How I became a ‘sustainability problem-solver’ – Part 2/3

[This article was originally published at The Interview Portal, where you can find more “offbeat, unusual, unconventional and interesting” career interviews! Oriented towards students from 8th grade to graduate, I’ve tried to ‘unpack’ my journey in way that might be useful to any young person considering a career in sustainability!

Jump to Part 1 or Part 3.. ]

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… 😊

Teaching

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.

Swarm Electrification

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. 

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.

Jump to Part 3, where I describe my current work with Sustainability Problem Solver, a company I have recently incorporated.

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