy use of chemicals and wear out the soil in a few years, all to make a product that essentially kills you.
- Half full: Exciting non-governmental organizations Sustainable Agro Alliance in India and CII-ASDENIC in Nicaragua, both of which have created innovative agricultural demonstration farms for training farmers on new, more sustainable, farming practices.
Demographics and Youth
- Half empty: Walking through a shiny new mall in Kuala Lumpur, realizing that many countries are very skewed to a younger population, that these young people are aspiring to the middle class and corporate-type jobs and that enormous resources will be required to serve that need. When I am on a crowded street in India, I often think of this chart that shows half the world’s population lives in a circle centered in Southeast Asia.
- Half full: Working with young students from India, Malaysia, Nicaragua and the U.S. who are dedicated and passionate about working on global grand challenges. It was great to see a strong recognition from universities I visited, especially the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and INCAE Business School in Managua, that inclusive entrepreneurship (livelihoods for all) is vital to addressing the demographic issue above and are actively creating training programs for all.
- Half full: The Environmental Support Group in Bangalore was effectively using the courts to enforce policy in a country that struggles with corruption. The Ugly Indian is an extremely effective grassroots organization cleaning up the streets of India.
- Half empty: The Bangalore Metro, under construction, is a modern marvel of engineering, providing much-needed public transportation to the city. But many low-income communities did not have a voice in the required relocation.
- Half full: While we know that practically everyone in the world has, or has access to, a mobile phone, the real changes will come as all those phones move to smartphones over the next decade. Akhilesh Tilotia, in his just published book, “The Making of India,” projects 625 smartphone users in India by 2020, up from around 160 million users today. This recent story in MIT Technology Review summarizes this trend nicely.
- Half empty: Distribution and lack of physical access because of poor infrastructure can’t be overcome solely by digital technology.
Every year this trip causes me to think about an emerging issue. This year the big issue that stuck out for me was livelihoods. In addition to UKM and UCAE, we met organizations such as Thriive working on new ideas for creating livelihoods. According to Tilotia, “over the next ten years till 2025, 250 million people will become eligible (old enough) to join the workforce in India.” That is more than 2 million people every month for 10 years. These young people need jobs, and the opportunities need to be fair across society to diminish further economic income separation. These livelihoods need to be sustainable — financially, socially and environmentally. This demographic challenge is weighing heavily on the minds of many thought leaders in these countries.
We teach students to use a “What, So What, Now What” method in reflecting on experiential learning. What is the “Now What” for Acara from these reflections? Create solutions addressed to specific environmental or social grand challenges, ensuring that these solutions are financially and environmentally sustainable, provide livelihoods, and are accessible to all.
This is not a short journey by any means, and for an educational program like Acara (along with many others globally), it’s an ongoing process to develop a pipeline of young leaders to address these challenges. Meeting the dynamic people I met on these travels, I feel, despite the swings above, that we can carve out a path to creating a balance of being just right.