Academic-Nonprofit Partnerships Can Pick Up Where Student Innovators Leave Off
Academic-nonprofit, cross-sector partnerships have immense potential to influence long-term development, dissemination, and diffusion of technologies.
When I was an undergraduate at MIT, I was involved with the small-but-growing community of students and faculty who were interested in international development. My classmates spent Friday nights hammering away on solar cookers, weekends in the kitchen trying to concoct simple hand warmers, and afternoons meeting mentors around campus to discuss their new ideas.
It seems that more and more engineering and management students want to use their skills to tackle problems like poverty, lack of access to clean drinking water, and indoor air pollution. Maybe this shift came with the corporate-world disillusionment brought on by the financial crisis. Maybe it’s due to the increased funding and recognition from organizations that support these causes. Regardless, some academic institutions are responding to and encouraging this shift by increasing their service-based learning opportunities.
Service-based learning is “a pedagogy that integrates academic learning with community-based work.” Products of service-based learning include innovative technologies that target social problems. Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability brings together students from different disciplines to design comprehensive solutions to problems facing the world’s poor, and Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), which started at Purdue University, matches teams of engineering students with community-service organizations that need technical assistance. Then there is MIT’s series of classes collectively known as D-Lab, which “fosters the development of appropriate technologies and sustainable solutions within the framework of international development.” D-Lab’s offerings fall into the three broad categories: development, design, and dissemination. Students learn about development issues through field visits, design prototypes that address problems they observe, and disseminate their completed innovations.
The dissemination phase can be tricky. There are generally two types of dissemination: Students either disseminate the technologies themselves by setting up a nonprofit organization or social enterprise from scratch, or they work with community partner organizations to disseminate the technology.
But while this model sounds great, the reality is that most student inventors will not become social entrepreneurs. Long-term dissemination requires students to commit more time and energy than most are able or willing to give up. As a result, a technology may only end up in one place, the location of the class project, because no students commit to taking it elsewhere.
There are other obstacles too. Sometimes, a student’s community partner organization stops using the technology because it breaks and no students are around to fix it. Or a promising technology is left incomplete after a semester because no students wanted to continue working on it. Or relationships with community partner organizations fizzle out. This means that a lot of people will not benefit from inventions like MIT D-Lab’s pedal-powered maize shellers to shell corncobs, biosand filters to purify water, off-grid coliform field test kits to test for water contaminants, mobile phone technologies that connect farmers to information about market prices, and hand-powered tricycles.
What can we do with these innovations now—how do we keep them from going to waste? One answer is to develop partnerships between academic institutions and nonprofit organizations.
MIT’s International Development Initiative (IDI) began offering Technology Dissemination Fellowships to students. In addition to supporting students’ self-initiated dissemination efforts (such as social enterprises), IDI keeps track of student-created technologies and shops them around to new community organizations. If a community organization is interested in having students implement a technology, IDI recruits students for the summer.
IDI’s Technology Dissemination Fellowships have the potential to improve the long-term dissemination of student-created technologies because IDI, not the students, maintain long-term relationships with the community partner organizations. Additionally, IDI can supply new students to community partner organizations on an ongoing basis, so if a senior student graduates and moves on, new students can take over where they left off. (That said, IDI should consider requiring student engineers and disseminators to document their inventions and dissemination process much more thoroughly so that new students can more easily learn how to use, create, teach, and adapt the technologies.)
Community partners play an important role in dissemination, and their responsibilities depend on the project context. They work with students because they share the same goal and need the students’ technical expertise. For example, in MIT’s Kanchan Arsenic Filter project, students teamed up with Canada’s Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) and Nepal’s Environment and Public Health Organization (ENPHO) to disseminate low-cost, arsenic-removing water filters to Nepal. CAWST specialized in training NGOs and local entrepreneurs in filter construction methods. ENPHO gave feedback on the design, provided a local water-testing laboratory, and helped establish national policy regarding arsenic contamination through their involvement with Nepal’s National Arsenic Steering Committee (NASC). MIT students came up with the basic idea, tested the filter in Cambridge, and traveled to Nepal to test it in the field. After graduating, the student team leader moved to Nepal as a CAWST employee to work with ENPHO. ENPHO continued training sessions after students could no longer enter Nepal due to internal turmoil.
Sometimes, technology builds the community partner organization. Another example: MIT students created a data collection system for a Salvation Army homeless shelter. After the technology was delivered, it was the Salvation Army’s responsibility to continue implementing it. With other projects, community partners are on-the-ground design collaborators; they promote networks and do reality checks. One Earth Designs (OED), an NGO established by an MIT alumnus, works with community partners who implement small development projects in Himalayan agricultural and nomadic communities. OED’s community partners have connected OED to villagers who collaborate in the design process of technologies like solar cookers. In return, OED has trained community partners in skills like water testing.
Whatever the community partner’s responsibilities are, its commitment to the student teams is important to dissemination. A long-term project needs an advocate, or it can easily fall through the cracks.
On the university’s end, there needs to be a commitment to service-learning as evidenced by hands-on, project-based classes, student funding for service-based projects through fellowships and competitions, the active pursuit and maintenance of relationships with community partner organizations, and mechanisms to maintain the flow of new students into community partner organizations over short amounts of time. These academic-nonprofit, cross-sector partnerships have immense potential to positively influence long-term development, dissemination, and diffusion of technologies.