Engineering in the Developing World | Vijay Modi
|Vijay Modi, professor of Mechanical Engineering|
Vijay Modi is an engineer in search of problems. That is, he has changed the way he approaches engineering and, in the process, is helping address some seemingly minor challenges that, on further investigation, are extremely complex and can change the lives of a large portion of the world’s poor.
“Instead of starting with a particular skill I have and trying to apply it, I’m trying to figure out what the interesting problems are and then seeing how we can bring engineering to bear on them.”
Among those interesting problems are the suite of challenges that people in places like sub-Saharan Africa face every day and that can mean life or death. Sometimes it can be something as simple as creating an efficient, low-cost solar-powered lighting system that enables people in rural villages to do the things after sunset that others take for granted—like study or run a small shop. The trouble is, without looking for problems, the answers have not been forthcoming.
By taking this bottom-up approach, Modi has discovered that he can categorize the problems he encounters into three groups: those he can make an immediate impact on, those he has little hope of solving, and those he might be able to solve with the help from the right people. It’s that last group of problems that has attracted his attention of late, particularly the ones that the diversity of knowledge within the University can solve by developing technologies or systems that can be commercialized to improve lives in remote and difficult places.
It wasn’t always that way. When Modi arrived at Columbia in 1986, he focused on fairly conventional questions involving fluid flow and heat transfer. A meeting with Nicholas Themelis and exposure to the work of the Earth Engineering Center soon refocused his priorities on more applied problems that, as he describes it, have fallen through the cracks of the academic community and private sector alike.
“Engineering research carried out in academia has started to lose connection with the profession of engineering, which is about solving problems,” said Modi, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “What historically separated science and engineering was that science was about the pursuit of knowledge and engineering has been about the pursuit of problems.”
The key, he has found, lies in assembling people with the skills he needs and a desire to apply them to what, at first, might seem to be a problem not traditionally associated with those skills. For example, in recent work to understand the problem of local water access in Africa’s Sahel region, Modi assembled a team that included a remote sensing specialist, an expert on entrepreneurship and business, and a social scientist with experience understanding people’s environmental decision-making.
Through his connections across the University, Modi has helped designed and test low-cost solutions to such developing-world problems as the need for a cleaner and more efficient cook stove to help reduce the environmental impact of burning fuel wood and robust IT systems that allow access to information from remote agricultural villages.
“These are projects that are not typically driven by large amounts of funding, but they occur in places that are in need of innovation,” said Modi. “The key is to figure out how to make innovation happen in a low-cost market.”