The purpose of education is not to shackle us under the burden of societal expectations, but to give us the freedom to explore newer horizons with the sole aim of solving multi-dimensional problems in the real world !
Hari Dilip Kumar, our next pathbreaker, works with startups & non-profits on a range of sustainable development challenges solving problems across domains like clean energy, water, climate, corporate sustainability etc .
Hari talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about exploring all facets of sustainability, from Renewables Technology, Engineering and Design to Market Research, Public Policy and Governance in order to understand the bigger picture as a Sustainability Consultant.
For students, find your mission statement. Be aware that this can evolve over time. The mission statement you have today might very well change in the next couple of years. But write it down and look at it every day.
Hari, tell us about Your background?
I was born into an interesting family tree with many creative and unique individuals – artists, musicians, teachers, ecologists, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, writers, diplomats, judges and doctors among them. My father grew up passionate about wildlife. He wanted to be a zookeeper when he was young, and worked throughout his career in the forest department. My mother passed on to me a love of numbers, and like my father, is trained in economics. Both my parents are gifted in the arts, music and language.
When I was about five, my family shifted to Wales in the UK as my father pursued his PhD studies. We lived in a university town called Bangor. This was in 1986; my formative years were spent in this environment. It was an incredibly creative time with children of dozens of different nationalities attending the local school. It used to be a special treat for me to accompany my father to his university’s computer lab, which was filled with all sorts of amazing machines. The prize possession was the Acorn Archimedes, one of the first “RISC”-based computers and the great-great-grand-daddy of the processors in modern cell phones. I remember playing Lander on this, playing with Paintbrush, etc.
We bought a home computer for ourselves as well. By the time I was about 7, I had started teaching myself to program these computers. I started with a series of brightly illustrated classic computer books from Usborne that my parents had bought for me. My first real program was copied from this book. You had to enter a password (“sausages”) – if you didn’t enter the right password, the computer rudely told you “wrong, stupid monster”. This was programmed on GW-BASIC on an 8086 computer running at 8 Megahertz, with less than a megabyte of memory – the great-great-grand-daddy of today’s desktop computers!
By 1989, we had returned to India. I had a terrible time adjusting to the Indian school system. I simply couldn’t understand the Indian way of memorizing answers and reproducing them in examinations, etc. To help me adjust, my parents put me in an expensive school with several children who, like me, had returned from living abroad. I still found it hard, though. I had a lot of trouble with authority throughout my growing years, and I ended up in regular trouble with teachers.
Looking back, I would say I was very talented, but I had no mentor to help me channelize my gifts in a creative and non-disruptive way.
On the bright side, though, I had found a true love and outlet in computers. I loved programming them to do all kinds of weird and wonderful things. I literally spent every free hour experimenting with machines, to the detriment of my schoolwork and homework. Every week, I’d visit the local bookstores scouring the bookshelves for new computer books. I experimented with all kinds of programs – music programs, 3D graphics, fractals, simulators, joke programs, paint programs, RPGs and other games, chat programs, low-level operating system stuff, even computer viruses…
This was in the days before the World Wide Web was widely accessible, before Wikipedia and YouTube — before knowledge had essentially been freed through the Internet. Very few people owned computers of their own. I was on my own when it came to learning most of this stuff.
I drilled down to programming in “assembly language” by the time I was 11 or 12. This is just a level above the native digital bytecode that computers speak. The early computers were simple enough that you could do this. I also taught myself other programming languages like C and C++, Pascal, etc. I was especially obsessed with computer graphics. I remember going to British council library and picking up old books from the 1970s and 80s which had graphics programs written in Fortran which I would then translate to Basic or C.
When I was in my early teens, I developed a burning curiosity to understand science and mathematics (especially calculus). A stack of Scientific American magazines from the 1970s and 80s provided a great introduction to scientific and mathematical thinking. I especially loved the column “Mathematical Games” by Martin Gardner. I remember being enthralled reading about things like cellular automata, billiard ball computers, etc.
I dreamed one day of being a top scientist who would do groundbreaking work in the international community of scientists. It’s important to have dreams that inspire you, especially when you are young.
When I was 14 my father gifted me a copy of the classic Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists and teachers who ever lived. (I highly recommend this for anyone interested in getting a deeper understanding of physics. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything – let the words sink in and provoke you to think!)
I spent the next couple of years reading and re-reading everything I could by Feynman that I could lay my hands on. I still remember his beautiful exposition of how atomic physics gives rise to macroscopic phenomena like gas pressure, etc. And how the limitations of this same theory (the so-called “ultraviolet catastrophe” or ultraviolet divergence) were patched to pave the way for the great scientific revolution of the 20th century – based on the discovery that light travels in quanta or packets, called photons. And his unforgettable lecture on symmetry in nature. I could go on…!
I especially loved and internalized Feynman’s way of examining problems fluidly and intuitively from every possible angle. I learned how to set up and deploy “models” from first principles based on intuitive insight, engaging the mathematical machinery naturally as a follow-on. If you are working on a problem and get non-contradictory answers by two completely different methods, it’s a good indication that you are making progress. I still use this approach even though I don’t work in pure physics. Another thing I picked up was an understanding of how science works – “experiment is the sole judge of scientific ‘truth’”.
By the time I left school, I had gained a reputation among my peers, family circle and teachers as being quite a gifted young person. However, I had absolutely no idea of the non-technical skills involved in building an amazing and high-level creative contribution. Looking back, I am not surprised that I felt great inner turmoil over the next few years, as I struggled to “find” myself, and my calling in the world.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I wanted to be a scientist, but honestly I had no idea of the process, and little guidance. So, almost by default, I followed all my friends into studying engineering after high school. I literally had no idea where I was going or what I was doing, I was following the crowd. The prevailing thinking in those days was that a successful career entailed being either a doctor or an engineer.
I ended up with a good engineering entrance test rank, and placed in a telecommunication engineering course in a well-regarded college – but I again faced the situation of being unable to cope with the education system. I stumbled my way through five years of undergraduate hell, barely passing tests, barely interested in the course and considered a hopeless case by most of my teachers. I spent most of my time living a Bohemian life with the ‘creative’ people – the artists and musicians – and studied very little. I spent an inordinate amount of time practicing the guitar, especially in an ‘elevated’ state of mind, if you know what I mean.
It amazes me that I did finally graduate with a respectable degree, given that my undergraduate years were such a haze!
Looking back – what I did well was to never, ever cheat – no matter how dire the situation(!). I also made it through without ever prioritizing the “wrong” thing (in my opinion) – that is – “how many marks” – over “how much did I learn?”. Curiously, my interest in science and technology remained intact despite the whole traumatic experience. Perhaps I didn’t “spoil my mind” with the short-term, short-sighted studying that is frequently employed in order to clear the engineering degree in India.
What were some of the influences that led you on the career path you are today?
A couple of years, and jobs, after undergrad, I started to feel the old itch to go deep again. I got together with a close friend from college, and we took about 6 months to sweep across and study the entire engineering syllabus in preparation for the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) exam. Free from the constraints and inefficiencies of college education, we creatively explored and discussed many beautiful topics at the boundaries of engineering, physics and mathematics.
I think we did a good job, as we both received an admit to the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. I chose to take up doctoral studies on “quantum computers”. Remember we talked about “quantum” theory, to which I was introduced by Richard Feynman? Well, quantum computers use the physics of very small objects to store and process quantum information.
A regular (non-quantum) computer, like the one you are using right now, stores “bits” – 1s and 0s – in “buckets” called capacitors in its DRAM memory. The bucket must be filled with a large number of electrons to change state.
A quantum computer, on the other hand, encodes information in objects like the spin of a single electron. Due to the properties of these tiny objects, quantum computers can perform calculations at lightning speed that regular computers would literally take millions of years to perform. In fact, they can enter computational states that don’t even exist on regular computers (!), no matter how fast – exploiting an amazing effect called “quantum entanglement” that was famously described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”!
The downside to building these amazing machines is that the tiny “quantum” bits – or qubits – are incredibly fragile. They have a tendency, when exposed to any environment, to “crumple up” – or “decohere” – and lose their quantum information in a jiffy.
My job was to design systems to “protect” this quantum information from “crumpling up” or “decohering”.
I had a marvellous time for the first couple of years, attending all sorts of strange and wonderful courses in the engineering, math and physics departments. I will be eternally grateful to my teachers and the Institute for giving me the freedom to explore exactly what I wanted to, how I wanted to, in those years. It is thanks to my teachers and friends at the IISc that I today find almost any discipline of science or technology accessible, given enough time, discussion and effort to learn on my part.
At this point you must be thinking – this is great, he finally found what he wanted to do! However – you guessed it – the inevitable happened. Somehow – I got messed up in the Indian academic system. While I had entered with great hopes and dreams of working at high levels at the edges of maths, physics and computer science– I started to lose focus. I found myself questioning “why” I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on abstract technical challenges with little relation to the concrete and down-to-earth problems I could see around me… poverty, hunger and pollution.
Further, the first groundbreaking application for quantum computers, called Shor’s algorithm, solved the factoring problem – given a number N, the algorithm finds its prime factors “exponentially faster” than regular computers. This doesn’t sound like a big deal — but it gives a quantum computer of sufficient size the power to defeat all current encryption protocols – the systems that protect banking, email and phone communications, critical infrastructure operation and even defense communications.
In other words, while they have many peaceful and useful applications, quantum computers are being used to build the ‘atomic bombs’ of the Information Age.
For these reasons among others, I slid into a deep depression. Finally, I decided to drop out of my doctoral studies. Luckily, I had done enough work to write quite a good Master’s thesis. Working with my advisor, I had extended the approach used to protect cell phone and satellite signals to the quantum information domain, using a mathematically beautiful technique that we called the “Fourier transform approach”.
When I had finished with my Master’s degree, I was totally burned out and in a very unhealthy place. It was also difficult to find a job, given the abstract and little-understood mathematical nature of my research. With few options in the industry, I decided to try teaching…
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I’ve shared with you the story of my life upto the age of about 28 – when it seemed that, for all my early talent and promise, I was burned out and staring at a dead end. Now I want to share with you the decade-odd years since then – did I really manage to find my true calling, a meaningful role in the world, and a flourishing practice as a ‘sustainability problem solver’? How?
Read on… 😊
After finishing my Master’s, I started teaching communication engineering at a local engineering college. I had a total blast, teaching several theory subjects, taking lab courses and supervising projects. (All 3 projects I supervised were in fact graded low by external examiners as being “too good” for the students to have done themselves without “cheating/copying” in some way!)
I was intent on being “the kind of teacher I wished I had had”. Most of the students were well-meaning and uninterested, but there were a handful of truly talented, truly interested young folks from whom I learned far more than I taught. I had a section of each class – 10 minutes at the end – where students could discuss any technical or scientific question they wanted – whether relevant to the syllabus or not. The best question I got – and still think about occasionally – was “how does a lightbulb work?!”
Some of my practices as a teacher were clearly too disruptive for the approach of the college, though. For example, setting open book tests, never taking attendance, encouraging students to do research with me as a peer, rewarding asking questions over having the right answers, etc. I was also jamming with some of the students in informal bands, which I don’t suppose they approved of!
I also decided that I couldn’t go on teaching the same subjects over and over again for the rest of my life. There were others who were better qualified and more capable of that. Besides, I would get bored doing the same thing year after year.
I left after a year of teaching in the college. While I had had an amazing experience, which re-opened my heart and mind to the true love of learning, I decided to return to teaching only when I would have something worthwhile to say, born out of the depths of experience.
Starting-up – the FluxGen years
After leaving teaching, I ran into my old college friend Ganesh – the same chap with whom I had studied for, and cracked the IISc entrance exam. Ganesh had had an interesting trajectory – after his Master’s, he had left a high paying job at GE to work with the incubation lab of a brilliant social enterprise called Selco, world famous for its work in solar rural electrification in India (more here.)
Ganesh’s experience led him to believe that there was room for technological innovation in the field of sustainability – and having always had an entrepreneurial spirit (his first “venture” was to organize painting classes as a child), he was keen to start a company of his own.
So, we started FluxGen together (this was 2011). Working together was intense and enjoyable. The learning curve, as in any young startup, was vertical. We had started out intending to build solar power plants, taking advantage of new government subsidies – but had a quick reality check when we realized we really didn’t have the financial muscle (or the credit rating!) to enter that market.
Our “plan B” (also called a ‘pivot’ in startup lingo) was to work as a “consultancy” business – solving problems as a service, building all kinds of “proofs of concept” and “research rigs” for researchers studying solar energy, water in agriculture, energy storage systems, wind energy, etc. We worked with many professors from top colleges, and were recognized several times by global platforms like Planet NI (by National Instruments) for the impactful approach we were taking to innovate for the challenges of sustainability.
We were passionate, idealistic young engineers doing what we knew best – engineering. Rural electrification – also known as the “energy access” problem – was of particular interest. At that time, hundreds of millions Indians were literally living in the dark without connection to a power grid. We felt a decentralized approach, building solar ‘micro’-grids for communities, would be the right choice.
While we were making progress on the technology front, building our solar microgrid concept bit by bit, we had little conception of how to build a business around the technology we were creating. You see, technology by itself has little chance of changing anything in the world – it needs a ‘vehicle’ to encapsulate it and engage it into society. This ‘vehicle’ is a business with a revenue model (which defines how a customer pays for the solution and makes the business profitable). It’s generally impractical for governments to deploy necessary technologies at massive scales – it simply costs too much. So if the government can’t pay for clean (i.e. sustainable), universal energy access, someone else has to – but who?
We didn’t really have the paying customer – a rural Indian with no or low energy access – well understood or designed for. We also didn’t have a business model built around our concept (to give us credit, this is an incredibly hard and as-yet not-fully-solved problem!).
The lack of a business model meant it was very difficult to attract investment (a good model convinces investors that it is worthwhile to fund the effort, to create impact and/or financial gains). So paying ourselves stable salaries became increasingly difficult. Finally, after 3 years of nonstop learning, I was compelled to part ways with my friend, and the company, given the financial dire straits we were in.
It was painful at the time, but I was determined to grow from the experience.
Working on Micro-Energy Systems
Luckily, I was able to continue working in the field, that too with some truly amazing people. I started working with a Berlin-based company called MicroEnergy International. The story of how I got this gig is quite interesting.
When I was still at FluxGen, we had worked with a professor at BMS College addressing the problem of overuse of water in Indian agriculture (water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, is a huge challenge that might be mitigated with ‘precision’ agricultural technologies.) We had developed a prototype system measuring soil moisture and the weather in order to control the irrigation to agricultural fields given a specific soil and crop type.
It was an enjoyable project and we had built a sweet research rig that allowed for all kinds of data to be collected for analysis from a small agricultural field just outside the professor’s office. We also took the time to document our work well, and wrote quite a nice research paper on our approach (eventually published in a book).
The professor we had worked with presented this paper and work at a conference in the US on ‘micro-energy systems’. He invited the organizers of the conference to come to India for the next edition of the conference at his institute. And they did! MicroEnergy International (or MEI) – a small, unique Germany-based consultancy – was the main organizer of this conference. The company was well known for a holistic and multi-cultural approach to the energy access problem, having worked in dozens of countries around the world.
It didn’t take much for me to send them an application and a well-written cover letter stating my motivations to work with them – to gain insight into the problems & approaches to problem-solving in delivering appropriate technology to the underserved rural populations of the world.
MEI had developed an amazing idea which they called ‘swarm electrification’. This was a concept for a new kind of solar electricity grid that allowed people to build solar micro-grids ‘bottom-up’ or bit-by-bit, in contrast to the prevalent ‘top-down’ approach.
This new approach had the potential to solve the “financing problem” for energy access in communities around the world.
Basically, in off-the-main-grid (off-grid) areas without electricity, it is very difficult for low-income communities to afford large, centralized solar systems serving the whole area because of the high cost of the system (solar panels, batteries, etc). But, using this new approach, swarm electrification, it becomes possible for grids to be built up and financed ‘step-by-step’ instead of having to buy all the grid at once. Which, in theory, makes it affordable for the community. The grid is built up step by step by using special controllers or ‘swarm boxes’ to interface between the parts of the grid.
Going to Bangladesh with SOLshare
The idea for swarm electrification originally came from the experiences of some of the MEI researchers when they had first visited Bangladesh several years ago.
They found that there was, surprisingly, a roaringly successful program selling Solar Home Systems (SHS) in the rural off-grid areas of Bangladesh. These were small systems – imagine a little rooftop solar panel of about 50 Watts, a few LED lights and maybe a small fan or radio being powered by a few lead acid batteries.
There were millions of these systems in Bangladesh, which has many islands in its delta regions off-the-grid, and one of the highest population-densities in the world. Although each individual system was small, the total number of systems was very high. This was because the systems had been paid for through “microfinance”, an approach created in Bangladesh in the 1970s by Mohammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Prize for it.
The researchers noticed an interesting practice during their field visits – suppose there is a lady in the village (let’s call her Mrs. Rahima). It is Rahima’s daughter’s birthday today evening. She wants to put up LED lights, play some music and hold a bit of a party, but her SHS battery is low. What does she do?
The researchers found that she simply ‘borrows’ energy (with permission, hopefully!) from her neighbour, Mr. Abdul, by drawing lines from his batteries to hers, like a car jump-starting another. (Abdul has an ‘excess’ of energy, perhaps because he has larger batteries and spends most of his day working in the fields.)
The researchers thought that this was a brilliant idea – if they were already drawing energy from each other, why not put a ‘meter’ in between to measure how much, and allow them to trade?
Further, once energy can be traded through the ‘swarm boxes’, it is possible, in theory, to build an ‘energy marketplace’ of producers and consumers (or ‘prosumers’) in these low-income communities. It was hoped that by creating these marketplaces, communities could pull themselves out of poverty by engaging in ‘productive uses’ of the solar energy amongst themselves, for example running small businesses using the electricity.
This was the idea behind SOLshare, a company which I was involved in from a very early stage and helped build in Bangladesh. We started with the ‘swarm electrification’ technology we had developed at MEI and ‘spun off’ – with the objective to ‘create a network, share electricity and brighten the future’ for the estimated 17 million households off-the-grid in Bangladesh.
I had many great experiences in Bangladesh, from fieldwork in the rural outskirts and islands, to being a part of the lively world music scene in Dhaka where I had friends of almost every imaginable nationality (Bangladesh is a magnet for idealistic problem solvers working in the huge NGO sector), to managing research and development in a cross-continental, multi-cultural team for several years.
The company and team won many accolades and awards globally for the bold attempt to create ‘swarm electrification’ to solve the energy access problem, including Intersolar AWARD 2016, the UNFCCC’s Momentum for Change 2017, the German Energy Agency’s Start-up Energy Transition Award 2017, the Elsevier Renewable Energy Challenge 2017, the UN DESA 2017 US$1 million Energy Grant, and the 2018 World’s Best Energy Startup, among others. (Energy access is, by the way, considered a ‘keystone’ problem that will accelerate the UN Sustainable Development Goals.) I’ll never forget the very first proof-of-concept “peer-to-peer smart solar DC nanogrid” we developed and lovingly installed at Shariatpur in rural Bangladesh. This was considered a ‘lighthouse’ project and was recognised by the United Nations because of its potential to mitigate climate change while providing access to decentralized, democratized clean energy for some of the world’s poorest people.
Broadening Horizons: My Introduction to Human-centred Design
However, after several years of working on the energy access problem with MEI and SOLshare, I started to feel a deep need inside myself to broaden my horizons.
I’ve always been a person with many interests, and I was starting to see the connections between different problems in sustainability, especially after working closely with the Germans and soaking in their incredibly genius systematic, creative and wide-ranging approach. I also wanted greater autonomy and agency, and felt I was perhaps getting ‘locked’ into the particular skill set that my job in engineering research and development (R&D) entailed.
The turning point came after I received training from IDEO.org, an amazing for-impact design studio that works across the world with social enterprises of all types to create and scale change through an approach called ‘human-centred design’. (IDEO, their parent company, is responsible for designing the laptop computer and the first usable mouse among other things!)
Human-centred design, as the name implies, involves activating one’s sense of “empathy” to feel into the minds and hearts and lives of whoever we may be designing for. Through a few practical workshops over a couple of days, the facilitators from IDEO.org activated my latent designer’s empathy and changed forever the way I would see the world.
It was like getting an ‘operating system upgrade’ to the way I related to the world. Over the next months, I realised how many of the things around us suffer from poor, thoughtless or non-inclusive design – whether public spaces, policies, or even the products which we use. For example, it is hard to find mobile phones which old people can use easily, or public dustbins that can be used by the blind.
I also learned a new term that is part of the lexicon of business model design – namely, product/market fit. There are many ways of looking at this concept, one of the most interesting being “product/market fit is achieved when people (i.e. your customers) sell for you”.
One of the principal realizations my training in design led me to was that, no matter how great a team, or brilliant the engineering, a purely tech-driven approach (also called ‘technological solutionism’) to creating social and sustainability impact is at serious risk of failure from lack of creating product/market fit. On the other hand, with human-centred design, a great team, and the right resources, I do believe individuals and companies can literally change the world for the better.
My German friends were fond of saying that “an idea is like a brick – you can use it to build a house, or you can use it to break a window”. My training in design was the brick through the window that freed my mind.
A Break from Technology & Into the Policy World!
With these thoughts swirling in my head, I returned to India. I didn’t have a plan, just the broad intent to take a break from technology and work on other aspects of sustainability for a while. As luck would have it, I met Mitavachan, a good friend and researcher in energy systems and climate policy, who was a co-author of the paper we wrote years ago at FluxGen exploring advanced sensor-based irrigation systems.
Based most of the year in Germany, he had just founded a “think and do” tank in Bangalore exploring “sustainability, policy and technology” (SusPoT). Almost without thinking, I followed my intuition and plunged head-first working with him in the world of policy research and advocacy for sustainability in the Indian context.
It was a short stint but it exposed me to the rich and rewarding non-profit/non-governmental sector in India and the special, purpose-driven people who work for it. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t talking about hard engineering or technical stuff most of the time. This was fine, though – especially after my (somewhat shocking) revelation that technology alone couldn’t, after all, solve all our problems (!). Policy, like design, is one of the “other factors” that are ‘make-or-break’ for solutions to work. And like design, policy touches every aspect of human society and life – even if we may be barely aware of it!
Part of the reason most people are unaware of the influence of policy on every aspect of their lives is the difficulty in defining exactly what it is. My best attempt at defining/understanding policy is that it is the “source code”, so to speak, of the societal systems running everything around us – that keep the air clean, run our transportation, control the way money flows, decide how we engage with foreign powers etc. The “programmers” are the decision makers in the public and private institutions. Policy might be enacted into law by Parliament, or it might be engaged into execution by the government in the public sphere. In the business world, companies might also develop and follow their own policies towards meeting their objectives.
After SusPoT, I spent about 2 years at the Public Affairs Centre (PAC), a well-known think tank “committed to good governance”. Like policy, “governance” is a hard word to define and understand. You might think of governance as the way the “policy source code actually executes” given the institutional and systemic structures of communities, markets, the state, media, culture etc.
Just like a computer program can crash or malfunction (because it is not well written, say, or because it doesn’t have enough memory to execute or is on the wrong version of Windows), policies can result in governance failures if they are badly framed, engaged with inadequate resources or executed within unsupportive systemic environments. For example – we have a clean air policy, and an anti-air-pollution act, which should ostensibly keep things pristine – why, then, do Indian cities routinely clock in as the most polluted on earth? It’s difficult to assign a single point of responsibility for such a complex nexus problem.
I learned a great deal about “debugging” crashed governance by working on a brilliant project studying the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Karnataka state. The PDS comprises about 500,000 “fair-price” ration shops across India and 20,000 in the state and has a mammoth budget of about 2.43 lakh crore rupees, or more than 30 billion US dollars per year. The idea of the PDS is to get food staples – at highly subsidized or no cost – to low-income, vulnerable communities across India, especially at the base-of-pyramid.
If the PDS is the public food-security net, funded at enormous expense by the Indian tax-payer, why then do we see hungry people on the roads of almost any Indian city or town?
Part of the reason is that the PDS is notoriously “leaky” – some prominent researchers have computed that in certain years, more that 40% of the rice allocated under PDS has failed to reach consumers. The PDS does contain within itself a series of “grievance redressal mechanisms” – or feedback loops and action groups operating at different scales (local, taluk, district, state level etc) which should in principle allow the system to take recognition of failures in distribution and self-correct. However, what looks like a good plan on paper might not always work well in practice, especially given the complexities and contextualities of India.
Our project worked with 180 communities across Karnataka to test out new “models” of forming local “citizen monitoring groups” who would be activated and trained to check that their local ration shops were functioning in a compliant, transparent manner, as well as propagate complaints from their community members through the correct channels of grievance redress.
I have to say this period was one of the most intense learning experiences of my life. Apart from the PDS work, I got to meet the United Nations at Bonn, and attended several conferences and leadership training in different parts of the world.
I also realized, through lived experience, how important leadership and organizational structures are to the effective functioning of institutions and governance, whether in the private or public sphere.
Top-down, authoritarian, rigidly hierarchical setups that don’t sufficiently value and incentivize feedback going back up the chain are, I believe, fundamentally handicapped at creating good outcomes and achieving their stated mission.
On the other hand, with participation of communities through involvement of a vibrant non-commercial, or civil society sector, there is great scope for “bottom-up” contextualization, ground-truthing and course-correction for better governance outcomes at the “last mile” of development.
How did you get your first break?
After finishing my Master’s, I started teaching communication engineering at a local engineering college. I left after a year of teaching in the college.
I and my friend Ganesh started FluxGen Engineering Technologies to work on projects involving renewable energy (like solar, wind etc.)
What were some of the challenges you have faced?
Another realization I had was that, although sustainability and climate action really ought to be considered the most important problems of our time, there is simply not enough government and donor money in the world to finance the necessary research and action. This especially manifests as utterly miserly funding available to nonprofits working on sustainable development in the Indian context. This was true for our own work, too. Despite developing a measurably more effective women-led model of citizen monitoring of the PDS in Karnataka, our project sadly did not receive follow-on funding to scale to higher levels and more communities.
Becoming A Sustainability Problem Solver
Just as my work on food security and participatory governance ended, COVID-19 broke. The world changed overnight, with the future looking more uncertain than ever.
Despite this, I have been lucky to experience a period of incredible growth, discovery and richly rewarding work collaborations. From April 2020, I started working independently with startup companies on a range of challenges including communications, media and storytelling for sustainability; derisking industries from the water crisis; applying data and artificial intelligence for sustainable development; developing remote management systems for sustainability applications; and many more.
While financing non-profit initiatives remains a challenge, the for-profit world of sustainable solutions is thriving globally and in India. This is the realm of solutions that improve or increase sustainability, while making (or saving) money for businesses, investors and even the government! The profits generated by these businesses allow them to grow in the marketplace, creating the scalable sustainability impact that top-down funding lacks the financial capacity to deliver. Many of my engagements are with these for-profit startup companies.
I also continue to work on several fronts in the nonprofit world; there remain many critical areas of sustainable development that cannot be tackled by the business model approach. With the Initiative for Climate Action, for example, I co-design concepts based on “systems thinking” for climate action.
I’m also deeply engaged with another “for-impact” (non-profit) organization – The Sustainability Mafia, a group of over 3 dozen top entrepreneurs and practitioners in sustainability and climate action in India. I’m currently working with the community to design and deliver the Corporado program – “to make sustainability the default choice” for industries in India, by applying the solutions in a “marketplace” that connects demand and supply. I’ve also taken an active role in advocacy by the community.
Finally, I have recently (May 2021) incorporated my own company, Sustainability Problem Solver – motivated by the simple (but not easy) questions that have given my life so much meaning and vibrance over the past years –
What does it mean to ‘achieve sustainability’?
How can we practically do this?
How can we have a lot of fun working collaboratively in “networks” to address the complexity of the nexus challenges of sustainable development?!
Going forward, I would certainly love to work with a great number of enthusiastic, talented and motivated young people from all over the world on the challenges of sustainable development, seeking practical action and answers for these and other questions! I really do think that most of the hope in the world lives in the youth and comes from them.
Further, the thousands of pleasant hours I have spent “sustainability problem solving” with folks of different ages and diverse cultural backgrounds have, I believe, given me something worth sharing, in terms of skills, mindsets, access to opportunities and interesting challenges…
..If what I have written resonates with you or piques your curiosity to find out more, do reach out and connect!
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work in collaborative teams solving problems across domains like clean energy, water, corporate sustainability, applying data science for sustainable development, etc.
I work towards sustainable development, on market research, design, business model development, technology development, policy advocacy, systems thinking, communications, and more, across the nonprofit and for-profit worlds.
Through the Sustainability Problem Solver, a company I recently incorporated, I look to engage others into the process of “network problem solving” on some of the most challenging and interesting “nexus problems” in sustainable development.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
Every problem needs different skills. I apply skills across design, technology, policy advocacy, research, etc. The technical skills (e.g. programming, design, research etc) are straightforward to pick up given enough time, effort and dedication, working on actual projects.
Below, I have highlighted some of the other skills/traits which are important to having a successful career.
The “master skill” is the ability to learn new skills.
Be coachable! Most of my focus nowadays is to “solve problems with others”, especially those in early career. I’ve worked with several talented young people who have told me they have had an accelerated learning experience working with me.
I’m a big fan of “ready, fire, aim”. Learning by doing. Taking the risk. Being vulnerable. But it is also important to have an enabling environment where you can learn.
Adopt the learning or growth mindset, and discard the fixed mindset. Whether it is a ‘failure’ or a ‘learning experience’ depends on how you think of it. Read Carol Dweck on mindset.
The highest value skill is the ability to create new narratives that change people’s perceptions and ideas about the world.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Here’s some advice and suggestions I can give based on my experience:
Give yourself time to experiment. It’s OK to not have all the answers when you start off, even to take several years to find your path and purpose.
Be a student of ‘mastery’. Recognise when life has put you in an ‘apprenticeship’. Robert Greene has fascinating insights on this.
Define success for yourself, after adequate contemplation and research on how your role models define success. Don’t equate textbook or examination success with life success. There are plenty of well-qualified people out there who consider themselves failures. There are plenty of “failures” who made it big. Keep re-evaluating your definition every now and then.
Have a diversity of role models and mentors. Develop a critical understanding of your role models, living and dead. It’s more important to learn from their thought process than to ape their behaviours. If you blindly follow the external form of what they did without an independent and searching thought process, you may set yourself up for failure.
Connect to the bigger picture. Recognise situations for what they are trying to teach you. Situations will recur until you learn what you need in order to transcend them through changed mindsets and behaviour.
Every time you ‘fail’ – ask yourself – What did I do well? What did I learn? What will I do differently next time?
Be cognizant that the world is not always a fair place, especially for young people, women, minorities, etc. Navigate power structures carefully and strategically.
Question everything ceaselessly, at least in your own mind, for the purposes of learning and growth. (Be careful when questioning others though, it can sometimes be misinterpreted and backfire!)
Develop an appreciation for your “onliness”. What is it only you could do? Given your unique mix of talents, advantages and interests?
Ikigai. Try to create the map between what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs and what you can get paid for.
Find your mission statement. Be aware that this can evolve over time. The mission statement you have today might very well change in the next couple of years. But write it down and look at it every day.
Every day, one step closer. Start every day by writing down the ‘one thing’ which if accomplished today, will take you closer to your mission statement. Execute relentlessly on this.
If you are having trouble finding your mission statement, follow your effort instead. Cal Newport lays this out well.
Don’t burn out. Learn what your safe limits are in terms of work and rest. And operate well within them. A worthy life-task will stretch you constantly, and you should learn your rhythms so you take the rest and recovery you need to.
Match passion with perseverance, but know when to fold. Try, try, try and try again. Still, recognize when you have to fold your hand for strategic reasons. This was one of the hardest, but most valuable lessons I have had to learn.
Focus on process, not outcome. I cannot stress this enough. This must-read book by Scott Adams lays out the approach. In short, your mission statement defines your goals or targeted outcomes. Which should then define your process, which is what you should focus on executing and improving day by day. Excessively outcome-driven people are curiously fragile!
Upgrade yourself constantly. I have bought hundreds of books on self-actualization, leadership, etc. If you can’t afford to buy many books then get a subscription to Optimize by Brian Johnson, it is the best resource on the web to ‘optimize’ every facet of your life and highly recommended for anyone seeking to find their purpose.
Recognise the “reverse indicators” of growth. When things are hard or difficult it means you are, by definition, outside your comfort zone. This could be healthy and a sign of growth! Read Phil Stutz and Barry Michels on this.
Fall down seven times, get up eight. With a smile on your face if possible! Interestingly, this idea is found both in the Bible and in Japanese martial arts!