By Tamara Straus
The goal of the PhD is to do original research in a specific discipline. That means in-depth and sometimes narrow inquiries that build on academic knowledge. But for many STEM and social science graduate students, the great draw of the PhD is developing research that can have wide societal benefit—in clean water or pollution reduction, for example—and be implemented through government or business.
Since 2017, the Blum Center for Developing Economies has been enabling graduate students to develop societal benefit research through the InFEWS—Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems—program funded by the National Science Foundation. InFEWS provides fellowships and travel stipends for students whose PhD research aims to provide lasting environmental solutions and alleviate poverty in the world’s poorest regions. The program’s mandate is to train a new generation of interdisciplinary STEM researchers and practitioners who can improve the living standards of Americans and meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The requirements are broad. InFEWS Fellows must address challenges at the intersection of food, energy, and water systems. Their research must take into consideration climate variability, water, and pollution, along with changing demographics in a world where the poor and rural have insufficient access to basic resources. To meet these challenges, InFEWS Fellows are asked to engage in interdisciplinary research activities and course work, including human-centered design and lean startup approaches, as well as pursue immersive lab and field training. Students are also expected to gain experience in needs assessment, analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, and concept testing.
This year’s cohort of InFEWS Fellows includes 37 students from 13 schools and departments at UC Berkeley, including the School of Information, College of Natural Resources, Haas School of Business, College of Engineering, and Goldman School of Public Policy. Sixty five percent of the fellows are women and 25 percent are under-represented minorities, which is typical of STEM programs that address global challenges. In addition, 25 of the 37 fellows are also in the Blum Center’s Development Engineering program, which has similar goals in terms of training engineers who want to use technological innovations to address poverty.
Below are Q&As with four current InFEWS Fellows:
Sara Glade is a PhD student in Environmental Engineering whose InFEWS work focuses on drinking water treatment technology development and implementation.
Why did you seek to become an INFEWS Fellow and Development Engineering student?
My exposure to Development Engineering began during my undergraduate career when I was introduced to the organization Engineers Without Borders. I became deeply invested in the chapter, working on a water supply project in Haiti and a bridge project in Nicaragua. My passion for water came to fruition in the field in Haiti, after seeing children walk miles to collect polluted water. Here I learned the potential of engineering and water to improve the quality of people’s lives, which inevitably drew me to be interested in researching water treatment technologies for disadvantaged regions.
At UC Berkeley, I have been part of many social impact driven engineering projects. In the course DE 200, I worked with Sanivation, a container-based sanitation company located in Kenya. In CE 209, I worked with Berkeley-based startup SimpleWater to survey rural communities in California with arsenic contaminated drinking water about their water and point of use treatment. I learned firsthand the challenges communities throughout the Central Valley and the U.S. face with drinking water contamination. This ignited a strong interest in using Development Engineering to work on U.S. water issues, which I carried into my research. All of these experiences, before and during Berkeley, ultimately led me to the Development Engineering program.
Throughout my time at Berkeley, I have also grown to better understand and appreciate the link between food, energy, and water systems, and this drew me to the InFEWS program. My current research has also pushed me to think critically about these connections as well.
Tell us about your current research.
My current research started in quite a unique way. A UC Davis professor visited a community in the California Central Valley, in Allensworth, and met several community members looking for appropriate arsenic treatment technology solutions. This professor then contacted my advisor, Ashok Gadgil, because the Gadgil Lab has over 10 years of experience working on a novel arsenic treatment technology called ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation (ECAR).
On our first call with several community leaders, we were asked to help treat water on their farm for a livestock application. The development of ECAR at small scale on this farm site would be a unique opportunity for economic development in the community, for fresh food to be available nearby, and could also enable next steps of a demonstration plant and community treatment plant for drinking water. I knew this project would be perfect for my interests in U.S. water, treatment technology development, and implementation.
Thus far, I have conducted lab scale tests to understand parameters useful in designing the field trial, have developed design constraints unique to the U.S. context, have discussed the field trial design with our community partners, and have presented our work to a number of stakeholders, including local nonprofits. The next step of this work is to finish raising funds, and then implement and operate the field trial. Alongside the field trial, I plan to conduct interviews with community members to understand their perception of this new technology. Overall, I hope to increase knowledge around appropriate drinking water treatment technology development and implementation in small, low-income communities in the United States.
What are your long-term goals?
After my PhD, I would like to continue working on development and implementation of water treatment projects, either in the U.S. or internationally, and could see myself working in low-resource regions on projects that are in between basic science and commercialization. It seems amazing technologies and research that could serve the needs of disadvantaged populations sometimes get stuck in papers or at small scale. I hope to work on bridging this gap throughout my future career, with the hopes of bringing to fruition many technologies that otherwise would stay trapped in a text. I am also considering doing a policy fellowship after my PhD. From the work I have done on U.S. water thus far, I have become very interested in how policy can prohibit or enhance access to safe drinking water in affected regions.
Christopher Hyun is pursuing a PhD from the Energy and Resources Group with a designated emphasis in Development Engineering; his InFEWS work focuses on water and sanitation planning.
What drew you to the InFEWS Fellowship?
What drew me to InFEWS is its community of learning. I’ve been working in the development sector for over a decade, gaining experience in income generation, capacity building, and water- and sanitation-related research. I’ve had the privilege of working with environmental organizations and institutions on water and sanitation, such as the Centre for Science and Environment, Banaras Hindu University, IIT-Bombay, and CDD Society in India. Sanitation is not often considered an important sector at the nexus of food, energy, and water, although FEW systems thinking has the potential to help solve sanitation’s challenges; so this is an opportunity for me to learn from other scholars in the InFEWS community. Also, I am currently observing a sanitation revolution occurring in the development sector about which I am excited to share with the community as innovations unfold, integrating with an increasing number of FEW systems. Furthermore, I enjoy contributing to discussions about the relationship between technological innovation and social structures as well as general social and governance perspectives of FEWS.
What are your overall research interests?
I recently completed a research project, working with water valvemen to help improve intermittent water systems and partnering with NextDrop and the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board. As I continue with my PhD research, I hope to uncover pro-poor sanitation solutions that have long-term impacts on food, energy, and water systems in urban contexts of low- and middle-income countries. I focus on the governance of sanitation in urban India, following decision-making by international funders and government officials as well as by the engineers who design low-energy intensive technologies (such as biogas digesters) and the local farmers who reuse the wastewater and fecal sludge. I am particularly interested in capacity building for innovative sanitation solutions and how capacity building is conceptualized and implemented across scales of governance in sanitation.
Why is capacity building so important in your research?
Local officials and engineers often don’t have the capacity to make design decisions, and farmers may oppose new sanitation systems as they would rather obtain fecal sludge directly (but unsafely) from septic trucks. In my research, I aim to understand such local dynamics and to uncover ways to mitigate the gaps between scales of sanitation governance. Capacity building is often considered a solution to such challenges. I partner with the Consortium for DEWATS Dissemination (CDD) in India, internationally recognized for innovations in low-cost sanitation systems, reuse, and capacity building. I have worked closely with CDD, designing and implementing sanitation training focused on CDD’s “toilet to table” philosophy. In research, I utilize an ethnographic approach, conducting observations and interviews with stakeholders, civil society organizations, and government officials. My goal is not only to uncover how capacity building can be more effective, but more fundamentally how capacity building is being defined and implemented, including by whom and for whom. Uncovering capacity building not only informs development practice but it also helps us understand how and why technological transitions may (or may not) happen, which I believe is at the heart of both Development Engineering and InFEWS.
George Moore is a Mechanical Engineering and Development Engineering doctoral student whose InFEWS research focuses on food, energy, and water systems with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation of Northern California.
What drew you to research on sustainable energy and water resources?
My first opportunity to work on InFEWS-related research came during my summer research internship at the University of Michigan in 2015. There, I studied a sustainable manufacturing project for an underdeveloped community in Uganda. Reflecting on my own experience growing up as a minority in the rural South, this project made me feel personally connected and empathetic toward underserved communities globally. I read several case studies where organizations or researchers engaged with communities in developing countries and the original plan of action had to be altered to accommodate for context and cultural values that could not have been foreseen. Although this seems obvious to me now, I was surprised and grew curious about the methods used to design for communities like these in ways that would precipitate not only tangible goods, but also sustainable practices related to the handling of primal needs like food, water, and energy resources.
How did you come to work with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN) of Northern California?
As a PhD student working with Professor Alice Agogino and two other graduate students, I helped plan field research conducted at the PPN’s annual Big Time festival in Summer 2017. There, we were able to observe and engage with the PPN community in their own sacred environment. In addition, we provided an exercise that encouraged PPN members, and others in attendance, to articulate their opinions of the current problems within the PPN community as well as potential solutions to those problems. We offered five suggestive themes to categorize these responses, in which most of them cater to the vision of the InFEWS initiative: Food, Water, Energy, Education, and Well Being.
Since then, we have continued to work with PPN community leaders to establish how to progress with a project that would align the needs of the PPN community with those of our research goals. The PPN community has expressed interest in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Education, and over the past year has started an Academic Success Center, invested in a makerspace, and finished the second year of its annual STEAM summer camp. With this in mind, we have re-framed our research scope to emphasize InFEWS themes within the context of STEAM education and the design of culturally sensitive makerspaces.
What are your long-term goals?
I’m genuinely excited to be working on a project that aligns so much with my personal and academic goals. I think that success for the PPN project requires our roles as facilitators to become obsolete—creating lasting change that will continue long after our presence is removed. Also, we hope that whatever is produced from this collaboration upholds the values of the community. To achieve that goal, we have been careful to minimize the ideas and subtle influences that we might impose as researchers.
Lorenzo Rosa is a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management whose InFEWS research investigates where water scarcity may limit energy and food systems.
How have your academic interests informed your InFEWS work?
My training is in engineering, hydrology, and energetics. Before pursuing a PhD at UC Berkeley, I received master’s and bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Engineering from Polytechnic University of Milan, Italy and studied abroad at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia. Since 2017, I have been awarded an Ermenegildo Zegna Founder's Scholarship. Over the years, while studying the chemical processes of engineering as they relate to the environment, I noticed that the biggest environmental polluters are the food and energy sectors. This got me thinking I should focus on energy and food systems and hydrology to develop a framework using water balance.
Why focus on water balance?
An often-overlooked aspect of water requirements for economic activities is that water is a limited resource and some of these activities could be constrained by water scarcity to the point of limiting the development of some assets. For instance, lack of water resources can impede the extraction of some minerals, the generation of electricity from coal fired and solar power plants, the production of biofuels, or the closure of the yield gap in agricultural land. In all of these cases, water scarcity might be a limit to these activities.
While substantial additional water will be required to support future food and energy production, it is not clear whether and where local freshwater availability is sufficient to sustainably meet future water consumption. The extent to which irrigation can be expanded within presently rain fed cultivated land without depleting environmental flows remains poorly understood. It also remains unclear where and to what extent new water demanding energy projects, such as post- combustion CCS and hydraulic fracturing, might be constrained by local water availability.
How does your research on water scarcity differ from other assessments?
Previous efforts have assessed the water footprint of energy and food systems from the life cycle assessment perspective, focusing on a comprehensive accounting of all water costs associated with production and processing, but without examining the availability or source of the required water. The novelty of my research consists in the assessment of the impacts of energy and agricultural systems on the local water balance using a hydrologic approach, identifying the regions in which new forms of potential water consumption from the energy sector could compete with agriculture and other human activities, and areas in which water demand from energy and/or food systems could not be sustainably met because of water scarcity.
I believe neglecting water availability as one of the possible factors constraining the development of economic activities may lead to unaccounted business, social, and environmental risks. By adopting a hydrologic perspective that considers water availability and demand together, my aim is that decision makers, investors, and local communities can better understand the water and food security implications of energy and agricultural production while avoiding unintended environmental consequences.
Tell us about your dissertation work.
My dissertation will provide a quantitative framework to make informed investment decisions involving natural assets that are susceptible to water risks. As such, I am currently investigating where water scarcity may limit hydraulic fracturing and food production—thus creating risks for local populations and investors. My goal is to identify global hot spots of where human activities compete for water allocations, potentially creating social, environmental, and economic risks. My belief is that the limited understanding of the potential impacts of human activities on water resources prevents the implementation of a sound management plan for a sustainable human development. For example, we are depleting ecosystems in rivers because we are taking too much water from them. The classic example is the Colorado River. It runs dry and the water does not reach the ocean. Another example is non-renewable ground water mining. Water that was stored millennia ago is being used unsustainably in India, Pakistan, and Central California, among other places.
They key is understanding where we can increase water production, because we know the population is going to reach 9.5 billion by 2050. We’ll need to add 50 percent of current water production to feed all these people. And so we’ll need to figure out where we can (and cannot) produce more food with water in a sustainable way. In other words, we’ll need to move production where the water is or swap crops or use less water-intensive crops or transport water—so that we can increase food production for 2.8 billion people.
The InFEWS program is supported by the National Science Foundation (infews.berkeley.edu ; DGE # 1633740).
InFEWS Fellows Take on Sustainable Development Goals
“Economists believe the best way to deal with poverty is to create prosperity, and that works, but not everywhere. Engineers, by contrast, like to invent things that might help. At the Blum Center we're putting them together; it's a different approach.”
Former Secretary of State George Shultz
In the News
Autodesk Foundation CEO Lynelle Cameron on Courage, Creativity, and Critical Thinking
By Tamara Straus
Lynelle Cameron (Haas MBA ’01) has over 20 years of experience helping companies capitalize on market opportunities related to sustainability and climate change. Cameron is currently Vice President of Sustainability at Autodesk and CEO of the Autodesk Foundation. She leads a team transforming the design, manufacturing, and construction industries to capitalize on the business opportunities of a low-carbon economy.
Under her leadership, Autodesk has won numerous awards for sustainability, climate leadership, and philanthropy. Through the Autodesk Foundation, Cameron has invested over $15 million in entrepreneurs and innovators who are designing a sustainable world for billions of people. Cameron is proving that companies can do well by doing good—in ways that strengthen brand reputation, recruit and retain the next generation of employees, and deliver financial results to shareholders.
She sat down with the Blum Center to talk about sustainability, global challenges, and 21st century skills.
How has your perspective on sustainability evolved during your tenure at Autodesk?
Surprisingly, my perspective on sustainability has remained remarkably consistent over the years. As I wrote in a California Management Review article back in 2001 (vol 43, no. 3 Spring 2001), “Sustainability has become a strategic imperative for all businesses in the 21st century. It has become a fundamental market force affecting long-term financial viability and success.” This is as true today as it was back then.
My understanding, however, of what it would take to get the private sector toshare this view and to embrace the business opportunity that sustainability provides, has definitely evolved. I thought by now sustainability would be regarded in the way quality is—table stakes for every business everywhere. And yet, with each passing year, the stakes become higher and the urgency greater.
When I started leading sustainability teams at HP and later at Autodesk, sustainability was barely viewed as a thought leadership opportunity, much less a business driver. Over the years, this has slowly started to change. Companies like Autodesk are reporting about sustainability and climate change in their 10-Ks, embracing the UN sustainable development goals and setting bold targets, setting up board committees on sustainability, and tying executive compensation to sustainability performance. Employees are voting with their feet—joining companies or leaving them based on sustainability performance. This is all progress worth celebrating. And yet, we are far from where we need to be as a global business community.
What are the skills needed for 21st-century changemakers? How can universities best enable those skills?
In a book called 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Harare talks about the four Cs that will be needed to succeed in the age of automation: critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. As automation technology increasingly handles certain tasks, these distinctly human skills are vital. But there’s a fifth one that needs to be added: courage. Courage to look into the future and be honest about what we are up against. Courage to talk about climate change even when people don’t want to talk about it. Courage to be a leader willing to take risks and listen to crazy or unpopular ideas, wherever they may come from.
I am fortunate to have had mentors, advocates, and allies at every stage of my career propelling me forward and boosting my confidence despite the obstacles in my way. During my time at Haas, I benefited from an environment where ideas are explored and nurtured. As a student, I had a professor who agreed to oversee an independent study to develop a business plan for the Center for Responsible Business, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. To pay it forward, I try to pay extra attention to other nascent ideas, and create conditions for them to take root—just as others did for me.
Universities have a vital role to play in nurturing both people and ideas and equipping the next generation with the adaptability, resilience, and stamina to make the world a better place for billions of people.
At the Blum Center, we have documented that when university-based engineering projects are geared to social impact, more women and underrepresented minorities get involved. Have you seen similar trends at the Autodesk Foundation or elsewhere?
Yes, your findings are consistent with my experience at Autodesk. As an example, the Autodesk Foundation has more than 40 organizations in our portfolio and close to 50 percent of them are led by women or have a woman on the founding team. These leaders bring deep sector knowledge across a broad spectrum of industries—from emerging technologies like AI and robotics, to the architecture, construction, and manufacturing fields.
Similarly, we offer an internship program that matches students who have design and engineering expertise with impact-driven organizations in our portfolio. In our most recent cohort of interns, more than 80 percent were women or minorities. Women seem to be drawn to deliver positive impact to the world and pursue careers that allow them to do so.
In contrast, only 9 percent of the construction workforce is female, and a recent study of the top 100 architecture firms showed that only three were led by women. As more companies recognize the opportunity to align their business with solving important global challenges, I believe women will be drawn to the field and recognize engineering and related industries as wildly impactful career paths.
What are some of the most impressive impact design projects you've seen in recent years?
This is always a tough question because these days there are many people using their talents and skills to create positive impact. The first that comes to mind is WeRobotics. They’re using robots and drones to deliver snake anti-venom to remote villages or to drop sterile mosquito nets in the rainforest to fight Zika. They also train students on robotics and are inspiring young leaders to solve important problems while giving them employable skills.
Build Change is another one. They are adopting the latest technologies to design and build disaster-resistant homes and schools. Not only are they rebuilding after disasters like the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, but they are also working quickly to prevent future disasters by working with local communities to improve building codes in disaster prone regions of the world. Their teams of designers and architects are using VR and automation to dramatically speed up their ability to retrofit homes and help communities prepare for when disaster strikes.
Every organization in our investment portfolio from Village Capital to Kenya Climate Innovation Center is creating positive impact; I invite you to learn more about them at www.autodesk.org.
For students interested in infrastructure, architectural, and engineering software and the built planet what are the bright spots of the future? What do they have to look forward to?
Despite the global challenges we face, and the increasing urgency of these challenges, I remain an optimist. I am confident that as humans we can and will solve today’s challenges, although it will take a radically different approach than what we’ve used to date. When we look out into the future, we see that in 2050 there will be 10 billion people on Earth, with most living in cities and more than half enjoying middle-class lifestyles. It will require twice as much energy to power these lifestyles. While this is daunting, it is also the most important design challenge of our time.
And the good news is that I believe we have the technology today—with ever-increasing levels of automation and machine intelligence, to provide humans with the knowledge to design and make more things for more people. With sophisticated automation technology, we can now handle complex systems to design and make everything better and with a lot less negative impact on the planet. With computers now as our design partners, we have collaborative intelligence that will be necessary to change the trajectory we are on.
But it will take a new mindset—one overflowing with courage, creativity, and critical thinking to leverage automation technology in a way that ensures we design a better future for billions of people.
Multiplicity Not Singularity: Ken Goldberg on the Future of Work
By Lisa Bauer
Robotics Professor Ken Goldberg is the first to acknowledge the public anxiety about what automation and AI might mean for future jobs. Singularity—the hypothesis that AI will become increasingly powerful, decimating professions and remaking civilization—is becoming a mainstream concept. All one has to do is read news headlines about robot-driven factories, watch movies like “Ex Machina,” and listen to public figures like Elon Musk stating that AI poses our greatest existential threat.
Yet at a recent Blum Center Faculty Salon on the Digital Transformation of Development, Goldberg, UC Berkeley’s Department Chair of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research and the William S. Floyd Jr. Distinguished Chair in Engineering, argued that such fears are exaggerated. He is among computer scientists and roboticists who believe there is inadequate evidence to support the mass unemployment theories, such as the often cited Oxford University study that estimated 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of computerization.
Rather than replace human jobs, Goldberg believes artificial intelligence and robots will help to diversify human thinking. And rather than worry about a robot apocalypse, he urges a focus on what he calls Multiplicity, in which diverse combinations of people and machines work together to solve problems and innovate.
“Multiplicity is not science fiction. It’s a reality that is already a part of our daily lives,” said Goldberg.
To prove his thesis he references Google search, Amazon and Netflix’s personalized consumer recommendations, Waze navigation, and spam filtering—examples of machine learning that lead to rapid, wide-scale results. One of Goldberg’s points is that the public has long held a fascination with “creative overreach” and mechanized monsters (e.g., Pygmalion, Frankenstein, the Terminator). Yet our greatest AI successes so far have not involved walking, talking robots or even autonomous vehicles—they have involved machine learning for games, such Google DeepMind’s mastery of chess.
This is because machines excel when operating in a controlled information system; whereas navigating space is dynamic and uncertain.
Goldberg said the race to develop fully autonomous vehicles exemplifies this misunderstanding. While the public has been led to believe that autonomous cars are just a few years away, engineers and computer scientists say there are many barriers to overcome because driving is not a game with set variables. It involves navigating double parked trucks, weaving bikers, kids playing, and shade and light obscuring vision. A computer program is currently not capable of responding to these myriad, unpredictable situations. Indeed, Goldberg argues we are just as likely to be headed for an “AI Winter” rather than a near future with driverless cars.
Goldberg believes that automation will both eliminate and create new jobs. Quality of work may be improved by decreasing the amount of time spent on mundane tasks. One example of this is the ATM machine, which was initially met with outcry from bank tellers who believed their jobs were doomed. Instead, the lower costs of running a branch allowed banks to open more branches and expand services, ultimately increasing the number of overall jobs while also creating new types of jobs in sales and customer services.
“People are claiming that AI will steal truck driving jobs,” said Goldberg. “But the fact is we have a shortage of truck drivers and there's demand for more. Technology will make their jobs better.”
Proceeding further, Goldberg compared automation anxiety to anti-immigrant politics, quoting Oliver Morton’s observation that “robots are immigrants, from the future.” Historically, job losses have been blamed on immigrants; today said Goldberg, robots are the latest scapegoats.
“We need a shift in mindset, rather than ‘us against the machines,’” emphasized Goldberg. “Let’s focus on ‘us with the machines,’ and explore the potential for machine collaboration—how the combined strengths of diverse humans and diverse machines can enhance the human experience.”
“Cognitive Diversity, AI & the Future of Work,” a study co-authored by Goldberg and Vinod Kumar, CEO of Tata Communications, reports that much of education today emphasizes conformity, obedience, and uniformity, while the skills of tomorrow demand creativity, diversity, and flexibility. Most of the 120 global business executives interviewed for the study believe AI will increase the number of roles in the workplace and have the potential to enhance human collaboration and cognitive diversity within groups. Among the report’s conclusions is that what we need is not new forms of welfare and unemployment, but a shift in education that will better facilitate job transitions.
Goldberg said advances in agricultural machinery at the beginning of the last century prompted a need to train people with non-farming skills, creating what would become the “High School Movement.” The impact was huge: in 1910, only 10 percent of Americans graduated from high school; by 1950, 80 percent held a high school degree.
Given this precedent, Goldberg proposes a “Multiplicity Movement” to foster uniquely human skills that AI and robots cannot replicate: creativity, curiosity, imagination, empathy, human communication, diversity, and innovation. He recommended the U.S. reinforce creative and social skills in high schools and universities, so that Americans are in position to leverage diverse machines alongside diverse groups of people to amplify intelligence and spark high impact problem solving.
In response, Laura Tyson, Blum Center chair and interim dean of the Haas School of Business, expressed greater apprehension about the effects of artificial intelligence on the future of work.
She emphasized that each country and region will experience the digital transformation differently, according to factors like local policies and politics, demographics, and educational attainment. Tyson, who has years of policy experience in the U.S. federal government and international organizations, pushed the group to think more broadly—not just in terms of the future of jobs but also in terms of what she called the “future of livelihoods.”
“Individual workers should not have to bear the costs of transitions from jobs that are eliminated by technology to jobs that are created by technology,” she said. “We need to ensure that livelihoods are not compromised in the transition, and that we are counteracting rather than reinforcing economic inequality.”
Tyson contrasted concerns about the effects of AI on the future of work in the U.S. and other developed countries with the enthusiasm for AI in China where “automation anxiety” hardly exists. As a result of the largest and fastest industrialization and urbanization in history, China has a growing and thriving middle class that is heavily reliant on new technologies. Based on the rapid growth in living standards over the past 30 years, Chinese citizens expect that they will continue to benefit from new AI-based technologies.
The substitution of intelligent machines for low-cost, low-productivity workers poses the greatest challenge to the future of livelihoods in Africa. Such machines threaten the strategy of rapid development through industrialization based on low-labor costs and labor arbitrage. By 2050, Africa’s youth population is estimated to increase by 50 percent to 945 million.
The continent will have the largest number of young people in the world. What kinds of work will they do? What kinds of livelihoods will be possible? What will be the place of African countries in global trade and global supply chains when the availability of comparatively cheap labor is no longer a competitive advantage?
Juxtaposing the youth explosion in Africa, the aging demographic patterns in Japan and Germany, the U.S.’s skills and wealth gap, and the success of China in rapid industrialization and global trade, Tyson posed several questions to consider:
How will we ensure that all countries and communities benefit from AI and automation? How do mid-career professionals adjust if their job becomes obsolete? How will mid-career professionals gain new skills? Who pays for it? How do we prepare diverse populations for smooth economic and labor transitions?
Tyson advocated that nations develop comprehensive educational and development strategies that support the livelihoods of their citizens—and that share the benefits of intelligent machines broadly.
Computer Science Has the Power to Impact the Lives of the 99 Percent
By Divya Nekkanti
During high school, I looked unquestionably at technology leaders like Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, whose philanthropic foundation aimed to solve every apparent misfortune in the Global South. Even more, I found solace in the “giving back” days that Silicon Valley tech companies employed as a fulfillment of their corporate social responsibility.
But increasingly, no matter where I look—in the world, in my community, within myself—tech and development are misaligned. There seem to be two mutually exclusive avenues of engaging with the world—innovating or giving—the only overlap for which involves donating money to admirable causes or engaging in occasional volunteer service. This dichotomy between the fast-paced, disruptive tech world that doesn’t afford engineers the time to fully understand the complexities of social challenges and the slower-moving development sphere, where the redundancy of approaches and lack of human, financial, and tech capital hinder growth, have become more and more apparent to me in my experiences at Cal.
Perhaps this dichotomy was once not so strong, but as an Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) major today there’s a very distinct path you follow. You take onerous math and programming classes, cease at nothing to get accepted into the engineering or business consulting organizations that flood Sproul Plaza in the semester’s first few weeks, and then embark on a toxic pursuit of software engineering internships at Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Amazon, etc. You attend every info session, stand in hour-long lines to talk to a single recruiter, and apply to hundreds of companies without distinction as to why—all because the sole purpose of your “technical” education is to work at the biggest, most profitable software company in the Valley.
Application of knowledge becomes fixated on the destination rather than the journey, and despite going to a school as economically and experientially diverse as Berkeley, you get so lost in the allure of free T-shirts and food, the glitz and glamor, that social problems—even at the campus level—go unnoticed. Despite having few requirements outside the EECS major, the exhaustion from technical courses prompts you to deliberately pursue humanities courses that offer the highest average grade and lowest workload, rather than taking classes that actually pique your interest.
Disillusioned by this herd mentality and eager to explore a multidisciplinary Berkeley education, I decided to pursue a minor in Global Poverty & Practice. Taking on this minor was the best decision I made at Cal, as it is affording me an evaluative lens not only to examine determinants of poverty, but for the first time to critically analyze the bubble I have been living in for my entire life in Silicon Valley. A productive hiatus from my homogeneous computer science courses, GPP is allowing me to daily interact with students from a broad array of majors and backgrounds, whose perspectives challenge my own and elevate every classroom discussion.
Yet despite the minor’s longstanding diversity, I see few engineers, even fewer computer scientists, in my GPP classes. At the same time, across campus I see few engineering and computer science students willing to confront the economic misfortune and inequality of access that exist beyond Soda Hall. With my eyes more open than ever been, I can now critically assess a variety of complexities: the tax evasion benefits and occasional alternate agendas behind philanthropic donations; the dependencies that result from inconsistent foreign aid; and the millions of laptops donated by the tech community’s One Laptop Per Child program, which never reached children in need.
Unlike the abundance of engineering courses that posit innovation must be accelerated to be disruptive (thus often fabricating problems to “solve” and oversimplifying ones that already exist), GPP courses are making me careful about my language, as I “practice” how to effectively address people in poverty (rather than naively think I can “serve” them).
Never anticipating the ability to reconcile my passions for tech and development, last summer I intentionally took on two very different internships: one with an NGO that focuses on education, economic empowerment, and equality for women and girls in developing regions; and the other an analytics consulting company.
At the NGO, I actively tried to refrain from imposing my software skills, as I was wary of oversimplifying the problems the nonprofit inwardly faced and outwardly worked on with redundant tech solutions. Yet day after day, the need for tech internally to scale the organization and externally to enrich the organization’s education programs, felt glaringly critical.
My most surprising discovery was the NGO’s high turnover, which appeared to engender bottlenecks like lack of data standardization. As employees came and went on their own volition, they stored years of donor and program information on different online services, in independent accounts, and with inconsistent formats. The irregularities on this scale of data made communication with donors and tracking of scholarship students nearly impossible, with half the incoming mail consisting of emails undeliverable as addressed. Seeing as the NGO was primarily funded by donors, the gravity of mismanaged data heightened by the day.
Even more of a hurdle was the lack of technology for educational programming and outreach. While the organization received Chromebook donations from Google, low electricity in the areas where the NGO work prevented deployment of the laptops. And while the girls finishing high school requested technical curriculum in robotics and web development, there was no one with the bandwidth to structure the programs.
Meanwhile, in my second internship at the analytics consulting company, the resources seemed endless. If I didn’t like the size of my Mac, with a few clicks I could instantly order a new one. Unlike at the NGO, where I knew the faces and names of the women my work was directly affecting, working on software projects at a large tech company felt like coding in a black box. I was assured there were huge companies on the other end, transforming their businesses with the firm’s services, but my role in delivering this value was largely ambiguous and concerns were cursorily dismissed.
It was only during my practice at the nonprofit that I began to view challenges of sustaining an NGO and achieving development goals as technical opportunities. Sourcing data from all accounts, I wrote scripts to parse CSVs and standardize entry formats, transitioning the entire organization onto Salesforce’s nonprofit success pack for centralized donor and program management. I researched solar chargers and the historical reception of robotics and web development curricula in the NGO’s target regions, wrote cost/benefit analyses, and developed technologies for later deployment in schools.
With every task I completed and every proposal I pursued, I realized how invaluable technology in the social sector has the potential to be, especially in streamlining internal processes and scaling external facing projects. Connecting the two disparate dots in my life, I have felt fulfilled and inspired. I have realized innovation isn’t solely synonymous with the next iOS update, computer science has the power to impact the lives of the 99 percent, and the “technical vs. nontechnical” mentality we unconsciously employ fails to represent the very multifaceted and interdisciplinary approaches requisite in development.
As an engineer, I have gleaned that it is possible to transcend the stereotypical boundaries of a traditional tech job, that it doesn’t take the philanthropic capital of a billionaire to change the world, and most importantly that I don’t need to compromise my technical background to alter paradigms in the development sector. Instead, I can actionably address the assemblage of social issues that keep me up at night with the skills I learn during the day.
Divya Nekkanti ’20 is a Berkeley Electrical Engineering & Computer Science major and a Global Poverty and Practice minor from San Jose, Calif.
Increasingly, no matter where I look--in the world, in my community, within myself--tech and development are misaligned.
“Governments Don’t Want the Academic Paper, They Want Tailored Advice”: Daniel Kammen on Communicating Scientific Research
By Tamara Straus
Daniel Kammen asserts that everything he has learned about communicating scientific research to a lay audience has been “by accident.” Yet Kammen, chair of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley who also holds parallel appointments in the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Department of Nuclear Engineering—is for all intents and purposes a master communicator to the press, government, and non-scientists in general.
First, Kammen is not afraid of the mainstream media. He is a frequent contributor on the subjects of climate science and clean energy to The New York Times, The Guardian, and other news outlets and has appeared on 60 Minutes (twice), NOVA Frontline, and hosted the six-part Discovery Channel series “Ecopolis.”
Second, he is a prolific academic and government contributor, having authored or co-authored 12 books, written more than 380 peer-reviewed journal publications, testified more than 40 times to U.S. state and federal congressional briefings, provided governments with more than 50 technical reports, and served the State of California and U.S. federal government in expert and advisory capacities. In terms of academic appointments, Kammen is also is founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL).
Third, Kammen has worked—and communicated—outside of university. He has served as the World Bank’s Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency and as the U.S. State Department’s Environment and Climate Partnership for the Americas Fellow and later as Science Envoy for President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. He also has founded or is on the board of over 10 companies.
At a recent InFEWS lecture at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Kammen argued that although many scientific researchers may loathe to translate their work for non-scientists, they need to learn how to do it—individually or preferably in teams, as working with the press and reaching government can be difficult.
“If you’re not intentional about how you’re communicating your science, what you’re saying is someone else should write your narrative,” said Kammen. “And generally, you don’t want someone else writing your narrative.”
Kammen gave the example of his research on corn-based ethanol. In the Jan. 27, 2006 issue of Science, he and his co-authors provided an analysis of six previous corn ethanol studies. By reverse-engineering a suite of models and studies, the team concluded that ethanol can be seen as renewable energy if the source of biomass is sustainable and that many important environmental effects of biofuel production are poorly understood. The first conclusion pleased the corn ethanol industry, especially when they read articles stating ethanol can replace gasoline with big energy savings. Other articles highlighted the problem of finding sustainable biofuel resources, such as organic urban waste. However, the main finding of the paper was that the transition from gasoline to ethanol would be worth it only if the ethanol could be produced not from corn but from woody, fibrous plants: cellulose.
For Kammen, the varied press reaction to his Science paper underscored the need to frame the discussion. In fact, he worked closely with UC Berkeley’s Public Affairs department on a press release to make the paper’s points clear.
“We then worked with the media as they came to us,” he said. “I went on 60 Minutes to clarify that cellulosal ethanol is the only one that is climate reducer. This effort paid off, as our paper was one useful element of a campus/LBL/University of Illinois effort that resulted in winning the $500 million grant for the bioscience industry.”
Kammen said another communications pitfall for scientific researchers is overemphasizing new results. As exciting as they are, he counseled, they can get taken as an end point. He referenced an Oct. 31 Nature paper that was rushed out to follow the publication of the “Global Warming of 1.5 °C” IPCC report. The researchers reported that ocean temperatures had warmed 60 percent more than outlined by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, this conclusion was proved incorrect by mathematician Nic Lewis, who is also a critic of the scientific consensus around human-induced warming. When Ralph Keeling, the coauthor of the Science paper, redid the calculations he was forced to admit the ocean warming calculation was vastly overstated.
Kammen may wring his hands over such science communications errors, but he is adamant there’s no such thing as science that’s too complicated to translate for a non-technical audience.
“You hear scientists say, I’m working on a really interesting, esoteric topic and hence I can’t communicate it in 90 seconds,” he griped. “I don’t believe that at all. If you can do some sort of the bumper sticker or elevator pitch of what you’re doing—you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Like many, Kammen feels overwhelmed by social media, and asserts he is not adept in the self-publishing platforms. Yet he has scored one major social media coup. On August 27, 2017, he resigned from his position at the State Department’s science envoy to protest President Trump’s comments on white supremacist violence, stating on twitter (@dan_kammen): “Your response to Charlottesville enables racism, sexism, & harms our country and planet.” Kammen’s letter had a not-so-subtle message: the first letter of each paragraph spelled out the word “IMPEACH.”
Kammen’s release of this acrostic-laden resignation was highly strategic. He posted it on Twitter at 6 am PT—so it would be read in multiple time zones that day—and he asked his friend with the largest Twitter following to retweet it. That friend was J.K Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, who helped his message go viral, eventually logging 42,000 retweets and 120,000 likes.
Kammen is better positioned than many researchers to attract public attention because his field is what he calls “solutions science,” combining science and economics to solve problems of climate change. But no one can accuse him of not working around the clock to develop and communicate technological solutions to global warming. One of his favored tactics is easily understandable visuals. At Blum Hall, he presented a video rendering of ice cover reduction based on satellite images of the North Pole over almost 40 years.
“This kind of visualization gives you a theory-free picture of where we’ve gone,” said Kammen, adding: “For me, communicating with these visualizations are massively more useful than the scientific blocks.”
Words he finds trickier, though he is willing to appropriate others. He explained that he borrowed the term “green jobs dividend” from a U.S. Senate Committee meeting on clean energy chaired by Senators John Kerry and John McCain. And he admitted his word choice is not always the wisest, referencing the time he got behind the moniker “Berkeley First” for a national clean energy investment plan for property owners.
“This was poorly thought out. Nobody outside Berkeley wants to do what Berkeley does,” he said, explaining the program eventually was called PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy), a term coined by a New York financier.
Among the questions from the audience at the Blum Center was: What to do about the clunky term “global warming?" Kammen admitted it’s been a communications disaster, as “global warming sounds like a good thing; rich people in poor countries make most of the world policy, and for most of the cities global warming sounds good.”
Still, Kammen believes climate change is the right term, even though “everyone in communications says it’s too nerdy. Change doesn’t have a direction, and climate is something that’s all around us. What we’re trying to say is that we are relatively well adapted to the world we live in today, but deviations from that are likely to be more costly than beneficial. That doesn’t work on a bumper sticker.”
Though Kammen has been disappointed by some of his press interactions, he is firm that the “press process” is the best way to interact with and influence government. He has come to that conclusion through his work enabling the approval of a $1.26 billion transmission project linking renewable energy resources in Kenya and Ethiopia and in communicating the need for a major transportation loan to China for the 10-fold expansion of electric vehicles.
“Governments don’t want the academic paper,” said Kammen. “In fact, if they say we like your vehicle policy for China, even if you wrote a paper with that exact title—they don’t want to read it and they’re not going to read it. They actually want you to write that press release and say, based on this paper, which was peer-reviewed, we recommend the following….”
The InFEWS program is supported by the National Science Foundation (infews.berkeley.edu ; DGE # 1633740).
To recognize the accomplishments of the Global Poverty & Practice minor, the Blum Center has published an alumni magazine featuring graduate accomplishments over the past decade. To read it, click here.
By Veena Narashiman ’20
Basic surgeries are far from basic. They require approximately 50 tools, which take about 2 minutes each for an experienced technician to clean. Operations in a trauma unit require as many as 400 tools. And in both environments, surgical tools can be easily misplaced, thrown away, or misassembled. In fact in the U.S. alone, busy surgical teams inadvertently leave an instrument inside a patient about 1,500 times a year.
Solving the problem of surgical tool tracking is the focus of VIDI, a startup launched in November 2017 by Federico Alvarez del Blanco (Haas MBA '18), John Kim (UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering PhD '18), Hector Neira, (UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering PhD '18), and Robert Kim (PhD candidate, UCSD MD/PhD, Neuroscience)—which received a Big Ideas 2nd place award in May in the Hardware for Good category.
The group of Cal students were inspired by a campus workshop on visual recognition sponsored by information technology company NEC. They began to realize that the same machine learning technologies being deployed for self-driving cars could be used to increase hospital efficiency by tracking the flow of sterilization tools used in operations and thus minimizing medical errors.
VIDI (which means “see” in Latin) is being developed to do the following: As technicians prepare instruments before a procedure, a camera facing the surgical tray tracks where each tool goes and ensures the number of tools present in the beginning remains constant throughout the process. When a tool goes missing, the technology alerts technicians of a possible error.
Neria, Kim, del Blanco, and Kim initially decided to target hospitals’ Central Processing Departments, where most tools are sterilized, since this area is more accessible than operating rooms. “We figured it was a good place to start. The less high stakes for a prototype, the better,” said John Kim.
The team also realized sterilization operators are vastly under-appreciated and underpaid, even though they are expected to enable fast turnover of surgical tools. “These technicians don’t stay in the same hospitals for a long time, because they burn out quickly. Also, every hospital has a different technique and different name for their procedures. It’s super easy to get confused and make a mistake as an operator,” added Kim.
Yet the focus on the Central Processing Departments did not yield enough information about tool loss. So the VIDI team members turned their attention to the surgical room. By placing a table top camera facing the surgical tray (filled with cleaned instruments), VIDI was able to automatically catalog the tools, a feature that cuts the operator’s time by half.
To further their idea, Hector Neria, John Kim, and Robert Kim participated in the National Science Foundation I-Corps, and conducted upwards of 100 interviews to understand the state of the medical field. From there, they entered the Haas NEC Innovative Solutions Fair, where they partnered with MBA student Federico Alvarez del Blanco, and subsequently won first place. Throughout the process, they explored new markets.
Said John Kim: “Our initial motivation was to tackle the issue of surgical tools being left in patients [a term called RSI], but that only accounts for 5 percent of all misuses… It’s not a huge market. We discovered that tracking the instruments was not well managed, and hospitals were having a hard time converting to new tools.”
At this stage, they were ready for Big Ideas ideation and mentorship. “Previous competitions were mainly focused on customer discovery,” said Kim. “We needed Big Ideas to receive feedback on our value proposition, and this feedback helped us understand more about our competitors and where they lie in the market.”
With the help of their Big Ideas mentor, product development specialist Bayan M. Qandil, they began to frame their business proposal.
“One of our biggest hurdles was determining hospital work flow, and where VIDI fits in [it],” said Kim. “Big Ideas allowed us to experience the hospital atmosphere more intimately, so we could understand of how the day-to-day works. Their feedback was invaluable.”
One of their main takeaways and pivot points began with the realization that unlike other companies, VIDI users wouldn’t be the ones buying the product. In fact, the financial decision makers—hospital administrators—would never touch VIDI, yet they were still the people the team has to convince. “It’s a tricky situation to be in, but ultimately a good challenge,” said Kim. “Interviewing technicians from UCSF and the CEO of John Muir’s Medical Center helped us understand the balance of things. Hospitals realize the gravity of surgical mistakes and want to eliminate them. ”
VIDI now has the capability to detect 50 surgical instruments in a hospital setting. In September, they were chosen as finalists in the 2018 Collegiate Inventors Competition, which rewards innovation and research conducted by college students and their faculty advisers. They’ll be traveling to Virginia in November for the final round, in the hope to receive funding to advance their project.
The VIDI team, which chose its name from the phrase attributed to Julius Caesar, veni vidi vici, is not shy about its excitement for the future.
Said Kim, “The health care system desperately needs improvement— and our team wants to get our hands dirty as soon as possible to help hospitals with these unforced errors.”
VIDI—Another Way to See Surgery
Can There Be A National Security and Development Agenda for the U.S.? Michael Nacht at the Blum Center
By Tamara Straus
At the first Blum Center Faculty Luncheon devoted to “Digital Transformation of Development,” Michael Nacht, the Thomas and Alison Schneider Chair in Public Policy, presented on “The Nexus of National Security, Diplomacy, and Development”—and gave a sober assessment of what that nexus might produce under the Trump administration.
Nacht, who has served three tours of duty in government, most recently as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs (2009-2010), provided an overview of government investments in the defense and development sectors. He reminded the group of Blum Center-affiliated faculty that the research which led to the atomic bomb was entirely government funded and led through national labs, including Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
“Thinking about it now years later,” said Nacht, “the community that makes up Lawrence Livermore National Lab understands things have really changed. There has been a proliferation of technologies and the vast majority of the innovative work is being done by the private sector. In fact, 85 percent of the research and development in this country is being funded by the private sector, not the government. It has spillover effects, not just in national security, but in development.”
Nacht was referencing a 2018 LLNL book on this shift he co-edited entitled Strategic Latency: Red, White, and Blue—Managing the National and International Security Consequences of Disruptive Technologies. The book looks at the implications of artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and other technological advances and underscores the consequences of disruptive paths are never straight. “We appreciate the seeming contradictions that can lead life-saving technologies in unintended negative directions, or prompt military technologies toward peace and prosperity through spinoffs or war-avoiding defenses,” Nacht and his co-editor Zachary Davis write in their introduction.
Yet Nacht has become a pessimist. He said that national security and international development interests don’t have much current geopolitical overlap. That is because national security interests are focused on Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Islamic terrorism, cyber threats, and space-related work—and international development interests are focused on areas of high poverty, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. “Really, the only two [developing] countries that transcend to the national security community are India and Iraq,” he said.
Also, Nacht is adamant that the current presidential administration is making defense, diplomacy, and development intersections unlikely because of what he called “the Trump team’s tremendous rejection of multilateral instruments.” He added: “There may be outright hostility in trying to apply national security interests to international development interests.”
Nacht did point out the Department of Defense under former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (2015-2017) focused on strengthening ties between the DoD and the tech community. In August 2015, DoD established the DIUX, the Defense Intelligence Unit Experimental, with headquarters in Mountain View, to help the U.S. military make faster use of emerging commercial technologies, promote joint appointments, and imbue the defense department with a more entrepreneurial culture. Nacht said those efforts have not ceased, but it is unclear whether they are, or can be, a priority under Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Still, Nacht pointed out that we will continue to see areas of confluence between defense, technology, and even development, especially in academia. He cited the example of UC Berkeley Bioengineering Professor Jay Keasling, whose research on the metabolic pathways inside cells led to a semi-synthetic version of the antimalarial drug artemisinin, which has driven down the cost of treatment and saved lives in Sub-Saharan Africa, creating greater equity and stability.
Yet Nacht expressed concern that new technologies, particularly AI and machine learning, could devastate the developing world. Citing a Bloomberg article on the subject, he said China has been able to leverage its large population and low costs to build a manufacturing sector that is producing better and more technology-intensive goods—while India, with its large English-speaking population and low costs, has become a hub for outsourcing low-end, white-collar jobs in fields like business-process outsourcing and software testing. Now, however, with AI’s accelerating automation of factories and customer service, corporations will bring many of these jobs back to where they are based, leading to a potentially explosive crisis.
“It’s a complicated pattern,” said Nacht. “Using technology to improve lives sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.”
At the same time, Nacht noted that China’s investment in African and Latin American infrastructure in exchange for natural resources is a phenomenon that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore, especially as China does not proffer democracy building, human rights, or other political carrots as a condition for investment. This purely economic transaction, Nacht said, is one that the Trump administration might follow, ending decades of foreign policy initiatives.
Nacht concluded that the U.S. needs more strategic interaction between its economic and foreign policy positions in developing countries, but said reading the Trump administration’s tea leaves in this regard is next to impossible.
Among the discussants to respond to Nacht’s presentation was Joshua Blumenstock, assistant professor at the School of Information and director of the Data-Intensive Development Lab. His research lies at the intersection of machine learning and development economics, and focuses on using novel data and methods to better understand the causes and consequences of global poverty. Blumenstock noted that resource challenges arising from climate change should bring together the national security, technology, and development communities. But that the cultures of these communities are quite distinct and often at odds. He would like to see more efforts like DIUX to find commonalities between the communities.
Alice Agogino, professor of mechanical engineering and the Blum Center’s education director, said that one research effort combining climate change, development, technology, and national security is the center’s InFEWS (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems) program, supported by the National Science Foundation. InFEWS recognizes that food, energy, and water systems are under increasing stress, and it is thus becoming imperative to integrate social, ecological, physical, and built environments to meet growing demand for food, energy and water in the short term while also maintaining appropriate ecosystem services for the future. The Blum Center’s program is supporting graduate students working in these systems and helping them master interdisciplinary skills to create research that can be transferred out of the lab and into the field. “In essence,” said Agogino, “we are already supporting the very people who can serve at the nexus of national security and development. We call them Development Engineers.”
Brad DeLong, the Blum Center’s chief economist, ended the session with a long view of the history of war. Bringing the group to the present times, he said: “Now we find ourselves in a world with many security threats to us and to others, with a military that does not have a history to deal with the threats we face and the missions it is going to be asked to undertake. To amplify our problems, we have little idea about the form that the social practice of war will take in the 21st century. We do not expect to see the industrial total wars, the national liberation wars, the imperial little wars that we saw in the 20th century. But what will we see? What kind of U.S. military would best deal with what we are likely to see? And how can the U.S. government’s power—military, diplomatic, development—be deployed to eliminate as many 21st century war threats as possible?”
DeLong concluded: “A great deal of the potential causes of 21st-century war as a social practice, whatever form it turns out to take, are rooted or are aggravated by problems of development. And the U.S. military—with its tradition from the Black Hills-stealing army of the post-Civil War on up to the fast-moving powerful force of Desert Storm where we were tasked with being military police in a place where we did not speak the language—is not well-equipped to think about the force structure and the doctrine needed for the 21st century. Here I think we can really, genuinely help.”
By Veena Narashiman ’2020
Early years of childhood form the basis of intelligence, personality, social behavior, and capacity to learn and nurture oneself. Increasingly, child development researchers are also finding that brain development during the first eight years is the most rapid, with children who receive attention in their early years achieving more success in school.
Sneha Sheth (Haas MBA '16) knew these facts, having designed international programs for women’s empowerment and education for Dalberg, Education Pioneers, and Teach For India. She understood that early education in India was often neglected due to high rates of poverty and illiteracy—and that the nation holds many of the 200 million children in developing countries at risk of not reaching their full potential.
“I met hundreds of mothers, who had never gone to school,” said Sheth of her time working in a Mumbai slum. “They were willing to do whatever it took to get their kids a great education, but they weren’t really sure how. They would often ask me, ‘Well, I didn’t go to school, what can I really do about this?’”
While pursuing an MBA at Cal, Sheth began to think about an education technology project that could serve low-income Indian parents. During the summer of 2015, she and Sindhuja Jeyabal, who was completing a master’s degree at the UC Berkeley School of Information, piloted DOST, meaning friend in Hindi.
Sheth and Jeyabal then turned to the Big Ideas student innovation contest for development and feedback. Their Big Ideas mentor, Anthony Bloome, a senior education technology specialist at USAID, encouraged their ambition to come up with a solution for early childhood development in India. Big Ideas allowed Sheth and Jeyabal to iron out their implementation plan. In May 2016, DOST won in the Mobiles for Reading category.
Soon after, DOST was named one of the Top Three Edtech Startups in 2016 by the Unitus Seed Fund, followed by an invitation to join Y Combinator. In 2017, the team returned to Big Ideas, winning third place in the Scaling Up competition. The nonprofit’s supporters now include the Mulago Foundation, the David Weekley Family Foundation, and the Chintu Gudiya Foundation, among others.
The path to creating DOST was iterative, said Sheth. “At first, we talked to parents about how those who can’t read can still have a lot of weight in early childhood education. We had to show parents that playing, singing, and talking with their kids was a form of education.”
Sheth and Jeyabal recognized a major challenge was getting busy families to come to DOST early education classes.
“You can’t change behavior in one session, and you can’t see changes penetrate in a community in just one session,” said Sheth.
Even if one parent was able to attend sessions—and it was often the mothers—DOST wanted to involve fathers, grandparents, aunts, and other extended family members in lesson plans. When the team was brainstorming ideas for a practical approach to this problem, they finally asked, What if we just call them?
Due to the widespread use of Nokia cellphones, Sheth and Jeyabal began to consider a technological approach to parent learning. Sending podcasts to parents, they realized, would allow DOST to serve many families and grow rapidly. Parents also wouldn’t need to make the tough decision of deciding between attending a parenting class or cooking dinner.
DOST began to develop 1- to 2-minute daily lesson plans and verbal activities as podcasts deliverable to parents’ phones, allowing busy mothers and fathers to integrate their child’s early development into their daily lives. The audio programs instruct parents to teach basic literacy and numeracy. The first audio program is 24 weeks long, and is targeted at parents of children who are two- to six-years of age. As of October 2018, there are 20,000 Indian caregivers using DOST every day, a figure that has grown 100 times in the last two years.
One of the first lesson plans featured how parents could speak to their children without intimidation. By trying a collaborative approach rather than a violent one, parents reported their children were more receptive to instructions and guidance. One of DOST’s most popular mini podcasts encourages mothers to make rotis in different shapes for dinner—fostering pre-numeracy skills at a young age.
To build awareness for DOST, the nonprofit has hired mothers from the communities it targets.
“DOST Champions see the untapped potential in their own community and know how to convince their neighbors to join DOST,” said Sheth. “It’s also a plus to create employment in the areas we work in.”
Ultimately DOST’s mission is to provide uneducated parents with the resources to enable their children to excel.
“Whether it’s by categorizing rotis as big or small during cooking or naming the colors in a sari,” said Sheth, “these kids will be more prepared for their future.”
DOST— Fostering Early Childhood Development in India
There are 20,000 Indian caregivers using DOST every day, a figure that has grown 100 times in the last two years.
By Tamara Straus
Early in 2017, Ryan Protzko, then a doctoral student in biochemistry at UC Berkeley, was working on research to turn orange peels into eco-friendly bottles and contacted a citrus juicer in California’s Central Valley. Would the company be able to spare some orange peels? Yes, responded the representative, the juicer could truck “a couple tons” of wet navel peel to Protzko’s lab free of charge.
Protzko, co-founder of the green chemistry startup ZestBio, tells this story to widen people’s eyes to the gargantuan amount of agricultural waste produced on Earth. Up to 50 percent of citrus fruit, potato, sugar beet, and grape weight is made up of wasted matter: peels, pulps, and pomace—and that matter comprises only 10 percent of the crops’ value.
In numeracy, citrus pulp and peel alone generate 10 million metric tons of waste worldwide every year. Much of it is reused as feed to cattle, but this requires an energy-intensive process. Peels that are not dried can end up in piles of putrefying waste that cause environmental damage to local waterways and release greenhouse gases, particularly methane. It makes one guilty to drink a glass of orange juice.
Nonetheless, the free citrus pulp offer was confirmation for Protzko and his ZestBio partners—Luke Latimer, who received his PhD in chemistry from Cal in 2017, and UC Berkeley Bioengineering Associate Professor John Dueber—that the raw materials they needed were more than available. What they also soon discovered was that agricultural producers are keen to collaborate on green chemistry products which repurpose their waste, increase their crop value, and reduce emissions by repurposing peel, pulp, and pomace for viable and especially non-oil-based products.
“Just the idea of taking agricultural waste and turning it into something else was exciting to producers,” explained Protzko to the sound of a whirring fermentation shakers in his lab at Berkeley’s Energy Biosciences Building. “It took us some time to figure out what we should do and what might be economically viable—but that eventually came from talking to big chemical manufacturers and from the industry responses to our academic paper.”
That academic paper demonstrated the possibility of using engineered yeast to convert pectin-rich orange peel waste into plastic bottles. It is an advance enabled by the last 10 years of metabolic engineering, says Protzko. ZestBio’s goal is to use yeast to make chemical building blocks, which include the plastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF)—a bio-based plastic produced from agricultural waste. The team is one step closer to that goal, as demonstrated in a November 2018 Nature Communications paper, in which the researchers solved challenges associated with engineering a microbial strain to convert pectin-rich hydrolysates into commodity and specialty chemicals.
The Nature Communications paper lands a week after one of California’s most extreme environmental disasters—the Butte County fires, which have been attributed to fossil fuel-driven climate change and which covered the Energy Biosciences Institute in smoke the day of the ZestBio interview. Among the advantages of PEF, says Protzko, is reducing reliance on its chemical cousin, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), found in food packaging and plastic drink bottles. Indeed, when it comes to bottles, an environmentally sustainable solution is in demand. A Pacific Institute study found that approximately 17 million barrels of oil equivalent were needed to produce the plastic water bottles consumed by Americans in 2006—enough energy to fuel more than one million cars for a year.
“Waste causes environmental issues,” says Protzko. “If we can create sustainable products then we’re actually replacing oil and other unsustainable resources.”
ZestBio is part of an increasing number of bioscience startups in the Berkeley area—including Zymergen, Lygos, Amyris, Zymochem, Sugarlogix, Visolis, and Bolt Threads—that have received support from the Energy Biosciences Institute (a BP-funded partnership of UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, a research partnership led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Since 2007, more than 1,000 researchers have been supported, creating what Protzko calls a “thriving community of Berkeley-based startups involved in bioscience for environmental solutions.”
The cell and molecular biologist from Baltimore did not always see himself as an entrepreneur. It was his co-founder and fellow doctoral student Luke Latimer who pushed him to see their PEF research as a business. Their first step, says Protzko, was to apply to the Big Ideas student innovation contest in the fall of 2016.
“Big Ideas was what jump-started everything for us,” says Protzko. “It forced us to think through step by step what everything would look like and develop a foundation for the company. It was our first time transitioning from being just graduate students to thinking about the bigger impacts we could have.”
Latimer and Protzko submitted their pre-proposal in November 2016 and were assigned an advisor, Tony Kingsbury, from the plastics industry, “who was really great about letting us know what challenges we’d be looking forward to. He forced us to think about different products.” The ZestBio team won first place in the Energy & Resource Alternatives category in May 2017.
Since that time, ZestBio has received pre-seed capital from the National Science Foundation’s SBIR/STTR program and is participating in Berkeley’s prestigious Skydeck accelerator program.
“NSF really pushes customer discovery and commercialization. They go after high risk, high reward for Phase 1. What we’re proposing—we definitely know it’s high risk, high reward, because it’s never been done before.”
The ZestBio team is in conversation with Method and other green products formulators to share research information on its bottle composition process and household cleaning ingredient possibilities. The team aims to have its bio-based bottle on the shelf in five years. In 10 years, says Protzko, the team wants to expand its production beyond eco-friendly bottles to include different vegetable processing and products for multiple producers.
“This is also a global issue,” says Protzko. “Over 60 percent of oranges that are juiced are in Brazil. That would be an incredible market to tap into when we have a refined process to do it.”
ZestBio Continues Innovation with Waste-based Products
The Future of Collaboration in the Future of Work
By Rachel Dzombak
At the 2018 Autodesk University conference, a weeklong event bringing together representatives from the building, design, manufacturing, and construction industries, the skillsets required for the future workforce were a heavy focus. In her keynote speech, Beth Comstock, the former CEO of GE, discussed how multinational companies are reorganizing around digital information flows, asserting, “We can’t control change, we can’t predict the future, but we can be more adaptable.”
Throughout the conference, others asked: How do we build an adaptable workforce? How are educational needs shifting in response to emergent industry changes? What are the initial steps that we need to take to prepare for the transition?
These critical questions are being asked not just by industry leaders but by faculty and senior administrators at universities. The conversation at UC Berkeley is near constant, especially in engineering and business. Students and faculty alike want to know: How will companies operate? How will industries evolve? And how should socio-political systems best adapt to workforce changes?
There are pessimists and optimists. Among the optimists is UC Berkeley Robotics Professor Ken Goldberg, who argues that forecasts of mass unemployment are unfounded. He believes new jobs will replace old ones and even imagines, echoing Maynard Keynes, that automation will lead to elimination of mundane tasks, giving people time to be more creative.
A technology-infused world that abets humans must be a goal. We may even be on the brink of a golden age of intelligent collaboration—enabling new inventions and ways of thinking that come from the melding of disciplines, cultures, and fields. As Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford University computer science professor and former chief scientist at Google, points out, bringing technology to bear on societal issues will “require insights derived from fields beyond computer science, which means programmers will have to learn to collaborate more often with experts in other domains.”
In other words, workers, especially those in the cutting-edge fields, will be compelled to integrate computation with linguistics, behavioral science with physics, economic development with history, and so on.
Historically, universities provided access to knowledge and skillsets that was hard to reach otherwise. Knowledge was held by faculty experts who achieved mastery in narrow subjects, and delivered material to students via lectures. With the rise of the Internet, content is now available at an unprecedented level. Students are learning to prove fluid dynamics proofs through YouTube, skipping economics class in favor of learning through Khan Academy, and asking Google or Wikipedia “How do I design a gray-water system?”
If students are then learning traditional material through other forums, what is the value of the university today? And what do students need to learn that cannot be taught online? The World Economic Forum cites the top six skills needed in 2020 as: 1) complex problem solving, 2) critical thinking, 3) creativity, 4) people management, 5) coordinating with others, and 6) emotional intelligence.
In this first article on the future of work, I want to underscore that three of the top six skills on this list—and many others—focus on collaboration. This is unsurprising, as work increasingly happens in teams regardless of industry. However, few (if any of us) have ever been explicitly taught how to work in teams. We learn through sports and project work, but team-based experiences often lead to frustration (“oh, I’m stuck doing all the work again”), confusion (“we’re all on different pages”), or conflict (“it’s really hard to work with people who are so different from me”).
Teaching students to collaborate across diverse teams will be a key priority of universities in the coming years. Speaking on cultivating the next generation of students, Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University and current president of Prairie View A&M University, commented in a recent New York Times article about the role of teaching students to collaborate. She said, “If we’re doing what we should be doing, we are acclimating students to an environment in which they have to learn to work with others who are very different from themselves. And that seems to me to be the first requirement of leadership. To actually learn to work with people in a respectful and inclusive way is inordinately important.”
At Berkeley, Professor Sara Beckman and I developed a toolkit called “Teaming by Design” for teaching students how to collaborate in teams. We provide tools and research grounded in human-centered design, organizational behavior, and systems engineering to educate on building self-awareness, working collaboratively with others, and growing capacity to achieve innovative outcomes.
In the toolkit, we outline four phases: Team Formation, Team Launch, Team Check-in, and Team Celebration. Within each phase, we give exercises teams can conduct to improve their dynamics and research to ground the importance of the phase as well as raise consciousness of common issues. We additionally provide guidance on what work should be done in teams. Too often in school, team work is confused with group work. Students quickly divide the work among themselves and meet only to staple the elements together.
A team, by definition, is a collection of people who are committed to a common purpose, whose interdependence requires coordinated effort, and who hold themselves mutually accountable for results. While in some Berkeley classes, teams are comprised of a mix of different students from the same majors (e.g., a mechanical engineer and civil engineer working on the design of a sensor), other teams cross the spectrum—bringing together students from business, art, history, and dance to address, for example, homelessness. Both experiences represent deep learning opportunities for students to become exposed to different ways of thinking and doing.
Our work aims to create change on several levels. First, it is a resource for faculty who may be unfamiliar with how to coach teams. Despite the changes coming to education, faculty (particularly at research universities) are still largely hired for expertise in a narrow field. A fluid dynamics professor who wants students to work in teams within her class may be great at coaching on mathematical modeling issues yet far less equipped at structuring projects that require interdependence or coaching on the socio-emotional challenges that come up within project teams—such as issues of mutual accountability, trust, and conflicts stemming from varied personalities. We work with faculty in business, engineering, art practice, and biology to teach them how to collect feedback and how to debrief the feedback with students, so that it becomes a learning mechanism and not only a tool for grading.
During the Autodesk University conference, advanced machines, XR headsets, and 3D digital models were prominently on display. But even more prominent were the opportunities that technology could enable. For example, advanced lighting systems that provide Internet, mood, music, and safety features—in addition to light—could lead cities to rethink public services. The role of the lighting designer will shift from thinking about delivering light to imagining ways people might navigate their environment. This new frame increases the importance of knowing how to draw out insights from residents and collaborating with relevant stakeholders. Advancing technology forces individuals and organizations to rethink the systems in which they are working, and who they are working with. The more diverse the collaboration, the higher chance for creative problem solving.
We need to start ensuring that students are equipped with the ability to collaborate across untraditional boundaries, because collaboration will be critical for their success in the rapidly evolving workplace.
Rachel Dzombak is a Research Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. She researches and teaches design, innovation, and system thinking.
By Sara Tsai
The UC system is often lauded for its ability to cultivate socioeconomic mobility. A 2015 New York Times study placed UC campuses in six of the seven top spots in its index of economic diversity, and the UC system performed the strongest in this year’s U.S. News & Report Ranking on social mobility.
However, the UCs are struggling to support their low-income, working class, and now middle-income students once they arrive on campus. The UC Office of the President’s Global Food Initiative found that, as of 2017, 44 percent of undergraduate and 26 percent of graduate UC students lack consistent access to nutritious food and 5 percent of UC students report experiencing homelessness. These rates are even higher among marginalized communities, such as people who are first-generation, LGBTQ+, or former foster youth.
What does this mean on the ground level? At UC Berkeley, which was ranked the most expensive college town in the country, the campus food pantry has seen usage increase tenfold over the past two years. It means that 40 percent of undergraduates are struggling to put food on the table. It means that students are having to choose between paying rent or eating full meals, and more often than not, skipping class to work part-time jobs that enable them to pay for class.
At the Student Action Committee for the Eradication of Poverty and Inequality (SACEPI), the student arm of the Blum Center Network, student representatives from each of the UC campuses are brainstorming how to activate solutions for these poverty-related issues. As the UC Berkeley undergraduate representative, I have been working with campus partners to address this crisis.
First, it is important to recognize that increases in the cost of living have outpaced the cost of tuition, and non-tuition expenses can account for over 60 percent of the total cost of attendance. While efforts have been made to provide financial assistance to support students in need, over half of the students who reported experiencing food insecurity also had paying jobs or received financial aid. Therefore, to address the landscape of basic needs insecurity, we need to look not only at the cost of tuition (which has has tripled and over the past four decades) but also at the cost of living.
Second, while there is support through programs such as CalFRESH, the Food Assistance Program, and the Food Pantry, these programs are not funded to serve all students in need. There are efforts underway to increase funding and expand policies, but a core issue is simply the lack of affordable food around campus. It is not practical to expect students to transition from free food offered by the pantry to, say, $10 meals at Chipotle. At the same time, despite initiating comprehensive efforts to curb food waste and being consistently named one of the most sustainable dining halls in the country, Cal Dining still sees hundreds of pounds of food wasted daily. After recognizing this gap in food waste and insecurity, we decided to step in.
Currently, financial aid is given based on need. However, there is little flexibility to accommodate for unique and changing circumstances. Why not reshape this model, and apply it to food? The pay-what-you-want was piloted at the Berkeley Student Food Collective, a student-run nonprofit grocery store, where student members repurpose older or damaged produce into meals, sold on a sliding scale of $2 to $5. Customers who can afford to pay $5 subsidize the cost for those who can pay only $2.
Now, we’re launching this into a larger platform—channeling all the dining hall food waste into a centralized kitchen right at the heart of campus, where students volunteers will repurpose leftover grains, meat, and vegetables into affordable, healthy meals for other students. For me, this is what the Berkeley spirit looks like: community members coming together and taking action to serve neighbors in need. While the long-term future is uncertain, we are excited to shift towards this more accessible model—one meal at a time.
Sara Tsai is majoring in Business Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies and serves as UC Berkeley’s undergraduate representative of the Student Action Committee for the Eradication of Poverty and Inequality and chair of the Basic Needs Security Coalition.
SACEPI: Bridging College Food Insecurity and Waste
In the News
William Tarpeh, a Development Engineering graduate and assistant professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford, made Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30 Science” list for his work in sanitation solutions. Wrote Forbes: “The ‘waste’ in wastewater isn't useless. At least, that's William Tarpeh's conviction. He's developing chemical reactions that recover the waste from wastewater and turn it into useful products. For example, as a UC Berkeley PhD student, he developed a method to extract nitrogen from urine, turn it into a gas, and combine it with water to make fertilizer.”
Global Poverty & Practice graduate Samantha Lew, who serves as policy director of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness, was interviewed by the New York Times for an article about the city’s recently passed Prop C, which impose taxes on corporations to fund initiatives to help the homeless. Lew said the proposition was a “no-brainer” because the funding would provide housing.
Blum Center Researcher Siddharth Kara’s investigation of human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo involving the mining of cobalt—a critical element in lithium ion batteries, which power cell phones, computers, and electric vehicles—was covered in California Magazine. Kara said a significant portion of cobalt is coming from “artisanal” mines that pay workers little and subject them to extreme health risks and physical danger. “Some of the mining sites near the Zambian border are controlled by armed guards,” Kara told California Magazine, 'I don’t think ‘enslaved’ is too strong of a term.'"
Blum Center Chief Economist Brad DeLong was covered in the Washington Post in connection to his Milken Institute Review essay analyzing whether the Great Recession was more damaging than the Great Depression. DeLong argues that the rapid response to the Great Recession by both the Federal Reserve and Congress prevented a second Great Depression, but he points out that we are now 11 years away from the 2007 crisis and income per worker has risen only 7.5 percent. By contrast, income per worker rose 10.5 percent in the 11 years following the 1929 stock-market crash. DeLong writes: “We are haunted by our Great Recession in a sense that our predecessors were not haunted by the Great Depression. . . . No unbiased observer projects anything other than slow growth, much slower than the years during and after World War II. Nobody is forecasting that the haunting will cease—that the shadow left from the Great Recession will lift.”
“The Blum Center for Developing Economies may well be the finest program of its kind in the world. It turns out legions of young graduates who are well prepared with the expertise, humility, purpose, and a pragmatic optimism for combating poverty in the US and globally.”
President Jimmy Carter
The University of California, Berkeley has a vital role to play in finding solutions to complex problems that require the collective expertise of many disciplines and the energy of committed individuals. The Blum Center for Developing Economies leverages the talent, enthusiasm, and energy of the University community to address global poverty. Our interdisciplinary problem-solving approach draws on students and faculty dedicated to tackling inequities through innovative technologies, services, and education.
Blum Center for Developing Economies
The University of California, Berkeley
Blum Hall, #5570
Berkeley, CA 94720-5570
(510) 643-5316 • firstname.lastname@example.org