From Blue Sky Thinking to Listening, Learning and Building with Communities

Richard is a bioengineer and entrepreneur focusing on making a positive impact on health and the environment. During his undergraduate studies in Biology at Emory University, he realized that his true passion is to enable other to solve their own challenges by designing new tools. He received a PhD in Bioengineering from University of California, Berkeley where he founded the nonprofit Future Scientist. He has led the Microengineering Team at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University for over 7 years, enabling rapid therapeutics development, disease diagnostics, and abatement of environmental contaminants. During the COVID-19 pandemic he co-founded Rhinostics to accelerate and automate diagnosis of respiratory illnesses. He is now spinning out of Harvard as CEO of the therapeutics company Unravel Biosciences he co-founded to develop treatments for orphan diseases.

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” –Albert Einstein

“What on Earth am I doing?” I mumble to myself as the white wings dance in the water-soaked sky. Mangroves. Grass. Tarmac. Luggage carousel. I can’t tell if I’m sweating because of the pervasive blanket of humidity or because of overwhelming self-doubt. I know nothing about the challenges we are about to see… and somehow try to help solve.

It’s 2011 and I’m in Panama City, Panama on behalf of Future Scientist to begin working with coastal communities to help them identify and solve the challenges they deem critical. What do I know about them as an outsider? And now, 10 years later, I can’t claim to understand the challenges any better. Why would I? In my day job, I’m an engineer at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. I lead a team that designs instrumentation to enable new therapeutics. When we started Future Scientist, I was working on single cell analysis for my PhD at UC Berkeley. I guess at most that makes me a tool builder and, frankly, clueless about the needs of the towns we support. It also means that I do not worry when we don’t yet understand everything, because scientists and engineers relish the not-fully-understood problems that make for new scientific discoveries and help patients get better.

Although I cannot claim to know much about anything, I can proudly argue, however, that we have focused our organization on being a dependable partner to those communities willing to work with us. Dependability goes hand in hand with sustainability, our ultimate goal for every project we support. We founded Future Scientist as an organization that would provide education, tools, and a product engineering-inspired framework, to enable people to solve their own problems no matter their educational background or available resources (or lack thereof). We provide the technical support. This is an example of how scientists and engineers the world over can apply their skills and have a direct, immediate impact on health, sustainable agriculture, and other UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Communities provide the expertise around the problems. Our path is simple yet difficult: be available, listen, ask questions, listen, think big but act local, listen for feedback. Over time, dependability builds trust and trust empowers development, sustainably.

“Solving problems means listening.” –Richard Branson

Did I mention listening? Since we know nothing about a particular problem, involving those experiencing it is really the only way forward. And it goes well beyond asking questions. Part of what is required for dependably working with a community is to not work with a community as a whole but rather the individuals, stakeholders, within it. This is a long-term investment in a relationship between people with shared goals, a way to build buy-in in both directions.

We started by simply visiting villages along the Caribbean coast and asking questions. A little empathy and curiosity go a long way. It’s like being a kid, full of blue-sky questions and putting aside the adult tendency to shun awkwardness. We know nothing and so we must listen. With the right person, the “6 whys” (asking why 6 times, a classic method of digging into the root cause of a problem) take us deep into the daily lives of citizens of Portobelo or Nombre de Dios. We learn about the water reservoirs from 50 years ago that have fallen into disrepair, common health challenges and the resources to treat them… or not. We listen as the dynamics of local water committees, elected groups in charge of maintaining the town water infrastructure, impact everything from water quality to trust among neighbors. We listen to complaints about lack of trash collection, much less recycling, as the acrid smoke of burning soda bottles and other trash burns our nostrils, as if to make sure we remember what we hear. We listen some more, thinking about what it is that we can help with. We are not all that more knowledgeable, but we are getting a better idea of where we can focus. And we see better than ever that problems are hyper-local, sometimes to the level of a single street. We can’t extrapolate from one community to another. So we listen.

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” –Steve Jobs

Fast forward to 2020. The SARS-CoV2 pandemic is raging and Panama isn’t spared. The country is shut down with police enforcing curfews for months. For nearly 10 years, we have been partners with Wilfredo Aguilar at the Colegio Jacoba Urriola Solís in Portobelo, where he leads the sustainable agriculture program for high school students. We have consistently built the relationship through many projects in the area and with the school. Now we are faced with an obstacle yet again, but one that has upended life along the Caribbean coast. Wilfredo has been attempting to teach his students remotely, but between limited internet access and the minor challenge of teaching farming without a farm, he is wondering if there is a better way to help his students. The pandemic will run its course eventually, but the missed education could be a permanent misstep on our path to sustainability.

Out of several brainstorms comes an idea championed by Wilfredo: Greenhouses for Learning, a program where the farm comes to each student. We mobilize our donor base and develop a greenhouse design we can package and drop off to students along with seeds, seedlings, and the power of peer pressure of a WhatsApp group to share progress among them. Our team works with Wilfredo to distribute the supplies, and the group chat is lighting up: photos of greenhouses, planted seeds, troubleshooting, and lot of emojis and encouragement from all. A teaching rubric of sorts, along with creative ideas for composting, microbial smell remediation, and the joy of growing one’s own food, fuel the excitement. This is sustainable development. It comes from within, catalyzed by the global community who will sink or swim together.

Photo Credit: Wyss Institute

“The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” –Amelia Earhart

In parallel, Future Scientist is working on an even more scalable concept that arose out of many discussions around financial sustainability: connecting the unbanked community members to enable financial sustainability of their towns. We call it ConectaRoo. It tackles trust the old-fashioned way: by linking it to money. Our app enables water committees to collect and track funds from homes within their geographic area connected to the plumbing infrastructure they manage. In one town, they should be collecting $300 per month in payments (at $2/household, an affordable rate here). How much do they bring in? $24 per month. Why? Depends on whom you ask, but mistrust of both neighbors and the committee and the lack of general convenience top the list.

            Convenience is easy: the entire tech industry was built around this. But it’s also hard: the tech industry relies on banks and credit cards when it comes to financial matters, all out of reach of the vast majority of people we work with. What do we do to unlock these benefits for the unbanked? Well, we just did it. We leveraged funds from our gracious donor network and hired a local software developer and a volunteer retiree who used to build banking databases. And we built ConectaRoo to provide the unbanked with the convenience of the internet by effectively deputizing local vendors to accept cash from homeowners and transfer it to the water committee.

            Trust is hard: ConectaRoo requires community-level trust around money and shared expenses. But it’s also easy: we realized that we need to not just require trust but reward it as well. Our accounting is fully transparent, so everyone can see where their money is in the community and how it is being used. Geographic restriction, stemming from a committee deciding who is part of the network, rewards incremental trust within the app by enabling convenience and accountability and extends it to other transactions and interactions. Slowly, we are building communities that not only want to but are able to achieve their development goals and have the financial means to do so sustainably. We will go beyond water payments, but for now, it’s a sign that tools, implemented with learning and listening and being a dependable partner, can bring us closer together while moving us forward toward a sustainable future.

Photo Credit: Wyss Institute

Future Scientist

Future Scientist is a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 in the USA with the mission ofteaching design methods to improve the long-term health and well-being of developing communities.The organization works closely with communities over years, bringing science and engineering education and tools to enable partnering communities to solve their own challenges. The organization has been active primarily in Panama in the areas of clean water access, trash disposal, sustainable agriculture, and financial sustainability.

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” –Jane Goodall

The SDGs all make sense: they are aimed at a long-term, dependable relationship between humans and the planet. We really do not have the luxury of failing, and yet the difficulty lies in how we achieve these goals. It would be hypocritical of me to say anything other than “I don’t know.” But we have countless tools at our disposal, as well as a global community of exceptionally motivated and skilled people eager to jump in. I believe we can replicate the lessons learned in locally-led development and scale that to a global community. The scientists and engineers are members of this community and are empowered to take a stand and apply their immense technical skills. But as in any community, everyone plays a role and everyone has a vested interested in the outcome, regardless of skillset. Listen, learn, assume nothing. Innovate around building trust and shared accountability; like a town, the global community will get there little by little despite the physical distances separating us. And let’s do it quickly! As in engineering, prototype. It’s ok to fail if there is trust that everyone is working toward shared goals. And let’s work together dependably, reliably to build that trust that will let us meet the SDGs.

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