Engineers must solve real problems

Tags: Op-ed
Engineers must solve real problems
VALID REASONS: In this 2012 file photo, a software engineer controls a remotely controlled robotic camera, seen transmitting real-time video to the new Aakash-2 computing tablet, at the IIT campus in Mumbai
As I approached the lanky young man holding up my name at the exit of Lucknow airport, he bent down to touch my feet. Maybe politicians and men of religion are used to this from complete stran­gers. His gesture not only surprised me but made me uncomfortable. He introduced himself as a first-year student of computer science at IIT Kanpur (IIT-K) and a student volunteer for Tech­kriti 2014. He had come to take me to the institute by road, 70 kilometres away.

Techkriti is an annual, entirely student-run, technical and entrepreneurial festival at IIT-K that began in 1995. As the name implies, technology creation and innovation are at the heart of this mega-event, positioned now as one of Asia’s largest technology festivals that attracts more than 25,000 student enthusiasts from all over the world. The four-day festival backed by a good number of popular sponsors, hosts high-tech competitions, games, workshops, pulsating music shows and, of course, speakers. This year, the students carved out a small space for a couple of social entrepreneurs to share their work, allowing me to return to my alma mater after 28 years.

On the way to Kanpur, I asked the bright young student why he was spending five hours to get me to campus when the driver could well have done it. Unconvincingly, he said something about it being an honour. Upon pressing him a bit, I soon learned that receiving and dropping speakers over long distances, was the job of junior student volunteers running the festival. At what cost to the poor soul? In this case, this young student had to forego, among other exciting Techkriti events, a lecture by professor Alvin E Roth, a Nobel laureate economist. Whatever he had done out of respect, at my end, quickly turned into guilt. I would have preferred a balanced form of respect rather than the deferential one on display.

On the way, the student expressed a desire to join a programme in management, after his bachelor’s in computer science. When I asked him what drew him to management, he threw the question back at me, asking, “Actually, please tell me what management is?” I wanted to say, that management is a field of study that every smart aspiring engineer, doctor, and professional in the country wants to pursue at an IIM because of the lure of the pay package following graduation. Somewhere in those two years, they understand what management is.

Just then we arrived at a railway crossing where we had to stop behind a long line of vehicles. After a bit of a wait, the train chugged by and the crossing gates opened. Engines began to rev, drowned only by loud honking. Despite all the commotion, nothing seemed to move. On both sides of the crossing, the drivers had positioned their vehicles as if the road was one way, in their direction, of course. Head to head traffic brought everybody to a standstill.

To know how many times a day such a traffic jam takes place at that crossing, one needs to only look at the train schedule. This is a management problem, I told the student, and it starts with a simple technology solution. Put a long enough divider in the road on both sides of the railway crossing. If people still occupy the entire road, put metal spikes that allow for traffic flow only on the correct (left) side of the road. The technology part is easy, but getting the UP government to implement it may be the real challenge, at that railway crossing, and without a doubt, at many others across the state.

The 70 km stretch from Lucknow airport to IIT Kanpur took us 150 minutes. I did the math. Two of UP’s largest cities, Lucknow and Kanpur, with a metropolitan population of nearly three million each, were connected at a turtle speed of 28 km/hour!

The campus was built up and unrecognisable. A cursory look at Techkriti projects suggests that some things had not changed. Just as I had done as a student nearly three decades ago for my final project, researching the properties of silver iodide at high temperatures as a student of physics, still not sure why, my impression is that many students may yet be aiming for sophistication in technology and innovation without adequate exposure to some of the problems, even around the campus, that desperately need solving. P Sainath, one of the speakers at Techkriti has talked elsewhere about the need to invent a leak-proof tap. In a similar vein, one wonders what engineering solutions there might be to save the drudgery of work for millions of rural women.

What the students at IITs may need to do is step out of the campus in search of real problems to solve, that affect the lives of millions of fellow citizens. Finding meaningful problems to solve is perhaps the most difficult step in innovation. The solutions then flow.

(The writer is a social entrepreneur and is on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad)


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