Guest blog by Dr Jenny Baker, Research Office, School of Engineering, Swansea University

I had the fantastic opportunity to attend a Newton RSC Workshop  in India on Sustainable Energy in Rural India organised between Professor Neil Robertson and Dr. Sara Shinton (Edinburgh University, UK)  and Professor Satish Ogale (IISER Pune, India).  What attracted me to apply was the fact that this workshop was not just scientists and engineers (or physical scientists as we were labelled) but social scientists working on policy, cultural and societal problems.

The workshop was challenging, starting with a visit to rural villages in India before a formal programme of talks from experts who had worked in the area for many years.  On the final three days we split into self-selected teams and chose areas to work on that focussed on the energy needs of the people of rural India. I thought I had no preconceived ideas of how the workshop would be before I left the UK but as the week progressed I realised I was wrong.  I had thought that the social scientists would do their part and the physical scientists would do ours and the roles would be split accordingly.

However it soon became apparent that the teams had split along physical and social science boundaries and I realised I was far more comfortable working in a team comprised entirely of Indian male physical scientists than I was in a mixed sex group of British and Indian social scientists.  I tried to move into the social scientist group but was frustrated that I didn’t understand where they were trying to take the project and I could not see how I could contribute.  This was not a personal thing, the people in the team I respected professionally and enjoyed their company.

Eventually I moved back to my original team but realised we needed to attract some social scientists. Could they not understand that we had a really good project?  Why did they not want to join the team?  Was it because of personalities? From my point of view they did not see the project in the same way we (the physical scientists) could visualise the project.  With that in mind I tried describing the project to the social scientists in a different way.  The first two times didn’t work, however on the third time things appeared to change. I’m not saying everyone suddenly went ‘wow great project’ just that they finally recognised where we were coming from even if they still didn’t want to join the project!

I went into this workshop thinking it would enable me to design appropriate technology whilst factoring in cultural and societal factors.  But I found out it was much more than that, key lessons that I will take away from this week are:

  • Ensuring that technology meets the ‘real’ rather than perceived needs of the people you are trying to help is vital for success.
  • Local ownership of any solutions is needed from the very beginning of the project at the ‘need’ stage not just after installation.
  • Don’t equate illiteracy with lack of skills or old age with inability to learn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the barefoot college program in rural India: https://www.ted.com/talks/bunker_roy
  • Consider your argument and examine how you can present it in as many different ways as possible. A ‘hook’ that gets one audience excited may leave a different audience cold.
  • If the ideas from people from other disciplines don’t immediately grab you take some more time to understand their point of view, this not only helps you understand others but can be used to improve your communication to different audiences.

September 28th, 2017

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