Ken Pickar
Visiting Professor of Mechanical Engineering

California Institute of Technology
208 Gates-Thomas, Mail Code 104-44
Pasadena, CA 91125
(626) 395-4185

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E/ME 105: Product Design for the Developing World

Trips to Guatemala (Student Trip Reports)

Juan S. Ramírez Lugo (Caltech)

Monday, September 24, 2007, 6:00 AM flying over Guatemala City. As I get a first glimpse of land I pull out my notebook to write down what expectations I have for this trip. I wanted to capture the excitement and anticipation of the unknown. I start to ponder what to write down and I quickly realize that I had so many expectations going in that it was as if I did not have any; I was expecting anything and everything to happen. At this point I decided to abandon my plan of writing down what to expect and instead enjoy the ride and experience the thrill of uncertainty.

And what a ride it was. This trip was truly an unforgettable experience. I have come back from it feeling that I have gained much intellectually, academically and personally. The opportunity to gain knowledge from people of different cultures reinforced in my mind the importance of being open to different ideas. By behaving as an arbitrary observer of human interactions, something that I am not used to, I noticed how lack of openness is such a limitation. Particularly in terms behaviors that I would usually consider as unifying forces in terms of interactions can sometimes very destructive and divisive, as is the case with culture. Because culture is so engrained in our psyche, we hardly ever think about it and much less dare to question it. Assuming this position of blind faith can in many cases lead us down the wrong path and be counterproductive to human creativity. It is usually in cases where people go against an established dogma where true innovation occurs. With this I am in no way implying that culture is irrelevant, simply that it should be viewed as part of a whole and not as the whole, that we should give other ideas an opportunity for consideration and not simply discard them based on a pretext that we have never really given any thought to.  In fact, in the assertion I use the concept of culture in a loose sense, not exclusively limited to an ethnic and historical perspective but of culture in a sense of interactions within a group. For example, the villages we visited were of a culture different to ours, they were Mayas from Guatemala (ethnic/historical perspective) and they lived in small rural communities (interactions), as opposed to city-dweller from a metropolis. I mention this distinction because to me it was fascinating to see how much of a shock many of our experiences were to the Landivar students, who were less than 100 kilometers from their daily lives and to them it was as foreign as it was to us who are removed from this reality by at least an extra order of magnitude.

A second lesson learned from the trip, almost an extension of the first one, is the importance of cooperation. We share a planet with six billion other individuals, each one unique. There is something to learn from everyone and opening our eyes and ears to their thoughts and our hearts to their feelings will clearly reflect how we are all so different, but at the same time we are all the same. To this end, cooperation, and some implied tolerance, are key to developing a sustainable society where we can all co-exist.

Guatemala is a country of beautiful landscapes, very rich in history, culture and traditions, but out of all these, I found the people to be its greatest treasure. They opened their homes and business to us and were willing to be our "subjects" with no objection. On a personal level, they were very caring and welcoming. It was admirable to see how many of these people, particularly the "local geniuses", can do so much with very little. Their lack of means and materials forces them to rely on their creativity and ingenuity to solve problems. They are very wisely economical and efficient with what little they have; never wasteful and excessive, always simple and efficient, indeed a lesson to be learned by our "developed" society. After all, necessity is the mother of invention. Their individual needs also push them to create associations and collaborations with one another giving them a strong sense of community. Many times foreign agents, like the case Fundación Solar in San Juan La Laguna, are the catalysts to initiate interactions, but in other cases, like San Jose Poaquil, it is their sense of history and shared struggle what weaves a beautiful social fabric. This sense of community really impressed me and made me realized how fragmented and individualistic our culture in the "developed" world has become.

This said, there are aspects of our fragmented society that would be beneficial for the people of the "developing" world to consider. I will use the infamous full moon debate as an example. I believe that the human thought process for knowledge acquisition is based on observation, analysis and experimentation; the Baconian scientific method. Very simply, when confronted with a problem you gather as much information as possible, analyze the information at hand and devise alternative approaches to address the problem. After experimenting with the alternatives, you reach the desired or most desirable outcome and if none arises you repeat the process until you have achieved your goal. Ancient Mayan farmers did not have many instruments to rely on, they simply had what nature provided, the sun, the stars, and the moon. In an attempt to find the best conditions for their tasks they needed a reference, a control for their experiments. They searched for a marker that was consistent and reproducible, so not only they could guide themselves by it, but so could others in other places and at other times. Something that perfectly follows all of these parameters is the moon. A bright full moon, shining down on them every 28 days (on our Gregorian calendar) was the perfect comparison. (A quick note: I am assuming all of this and not taking into consideration any other spiritual or religious explanations a to why a full moon, this is simply my interpretation) For centuries they followed the same guide and eventually through artificial selection, enriched their crops with plants that were the most efficient during this cycle. After the initial trials everyone just followed along, and to this day nobody questions why, but it may not have been the best solution, it was just what they had. Today they are better equipped with tools and knowledge that their ancestors lacked. Investigating traditions like this taking a more rigorous scientific approach could lead to more sustainable solutions better adapted to their current situation. What they have now is a lot of data for a single condition that they have repeated for years and years and years. Trying other conditions will provide more information to take better-informed decisions.

One very strong tool that thy can take advantage of is access to information. Going in, I never expected to see that all of them are so well "connected" to information. Everyone carries a cellular phone, they have Internet access and in the case of San Juan La Laguna, a continuous flow of foreigners though their communities. Taking advantage of all this information and integrating it to their already vast knowledge will help them become better integrated to global markets and make them aware of the influence of external factors on their lives. Another advantage of being “connected” is that they can increase the interconnectivity between different villages of the region and of other regions. I noticed that within a village everyone is in touch but there is somewhat of a void of communication between villages, in many cases because of geography, a limitation that they may now overcome precisely because of better communication. A wider more diverse matrix of interactions will provide access to information and resources and create a larger sense of community, which in small scales has been so effective. More simply put, exploit the power of numbers. This might provide a much needed larger presence in the country's political spectrum.

As far as the trip per se, my main suggestion, simply based on personal preference, would be to either make the trip longer or less busy. I emphasize that it is a personal preference because I usually like to think things through and get as much information as possible to be able to fully develop an idea. At times our interactions with the people we met with were cut-off because we had to go, in many cases it happened when things were starting to get "interesting". To this end, I would suggest that the organizers should evaluate the potential projects and focus on the ones that are more likely to be selected. For example, instead of having 12 potential projects, only have 6-8 and allow students to spend more time evaluating each one. Spending the whole day with one of the "customers" to observe them in their daily grind or getting a chance to work along side of them could be far more informative than just having a brief encounter. Not only will this stimulate us as the visitor but it will also enable the co-creation process with the local partners. Another suggestion to improve the experience is to include students with business backgrounds as part of the group. My impression is that in many cases the main problems were concerning management and marketing and not necessarily something that technology could solve. Now that we're on the topic of adding diversity to the students involved, social or political scientists would add a different, and needed, dimension to the group. More information about economic and human development in the developing world would have been very useful. Concepts such as microfinance, sustainability, different economic models, organizations involved, their structure, role and involvement, information about previous efforts, information about organizations that do development work. Ideally, and I’m going of on a limb here, is dividing the class two courses. A pre-trip course that would delve deeper into the social, and historical conditions of the "clients", as well as providing a solid foundation of knowledge about development, finance, anthropology and the product design process. A second course, following the trip, would be to get down to designing, prototyping and implementing. I believe that the best was done with what was available, in terms of time and resources, but having had more time to prepare for the trip would have been extremely helpful.

As a whole the trip was a fascinating experience. I believe that development or progress should not be limited to improvement of an economic situation. I believe that providing people the choices and the freedom to choose amongst them is very empowering. This power is intangible, but nonetheless a measure of development. In this sense, freedom is not only the motive of development, but also a means of development. We were there, not to tell them what to do, but to give them options and the power of choice.

(This final thought is very influenced by the book "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen).