Technology for the Poor Should Help, Not Hurt: An Interview With MIT’s Cauam Cardoso

The PhD candidate is working on ways to systematically evaluate new technologies for the developing world

Cauam Cardoso (Ian MacLellan, MIT)
smithsonian.com

A solar lantern or a compost toilet may work perfectly, but if they don’t meet the particular cultural, economic and social needs of the communities they’re designed for, they’ll be ineffective or even harmful.

Cauam Cardoso, a 33-year-old engineer-turned-PhD candidate in international economic development, is currently working with MIT's Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE), an interdisciplinary program that evaluates these types of technologies for the developing world. We talked with Cardoso about the importance of thinking critically about new innovations.

Can you give us a basic explanation of your work?

We’re developing an evaluation methodology, which is a systematic way of making decisions about technology. You have to take non-technological aspects into consideration. We have so many examples of technologies that work very well in the lab, but in the field they fail. Malaria mosquito nets might be used as fishing nets. People use technologies in different ways, and you need to do a deep investigation of who’s using these. You have the example of latrines—in India, they have very important challenges regarding open defecation, and there is a growing understanding that building a latrine itself doesn’t necessarily change the behavior or reduce open defecation. Of course, infrastructure is extremely important, but without understanding the cultural side of it, it’s also very hard.

[In a CITE study in Uganda] some users were given a lantern to see how they’d play with it and what they found the most useful. One of the things that came up was they preferred the lanterns that they could also use to charge their phones. So it had less to do with the technology itself, but charging phones is very important for people that live with limited access to infrastructure.

One of the hardest things that we see historically is the issue of implementation. This is something we specialize in, implementation theory. How do you design approaches to the technologies so it is not alone? It’s very hard to evaluate the device only looking at the performance of the device. It’s embedded in a social, economic and cultural system, and that technology depends on the interpretation of the users.

What are your ultimate goals?

A lot of development organizations make decisions about technology, but not necessarily in a systematic way. If we can help them, people who live in poverty will have access to better technology.

What are the potential dangers of bringing new innovations to the developing world without systematic evaluation?

When we talk about these innovations and new technologies, one of the parts of the narrative is risk taking. I talk a lot with my students about who is taking the risk and who is suffering the consequences if that risk is not well-calculated. As an innovator in a Western country, if I take a risk and try to implement untested technology on the ground, I will go back to my life and my university, whereas the people who are receiving that technology are the ones dealing with it in their lives.

For example, if I design a system for hospital waste-removal and for some reason the truck doesn’t stop to get the garbage, children may have access to that garbage and get sick. Every time I fail in my work I may be exposing people to something that’s much more serious than my little mistake. If you are evaluating, say, a water filter, the filter may perform great in every way, but if it doesn’t take out a contaminant that’s endemic to a particular region people may get sick, then they can’t work and the whole family suffers. Of course, it’s not that dramatic every time, but these are the stakes here. There is a very important ethical component in the work we do.

You grew up in Brazil. How did your childhood affect or inspire your current work?

I grew up in a neighborhood in Rio that was a border of a slum. I grew up in an environment in which I saw firsthand the consequences of lack of sanitation and lack of infrastructure. Growing up, I wondered, what could I do to change that reality? Engineering gave me the ability to do that, at least on a technical level. But I also came to question ‘what are the limits of this technical side?’ as I made these latrines or built pipes or developed a better method of waste collection. It’s a larger issue of politics and economy, a larger question of cultural and institutional factors that prevent my work from being as effective as I wish it could. I went to do my masters in political economy. Then I really felt like I needed even more rigor in my thinking, even more space and time to think. That’s why I did the PhD in planning.

The media often gets very excited about new innovations designed to help the poor, without necessarily being critical about them. How could the media do a better job reporting about innovation in the developing world?

I think the intention comes from the right place. You see a world that’s full of inequalities. I think everybody has the right to be excited. But what I think we need when we report these things is perhaps the perceptions or the voices of the users. Usually when I see accounts in the media, they talk to the founder or they talk to a university in a developed country. Very rarely do you see users, the people who are actually being affected by these technologies. It’s important to have those voices.

How can innovators better serve the communities they’re trying to help?

Develop a very deep sense of empathy and put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re working with. Lives are at stake here. It’s not just about me being an innovator and taking risks and being bold. It’s also about respecting people’s lives. Evaluation, if done right, gives everybody the opportunity to do that. It doesn’t prevent us from making mistakes, but at least in principle we’re pushing in the right direction. 

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