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Kentaro Toyama

Engineers from around the world are gathered in Seattle this week for the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology conference, talking about technology projects that can improve education, agriculture, power supplies, water planning and other initiatives around the world, particularly in developing nations.

One of the speakers this morning was Kentaro Toyama, who led many of these types of projects as a co-founder of Microsoft Research India — including the MultiPoint project for sharing computing resources in the classroom, which led to a Microsoft product line.

But Toyama’s experience in India has reshaped his view on the subject of technology in developing nations. I caught up with him at the conference today, where he explained his perspective.

We first met back when you were tracking some guy doing a crazy walk across the U.S. You were working on early location-based services. You went to India and helped to found the Microsoft Research lab there, and then became a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. What are you doing now?

I’m mostly trying to write a book, as well as doing talks like this, about technology and international development.

What’s the book about?

One reason why I left Microsoft is that I became more interested in the development side of things. Increasingly I felt that while technology can contribute, it’s often not the critical thing that makes a difference. So the book almost says nothing about technology and is almost all about what I think is the side that needs emphasis.

That’s sacrilege! So what led you to that conclusion?

It was, in fact, my experience in India. I spent close to six years trying to do technology for development projects. We did it as researchers. We tried to understand why certain things worked, and why they didn’t work. I would say, over my time there, I either participated in or oversaw something close to 50-odd research projects. They were with mobile phones, PCs, with video cameras, with some custom hardware we built. They were for agriculture, government, health care, education, all these things.

Over time what I found was that, consistently, the thing that made the projects work well was not so much how great the technology was, which made a little bit of a difference, but primarily who our partner was and how committed and competent they were. I came to the conclusion that what we need more of in the world is not so much newer technologies. Because at some level, the world has all the technology it needs to be developed. The real thing we need is more institutions that are capable and competent.

That, I think, is much harder task, and it’s often a much harder sell because it’s harder to measure progress, and it’s longer term, and therefore more difficult to fund. But more and more I think if people who have an interest in development don’t emphasize that side, we’ll all be looking for the short-term supposedly scalable solutions and be distracted by that, rather than focusing on the stuff that really matters.

So this conference is all about using technology for humanitarian projects. This is a bit of a counter-theme.

I think it’s great, if you’re an engineer to begin with, if you’re now interested in humanitarian causes and trying to figure out how to use engineering for that. But my hope is that people who start doing that peek under the rug enough that they begin to realize it takes a lot more than their engineering to solve it.

One of the comments I made during the panel was that one of the things you can do best as an engineer is to help nurture other engineers, particularly from developing countries. Because it’s kind of silly that we have to travel far to solve other people’s problems, using our engineering knowledge. What you really want is for people there to have the engineering knowledge to solve their own challenges.

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