January 7, 2012
Dr. Muhammad Yunus flew from Bangladesh to Kerala to attend the IEEE International Conference on Technology Enhanced Education at the Amritapuri campus. The 2006 Nobel Laureate pioneered the concept of microcredit not only in his country but all over the world.
In a powerful speech delivered at the conference inauguration, Dr. Yunus recounted his experience in attempting to solve developmental problems in his country. He called upon technologists to fashion the modern education system in such a way that it unleashes creativity within. This, in his opinion, would be key to solving the big problems facing society today.
Given below are excerpts from the highly acclaimed and inspired talk.
It is quite an experience to be in this campus. With world-class achievements, one might imagine that the Amrita campus is located in the heart of a big city like New Delhi. But surprisingly, we are right in the middle of a remote village, under the shadow of coconut trees. This deserves a lot of applause for the institution and its team for great leadership.
My familiarity with technology is as a user, not as a designer. I come from a completely different background. Looking back, I can say that whenever I was faced with a problem that bothered me, I tried to respond by coming up with an idea to start a business. At the time I didn’t realize it, but now, looking back, that’s the general pattern I see.
I am also a part of the academic world. The institution where I was teaching was located right in the middle of a village. This brought me close to the people who lived in the village. I saw the problem of loan sharking and so I created the business of Grameen Bank to respond.
The formal bank was started in 1976 in a very small way. Few people, mostly my students were doing the work. Gradually, we grew into a nation-wide banking movement and then a world-wide one. Today, globally, there is perhaps no developing country that doesn’t have a Grameen type of program.
In Bangladesh today, Grameen is a large bank with 8.3 million borrowers. Mostly women; 97 % of our borrowers are women. It’s a business owned by the borrowers. They sit on the board; they decide the policy. The bank takes deposits and the deposit money is used to make loans.
One aspect of that business is education. The bank provides loans to children coming from illiterate families to enable them to go to schools. Today thousands of poor students are going to medical and engineering schools with educational loans from Grameen Bank.
Not only have we extended loan to poor women and children, but also to beggars. We asked beggars that when they go door-to-door to beg, would they also sell something to those households? In the beginning, the beggars were puzzled. But soon some of them wanted to try it out. We made it very simple. We told them that if they needed money to buy items to sell, we could provide the money as a loan.
We began with about 1000-2000 beggars. They sold sweets, traditional food items, toys for kids, among other things. They know exactly which house was good for begging and which house was good for selling. In business schools, I think they say market segmentation. Now 22,000 beggars have stopped begging completely and have become very successful door-to-door sales people.
I believe a human being has unlimited capacity. Sometimes the opportunity is never available to unleash this capacity. Now technology can help unleash the capacity that all of us have inside of us, irrespective of where we were born or where we were raised.
In Bangladesh, even today nearly 70 % of people do not have electricity. In the early 90s, I was wondering what to do about that. We all used to work in villages and everywhere it was dark after sunset. Only little kerosene lamps were there that didn’t give much light.
That is when the idea came to bring solar energy to the villages. Of course, solar energy was very expensive. We started trying to sell solar home systems with solar panels and batteries and everything else. It was difficult to even sell 2 or 3 units per month. But we persisted and today we sell over 1000 solar home systems every day. People love them. If we can bring down the cost of the solar panel by a third, then all of Bangladesh can easily be on solar home systems.
With the price of oil going up and the solar energy cost coming down, that might actually happen soon. Today we have about 750,000 solar home systems operating in Bangladesh.
Technology should make things simple for people. We should come up with an Aladdin’s lamp, so that any old, poor woman in any village can rub that lamp and a digital genie can come out and ask her, “What can I do for you, ma’am?” And she can give the genie her list of needs. And the genie will say, “It will be done.” And it will be done. That is the direction in which technology should move forward.
Now I will say that Aladdin’s lamp is almost here. Because you touch the screen of the smartphone and the digital genie that comes out does wonderful things, from all the applications that you have downloaded and installed to your smartphone. Now, who are the people who write these applications? Why do they make applications? That is the basic question.
I have been building businesses to solve problems. Economics textbooks however say that businesses exist to make money. There is a conflict between economic theory and my experience. I have decided I am right and economic theory is wrong. Economic theory mis-represents human beings.
In economics, human beings are seen as some kind of money making machines. All they are supposed to do in their lifetimes is make money. As a result, we have this world that is obsessed with money. This is basically what has created all these problems we see around us. Making money is only one aspect of a human being. But human beings are multi-dimensional beings.
Making me happy by making money is one thing. Making me happy by making other people happy and solving their problems is something else. Unless we recognize that, we will continue to have all the problems we see around us with debt crises and unemployment.
Technology is like a vehicle, it is like a car. A car cannot go anywhere by itself. It’s the driver that takes the car wherever he would like it to go. Today the driver of technology is the money-making person who wants to maximize profits. But if a social business entrepreneur sits in the driver’s seat, we can solve many problems facing humanity today.
I am talking about businesses that are created to solve problems, I am calling them social businesses. If we can find the possibility of creating social businesses, then technology can the problems of health-care, education, unemployment, etc.
Why should an able bodied human being remain unemployed? Have you ever wondered about that? With all the unlimited capacity inside the person that remains unutilized. As long as there is poverty, as long as there is unemployment, we cannot call ours a civilized world.
I believe that the young people of today will create a new civilization. This generation is blessed with technology at their command which gives them enormous capacity to address issues. But our education system has to also change so that it can help unleash their creativity. Creativity is at the center of the whole thing. Creative minds can start enormous varieties of social businesses to solve all the problems that we see around us. It will not be a big deal at all.
The future of education is boundary-less. As a student, I will decide what I want to learn and where. I will make myself fully equipped to do the things I want to do in my life. Technology will serve that purpose.
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