Do grandmas make the best engineers?

-February 10, 2016


Motivation is driven by priorities and from quarterly earnings to making rent short-term priorities rule. So who’s going to save the world?

A demographic with fine-tuned short term priorities—focused on their families, their homes, their communities—are uniquely positioned to save little pieces of the world: grandmothers. In saving the pieces, their many small solutions may accumulate into The Solution.

The problem with men is their ambition—now, pardon my age and gender generalizations for just a few more paragraphs, at least until you see what I mean, then judge for all you're worth—men and younger women want to solve problems, too, but their problems tend to settle around their careers.

But not all men. In 1967, a man named Sanjit Roy, people call him "Bunker," graduated from St. Stephens College in Delhi. Bunker was born into a wealthy family, got a first class education, and had plenty of ambition. With his diploma and national recognition from having competed in his country’s squash championships, he was ready to embark on the career of his choice. Like many people of advantaged backgrounds he took some time off before diving in. He visited a village where he helped dig wells and experienced both the obvious misery and fleeting small-scale joys of poverty. He also noticed the skills developed by the poor as they confronted problems without many resources to solve them. The ingenuity, the hands-on practicality resonated with him and Bunker Roy decided to pursue a wild ambition: to solve some of the many huge problems that plague India's many tiny villages.

He started the Barefoot College by redefining the word professional. A professional is someone with confidence, competence, and belief: midwives and bonesetters are professionals, even water diviners.

Acceptance at a Barefoot College is open to anyone, they can come and go as they please and are encouraged to try out crazy ideas with the guidance of teachers. While open to anyone, they discovered that the best students were grandmothers. And then discovered why: Barefoot College doesn't award diplomas.

In his TED talk (see video below), Roy said, "One lesson we learned in India is that men are untrainable. Men are restless, men are ambitious, men are compulsively mobile and they all want a certificate… they want to leave the village and go to a city looking for a job. So we came up with a great solution: train grandmothers. You get certified by the community you serve. You don't need a paper to hang on the wall to show that you are an engineer."

Photo courtesy of Barefoot College

The most celebrated course is six months training in solar technology. They learn from each other and from teachers and the teachers learn from them. Since few of them speak the same language, they communicate through ad hoc sign language. They build huge parabolic mirrors by assembling dozens of tiny mirrors that focus sunlight to heat pots for cooking. They learn to solder, to use tools for welding and drilling.

Photo courtesy of Barefoot College

Six months is a long time to be away from home and the grandmas miss their families, miss their villages—and that's kind of the point. While most are illiterate, all the grandmothers are highly motivated. When they finish, they take home their metaphorical fishing poles and literal solar panels and an understanding of the technology, how to install it, maintain it, and fix it. Over 36,000 houses in over 1000 villages are illuminated by the work of 300 illiterate grandmas.


Photo courtesy of barefoot college

We all know that technology development, from implementing simple systems to designing complex components, is more about debugging than smooth sailing. The great lesson is enabling people to look under the hood with confidence that it won't hurt them and, if they break it, that they can fix it.

Barefoot colleges teach kids, too. They meet at night, after they've tended to their responsibilities like herding the goats, searching for water, clearing plots of weeds, and so on. The literacy programs provide a broad curriculum of science and mathematics, language, civics, and lots of trades all based on local examples like midwives, weavers, farmers, and police officers. And they level the historically uneven field. The schools are operated by a children’s parliament so that the students realize that they are all equal, responsible members of society. The parliament is elected through a democratic process, irrespective of caste, gender or economic status.

In Silicon Valley and around the world, we see how startups run circles around big established companies. The agility of a small group of people unconstrained by imposed processes have an advantage over huge companies with deep budgets accompanied by equally deep assumptions about how work should be done. Maybe the same effect can come from villages in the developing world. Maybe semi- or illiterate engineers can solve our greatest problems. This isn't a mere pipedream, Moore's-like laws apply to the development of technology even in poor, resource-depleted regions. It's a tangible demonstration that the mother of invention is necessity.

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