In November 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Office of Science and Technology launched an initiative under which seven universities would act not just as colleagues in studying global challenges, but as USAID’s laboratories, testing real-time solutions. This Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) is a network of eight Development Labs on seven university campuses and over 100 additional partners institutions in 38 countries that harness the ingenuity and passion of university students, researchers, and faculty to find, develop, and apply new science and tech-based solutions to the world’s most challenging development problems. HESN is powered by a conviction that advances in science and technology can bring the brightest minds in higher education closer to practitioners in developing countries who are trying out innovative approaches, as well as accelerating the expansion process for innovations that prove successful.
A year later, “TechCon 2013” in Williamsburg, Virginia brought together more than 200 representatives from the seven lead universities and their partners: The College of William & Mary; University of California, Berkeley; Duke University; Makerere University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Michigan State University; and Texas A&M University. The eight Development Labs demonstrated their individual progress, but equally exciting were the unexpected insights gained from the uncommon collaboration between members of the network. Epidemiologists learned from marketing experts, agricultural economists from software executives, and professors of mechanical engineering from post-conflict project managers.
That sort of collaboration — involving experts from disparate academic disciplines who might otherwise not run into each other on campus — was part of the vision of HESN. “The solutions that will truly be transformative, that will get us to scale, that will make us successful, that will save lives, are those that capture all of the university,” Alex Dehgan, Science and Technology Adviser to the USAID Administrator, said in his remarks to the conference. “We’re not looking for business as usual. We’re asking, are the things that you are working on going to result in innovations that are truly disruptive? Will you change the landscape as a result?”
“We’re not just trying to create grant relations with each of you,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told the conference by video link. “We are really hoping that you will be the extramural R&D hub for the agency that has significant global capabilities and sits at the center of the American government to achieve the goals that the President laid out for us.”
In the “Innovation Marketplace” exhibition area, Chris Bielecki, who is working toward a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering, was exhibiting his project that helps farming families in food-insecure Guatemala keep a photographic journal of their meals. “Interesting to see how HESN centers’ work are integrating with each other,” Bielecki observed on Twitter. ” Who says academia can’t break out of their silos!”
More than 40 students and researchers competed for conference attendees’ votes and a chance at $4,000 in expansion funding from IBM in the conference “pitch competition”. Environmental engineering student Caroline Delaire delivered a sales pitch for an affordable way to rid drinking water of arsenic in rural Bangladesh — just add rust. Urban planning student Elizabeth Hoffecker Moreno pitched a project in rural Zambia that helps women protect their health by making menstrual pads with locally grown cotton. The sales pitch that won the top prize, was by Brian Gitta, a sophomore at Makerere University in Uganda. When Gitta was sick with malaria he wondered whether it would be possible to diagnose the disease without piercing the skin. He and his classmates subsequently invented a device that shines light through the skin and sends the data to a cell phone, where the results can be quickly read and interpreted, even by non-medical personnel far from a clinic. Beyond the pitch competition, Esri sponsored a mapping competition that brought students together to map their activities and tell the story of the network.
In the first year of HESN, Development Labs developed 27 transformative innovations and conducted pilot tests for 20 of those; 4 of them have already been adopted by the targeted communities. Labs have shared their research in 25 publications and reports as well as via websites that have attracted more than 10,000 visitors. The labs have contributed instructional material for 11 new university courses on international development. Almost 200 students have received field experience including more than 50 who completed overseas fellowships of more than a month.
At the end of the conference, USAID’s Dehgan said the gathering marked an important step in the evolution of the foreign aid establishment’s embracing of innovation. “I think it is the tipping point where we really went from vision and idea to the actual production of starting to get results — the creation of the ecosystems and the creation of the pipelines of services that we’re trying to do in development,” he said. “We’re starting to see a community of practice around development engineering, around the use of data, around the question of how we really harness innovation.”
To learn more about HESN, visit www.usaid.gov/hesn.