Problems of the Poor are Not Beyond Our Intellectual Reach
|Geoffrey C. Orsak|
We engineers tend to be an optimistic sort — always confident we can solve problems of remarkable complexity.
And why not? Sending a man to the moon, miniaturizing electronics to the molecular scale, harnessing the power of the atom for renewable energy — these were all doable in our time. But having seen vast differences in the way people live across the globe, it’s hard not to notice that our focus is often skewed toward the most advanced technologies because they are simply “cool.”
The harsh consequence of our passionate and admirable pursuit of ever newer, more sophisticated technologies is that we forget the engineering ethic that should also drive us to provide a better life for the least of us.
According to some estimates, nearly 1.4 billion people around the world survive on less than $1 per day. Children suffer most: Of the 1.9 billion children in the developing world, UNICEF reports 640 million are without adequate shelter, 400 million have no access to safe water and 270 million have no health care.
Our generation has proven its talent to change the world, so are the problems of the poorest of us beyond our intellectual reach? Of course not.
Bill Gates has the right idea when he says breakthroughs in technology will change all lives only when an economic market accessible to the poor can be created around these technologies. He calls this “creative capitalism.” Government, businesses and nonprofits should work together, he says, so more people can make a profit or gain recognition by providing what developing countries need to become self sustaining.
In the entrepreneur’s psyche, good intentions spawn remarkable solutions when they are fueled by the potential for profit. There are nearly 2 billion impoverished potential consumers worldwide in immediate need of products with costs scaled to their economy — simple, creative products and innovations that can directly improve the quality of their lives at an affordable price.
We shouldn’t forget that marketing experts in the early 1970s predicted there was no future for a $400 hand-held calculator when a slide rule cost only $20. Today, thanks to creative engineering, pocket calculators are so inexpensive to produce they are frequently used as promotional giveaways.
We’re putting our efforts where our mouths are here at the SMU School of Engineering, where we have just announced the creation of a new national institute to focus on the bold use of engineering to address the most pressing problems of the global poor. Solutions developed in this institute will not be limited to academic circles, but are intended to directly benefit the world’s poorest through this new “creative capitalism.”
Our first focus is on providing both the technical and market-based solutions necessary to ensure widespread availability of ultra-low-cost housing. Engineers can indeed develop the history-making solutions to housing these struggling families at a price they can afford.
So here’s my challenge, for both the heads of large corporations and to the working engineers who can’t resist tinkering in their garages on weekends: Let’s not forget our legacy as the true agents of global change.