About a week ago, I had the honor of meeting John Gershenson, the recently appointed director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program at Penn State.
He was telling me about how the program gives students a chance to apply some of the skills they have been learning in the classroom to help solve humanitarian issues in underdeveloped countries.
The program focuses on the idea of co-development, meaning communicating and working with the specific communities the team is trying to help so that the team knows which solution is best for their unique situation.
“First of all, I think it is extremely arrogant to have this idea, I’m going to come into another community and I’m going to save this community,” Gershenson said. “That is just not being a good citizen or a good human being. If innovations are to take hold and to last, they must be appropriate for the communities that they’re used in. The only way to do that is to design from within.”
Upon hearing this, I immediately thought, “Wow, this model should be used everywhere.” This is the way we all need to be working to solve the world’s problems. If every humanitarian effort took on this co-development model, I believe we would see a lot more progress, as well as a lot more empathy during this time of globalization.
The HESE program is currently a cluster option within the Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor at Penn State. HESE offers students a series of five courses, one of which is a “Maymester” abroad for students to conduct field-testing of their products developed during the fall and spring humanitarian design courses. While abroad, students work with the community members on the business model and product design.
HESE progam showcases greenhouses in 2013.
Courtesy of Khanjan Mehta
“We take the idea of a project, which is fantastic as a one-time thing for one community, and take that to something that has significantly more impact,” Gershenson said. “I often tell students, what can we do to scale this idea into something that has an impact on a million people?”
My initial thought as to why different humanitarian efforts such as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or other volunteer groups may not use this model is because of how much time it really takes to build empathetic relationships with these communities. The ventures students come up with also take a few years to scale because HESE students are interacting and working with locals on a communal level.
However, Gershenson pointed out to me how this model, in the long run, is actually quicker. The only way to make a truly sustainable product or service that people will actually use and continue to use for years to come is to completely understand the context in which the problem exists.
“You have the choice of becoming an expert in the culture and using your own expertise in the culture to do it — that could take nearly a lifetime — or, you could bring in people who are already local experts and design with them,” Gershenson said. “I think another thing that is important to remember is that it’s similarly arrogant to assume we own the design process, that the communities in which we work can’t own the design process and we can just support them.”
One of the most successful ventures that has come out of HESE is called Gro Greenhouses. This venture found a way to create affordable greenhouses for local farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
The greenhouses are operating in eight to 10 countries and are all locally run.
“I think it’s exciting,” Gershenson said. “There’s proof that it’s changing lives as well.”
Gershenson also said that students considering HESE shouldn’t get hung up on the word “engineering” in the acronym, because it is not the biggest part of the program, and HESE is open to all majors.
“In order to develop successful ventures, successful products and successful services, it takes people from all points of view,” Gershenson said. “However, a student who is concerned about the world around them and is interested in using the significant tools and talents that they learn here on campus to make the world a better place — that’s one thing students in HESE have in common.”
And so, I encourage students to think about the bigger picture. Instead of thinking primarily, how can my major get me a job, maybe think about how our majors could be used to help the world in some way. And I encourage anyone already doing humanitarian work to consider modeling your program after HESE’s co-development model to ensure the creation of sustainable solutions built on empathy.