As I wrote this in late June, I was sitting on a lovely Pacific beach in Las Penitas, Nicaragua, essentially my first off day in nearly six weeks of traveling, teaching, speaking and consulting in India, Malaysia and Nicaragua. It was a good time for reflection.
As co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Acara program, my focus is on helping students and young entrepreneurs develop solutions to global environmental challenges. Summer is the time for me to get out of the classroom and into the world with current and past students. I spent three weeks in India helping my colleagues leading a class with 16 University of Minnesota students and four India student interns looking at sustainability challenges facing Bangalore, a growing city of 9 million people, and surrounding areas. I took a side trip to Malaysia to give a keynote address at the 1st International Conference on Empowering Entrepreneurship. After a few days back in Minnesota, Acara assistant director Brian Bell and I went to Nicaragua to teach Iowa State students doing an in-country product design program and to investigate starting a Latin America program for Acara.
By both predilection and professional experience, I am, as the joke goes, the typical engineer to whom the glass is neither half full nor half empty but twice as big as it needs to be. That steady sense of balance served me well in a previous career in technology and business development and today in an institute with a focus on large complex climate and sustainability issues. However, arriving at that state often entails extreme swings in both directions. Reflecting on the trip, I recall a number of things that gave me “half full” or “half empty” thoughts.
Water Availability and Quality
- Half empty: Seeing a lakeside luxury high-rise apartment building in Bangalore dump untreated wastewater into the lake. The lake outlet, next to a low-income community, was full of suds and the water was literally on fire the previous day.
- Half full: In Nicaragua the beach was clean and unspoiled, with a small, sustainably run eco hotel (eco in reality, not just in marketing) nearby, and seemed to be in good shape.
- Half empty: In all three countries I visited as well as the U.S., changing rain patterns are causing major disruptions to agriculture businesses.
- Half full: There is a growing recognition that these changes are likely permanent and resiliency is growing in importance.
- Half empty: Driving through a nasty dust storm blowing off large corporate farm fields near Leon, Nicaragua.
- Half full: Spending time with amazing young entrepreneurs from MyRain and EOS International, both of whom are making available sustainable farming solutions to small farmers around Madurai, India, and San Isidro, Nicaragua.
- Half empty: Large tobacco farms in Nicaragua that make heavy use of chemicals and wear out the soil in a few years, all to make a product that essentially kills you.
- Half full: Exciting non-governmental organizations Sustainable Agro Alliance in India and CII-ASDENIC in Nicaragua, both of which have created innovative agricultural demonstration farms for training farmers on new, more sustainable, farming practices.
Demographics and Youth
- Half empty: Walking through a shiny new mall in Kuala Lumpur, realizing that many countries are very skewed to a younger population, that these young people are aspiring to the middle class and corporate-type jobs and that enormous resources will be required to serve that need. When I am on a crowded street in India, I often think of this chart that shows half the world’s population lives in a circle centered in Southeast Asia.
- Half full: Working with young students from India, Malaysia, Nicaragua and the U.S. who are dedicated and passionate about working on global grand challenges. It was great to see a strong recognition from universities I visited, especially the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and INCAE Business School in Managua, that inclusive entrepreneurship (livelihoods for all) is vital to addressing the demographic issue above and are actively creating training programs for all.
- Half full: The Environmental Support Group in Bangalore was effectively using the courts to enforce policy in a country that struggles with corruption. The Ugly Indian is an extremely effective grassroots organization cleaning up the streets of India.
- Half empty: The Bangalore Metro, under construction, is a modern marvel of engineering, providing much-needed public transportation to the city. But many low-income communities did not have a voice in the required relocation.
- Half full: While we know that practically everyone in the world has, or has access to, a mobile phone, the real changes will come as all those phones move to smartphones over the next decade. Akhilesh Tilotia, in his just published book, “The Making of India,” projects 625 smartphone users in India by 2020, up from around 160 million users today. This recent story in MIT Technology Review summarizes this trend nicely.
- Half empty: Distribution and lack of physical access because of poor infrastructure can’t be overcome solely by digital technology.
Every year this trip causes me to think about an emerging issue. This year the big issue that stuck out for me was livelihoods. In addition to UKM and UCAE, we met organizations such as Thriive working on new ideas for creating livelihoods. According to Tilotia, “over the next ten years till 2025, 250 million people will become eligible (old enough) to join the workforce in India.” That is more than 2 million people every month for 10 years. These young people need jobs, and the opportunities need to be fair across society to diminish further economic income separation. These livelihoods need to be sustainable — financially, socially and environmentally. This demographic challenge is weighing heavily on the minds of many thought leaders in these countries.
We teach students to use a “What, So What, Now What” method in reflecting on experiential learning. What is the “Now What” for Acara from these reflections? Create solutions addressed to specific environmental or social grand challenges, ensuring that these solutions are financially and environmentally sustainable, provide livelihoods, and are accessible to all.
This is not a short journey by any means, and for an educational program like Acara (along with many others globally), it’s an ongoing process to develop a pipeline of young leaders to address these challenges. Meeting the dynamic people I met on these travels, I feel, despite the swings above, that we can carve out a path to creating a balance of being just right.
- CSE (College of Science and Engineering) 1905 – Fall 2013, 10^9 Challenge. This course, taught by Julian Marshall, is a one-credit introductory course on grand challenge problem solving.
- CE (Civil Engineering) 5571 – Fall 2013. Acara Global Venture Design. Taught by Julian Marshall, Brian Bell, Toby Nord and Fred Rose.
- CE5572 – January 2014, Social Venture Launchpad, for students with an idea for a venture. Taught by Fred Rose
- CFANS (College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences) 3480/5480 – Spring 2014. A new class, Social Entrepreneurship in Uganda, in collaboration with Makerere University. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
- CE 5570 – May term, 2014. Discovery India. A 3 week study abroad program to Bangalore, India (which includes the Summer Institute). Taught by Brian Bell, Julian Marshall and Fred Rose.
We had 5 students from the Fall 2013 5571 course spend from 3-9 months in India on longer term internships. Here is a summary from three doing a waste-related internship. We also had 3 students from the CFANS 3480 course spend a month in Uganda with the Makerere students.
- Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – August 2013. Part of USAID-sponsored RESPOND program. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
- Stanford – November 2013. Part of the US-Mexico Forum for Understanding, Cooperation and Solidarity (Fred is an advisor to this organization). Taught by Fred Rose.
- University of Kinshasa, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo – Feb 2014. Part of USAID-sponsored RESPOND program. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
- Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda – Feb 2014. Collaboration with CFANS 3480 course and RESPOND. Taught by Fred Rose and Cheryl Robertson.
- Acara Spring Workshops – March, April 2014. Workshops for local social entrepreneurs. Taught by Brian Bell and Fred Rose.
- ITAM (Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México), Mexico City – April 2014. Part of the US-Mexico Forum. Taught by Fred Rose.
- Noah (Idealistic Newbie). Full time Student, no idea for a venture.
- Maya (World Changer): Full time student, has an idea for a venture.
- Ramesh (Eager Entrepreneur): Not a student, has an idea for a venture.
- Barbara (Encore Artist): Not a student, doesn’t have an idea for a venture.
- Students from our courses (this includes UMN students and students in India and Uganda)
- Students in the competitions (Acara Challenge and Dow SISCA)
- Entrepreneurs that participate in our monthly Impact Reviews.
- MyRain – Steele Lorenz. Was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
- be Waste Wise – Katrina Mitchell. Katrina has started another venture, Picture Perfect, which was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
- Bogo Brush – Heather McDougall
- Joy of the People – Ted Kroeten
- Andamio Games – Kyle Nelson
- Mighty Axe Hops – Brian Krohn and Eric Sannerud. Was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
- Jeff Ochs review of benefit corporations and social venture structure/definition
- Skivvies – Kelsey Fecho
- BDW Technologies – Adam Woodruff. Was a 2014 MN Cup semifinalist.
- College Credit – Ify Onyiah
- This fall we are doing a pilot of something we call Grand Challenge Impact Studio. Essentially this is just a facilitated workshop with students working on Grand Challenge ideas. Since we started this late we are really just working with Acara students and students from the Food Grand Challenge course.
- Minnesota Social Impact Center. Acara is a partner with this new organization. This helps fill an important void for Acara students that are pursuing their venture ideas. An place to work and get support is crucial. Check out the big event on November 12 and become a member!
Poverty. Social inequality. World hunger. Climate change. Disease. Religious intolerance. These are some of the Grand Challenges President Kaler called out in his 2014 State of the University speech. There are many UMN students who are interested in these topics, are taking courses on developing solutions or may already have a venture or business idea. The Grand Challenge Impact Studio is an initiative at the UMN to help you develop and solidify your idea, connect with a strong network of mentors and experts and to launch a pilot.
The Studio is a weekly facilitated session and is intended to be a compliment to any class or program you may be taking. It will provide a focused time with mentors, outside experts and other students working on similar challenges. This is co-curricular, no credit. They are scheduled Mondays 3:30-5:00 at IonE on the St. Paul campus. If that time doesn’t work for you, let us know times that may, we will try to schedule a few sessions at other times on the West or East Bank. It’s easy to get to IonE on the St. Paul campus via the connector, which stops right across the street. The Studio starts Monday, Sept 29 and continues through Dec 8. We will likely continue in the spring semester to help teams develop ideas for pilots and minimal viable products.
The Impact Studio is a collaboration of many individuals across campus and is being operated by the Acara program in the Institute on the Environment. Acara is the 2014 winner of the UMN C. Eugene Allen Award for Innovative International Initiatives and has helped develop and launch such ventures as MyRain, a drip irrigation business for small plot farmers in India, Minneapolis-based Twin Fin Aquaponics and Minneapolis-based Eat For Equity. The Impact Studio will also work hand-in-hand with Boreas Leadership Program.
The Impact Studio will include a series of guest mentors. Mentors already committed include: Simone Ahuja, author of Jugaad Innovation, Brad Lordhing and Scott Nelson of LogicPD, a leading design firm in the area of Internet of Things, Tony Loyd, former executive of John Deere and Medtronic, Leo Sharkey, General Manager, Siemens Water Technologies and others. All have a long track record of innovation in Grand Challenge areas.
Students must apply to be accepted into the GC Studio. The application is here. Applications are due no later than Sept 22, we will accept on a rolling basis so don’t wait, as we have limited space. You may sign up as an individual or as part of a team. There is no fee associated with the Studio, nor will students receive credit. This is a new initiative we are testing this fall and will have limited enrollment. It’s a great opportunity and you can help shape the GC Studio concept.
There are many great programs now around the university for entrepreneurship, design thinking and others. The GC Impact Studio is not meant to duplicate any of those. It is meant to provide an additional support to develop students interested in impact on Grand Challenges.
What’s a Grand Challenge?
The ongoing UMN-wide strategy team is developing a working definition of what is meant by a Grand Challenge for operational purposes. In the meantime, the following serves for our purposes:
- The situation is emergent,
- as a result, there is a constant flow of information to negotiate,
- this means actors are constantly changing their behavior
Emergent in this case means the properties of the situation arise from the interactions of many parts, which in practical terms means you can’t predict it in advance.
The UMN Grand Challenge – Curriculum Sub-committee, which met over the 2014 summer, has a draft report on recommended action. That is not yet approved for release but the following section summarizes much of the objective of the proposed GC Impact Studio: “At both the undergraduate and post-baccalaureate levels, the goal of the Grand Challenges Curriculum is to help students develop a foundational set of knowledge, skills, and values. The focus is on competencies that prepare students to recognize grand challenges, assess possible points of intervention, and take action. These foundational competencies can be applied across a range of potential grand-challenge topics.”
Pilot: Following the process many team members teach in their respective programs, we are using lean startup methods, in this case proposing a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) to test basic assumptions. We propose to pilot the GC Impact Studio for students from various programs around the UMN.
What are the assumptions and hypotheses we want to validate with this MVP?
- We hypothesize that a co-curricular studio environment can deliver and develop GC skills in students.
- We hypothesize the Impact Studio can accelerate student led ventures focused on Grand Challenges.
- We assume students will attend (what is the right mix of location, time, etc.):
- We test the right program mix (skill building, mentoring, team interactions)
- There are multiple options for working with students: for-credit classes, extra-curricular, student organization, grad/undergrad, post-graduation. This is a focus on co-curricular.
- Mixing impact ventures, traditional for-profit, non-profit, policy ventures together will work in one studio.
What happens in the studio?
The studio will provide students a place to:
- Work with mentors from inside and outside the university, who have expertise valuable to startup teams
- Work with other students working on similar challenges
- Connect with a network
- Spend focused time on your plan
- Learn skills (presenting, design thinking, funding strategies, etc.)
There will be external and internal UMN mentors in each session. The sessions will follow a general design thinking process of empathy<->design<->ideate<->prototype<->test, over the course of the semester. Again the purpose is to compliment what you are getting in class. It’s more one-on-one time.
The Acara team has delivered more than 10 one-week workshops/classes and 10 semester long courses (which have 3 hour class sessions). During this time, we have developed and used a number of workshop/skill-based sessions, interspersed with one-on-one mentoring. Many of these will form the basis for the sessions. We are not predefining the sessions at this point, except for the first two sessions which will be focused on design thinking.
How is this different from what students may be able to get in other ways or from mentors provided to them? Part of that answer lies in the eligibility. These are not general purpose entrepreneurship focused sessions. Those already exist at the UMN at Carlson and are great. We want to bring in the range of social, environmental, international and Grand Challenge focused ventures. There may be some overlap with other programs but that’s fine. More help for students the better.
 Melanie Mitchell, Complexity: A Guided Tour (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009)
We recently returned from our annual Summer Institute course in India. We had 14 UMN students plus 9 other students from India and the US. In pre-departure meetings and during our first few days in India, students asked us questions about aspects of India that appeared illogical to them. Often our response boiled down to, “it’s India”. Over the last three weeks, students began to understand what that phrase meant; by the end of class, the class motto became “This is India.” Or as one of our van drivers said after one of many close calls in Bangalore traffic, “This is the India”.
For the students, and instructors, this class has been an impactful few weeks. There was no protective shell around the students in India. From day one, students were out in the street and in communities, learning first-hand about issues ranging from water (in)access in slums to solid waste challenges in one of India’s fastest growing cities to women’s livelihoods in rural villages. A number of students asked why we didn’t help prepare them for what they did. In a way, we did: There were many reading assignments and discussions prior to leaving Minnesota. But the readings and discussions didn’t sink in until we were on the ground in India, which is precisely why we do classes like this.
During the class, we had the opportunity to work with many of Bangalore’s leading change-making organizations, such as Saahas, SELCO, TIDE, and MyRain, among others. One of the inspiring groups we interfaced with was The Ugly Indian, an anonymous movement of Indians cleaning up cities throughout India. With The Ugly Indian, we spent a morning “spot-fixing” one of Bangalore’s iconic streets, turning a neglected, trash-ridden sidewalk into a pleasant and hygienic public space, while attracting the attention of national publications and the neighborhood at large. It was a chance to be part of a movement that matters and to have fun getting into action with some of Bangalore’s most motivated, and known but unknown, social entrepreneurs.
This was an amazing group of students. Every group or organization we visited commented on the maturity of the students and their insightful questions. The students enthusiastically embraced everything from eating street food to negotiating with auto rickshaw drivers over the right fare. These are not skills that can be taught in a classroom.
These weeks in India are some of the best weeks of the year for me. It’s energizing to be with such passionate and smart young people and see their desire, despite the challenges, to tackle tough problems with their Midwestern grit.
“This is India” please meet “This is Minnesota”.
The 2014 version of the annual Acara Challenge was held Feb 21, 2014 at the lovely McNamara Alumni Center on the East Bank campus. This has been a brutal winter in Minnesota, the coldest in more than 30 years and one of the coldest on record. Of course, Feb 21 was one of the worst weather days of the winter, with 8-10 inches of snow, on top of ice, and cold weather. But we are a hardy bunch in Minnesota and the event went off on schedule. The Challenge was a little different this year. There was an International and a Domestic division, and only teams from the Universityof Minnesota participated. However, the competition was open to any UMN student and we had 11 great teams presenting, seven in the International Division and four in the Domestic Division.
The results of the Challenge, along with the plans and presentations of the teams, are here and listed below. The teams are now enjoying Spring Break. The teams are continuing to work and make progress. Several are planning to go to India, Uganda and Haiti for continued work this summer, as are some of the local teams. Stay tuned for updates.