By Joost Monks, NORRAG, Geneva.
On 8 July 2015, at the United Nations Headquarters, the UN Academic Impact Initiative (UNAI) and Amrita University (India) co-hosted a one-day conference on Technology for Sustainable Development. NORRAG was invited to participate and joined over 700 participants in the event.
In the opening address, Helen Clark, the Administrator of the UN Development Programme, said ‘Sustainable development is at the very heart of the new global development agenda being negotiated at the United Nations this year…In the current set of proposed Sustainable Development Goals, there are goals and targets which relate to economic growth, infrastructure, energy, and strengthening capacities to trade and attract investment. The agenda tackles the challenges of environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation. It prioritises tackling inequalities – indeed the importance of leaving no one behind is a defining feature of the new agenda. …These challenges call for big partnerships to tackle them head-on. The communities of endeavor represented here today must be part of these partnerships’.
In her key note, humanitarian leader Sri Mata Amritanandamayi, urged the scientific community to approach their research with a balance of awareness and compassion, stressing the importance of keeping the upliftment of the poor and suffering in mind when they undertake technological research. ‘Today, universities and their researchers are ranked mainly based on the amount of funding they receive or the number of papers they publish and their intellectual caliber. Along with this, we should take into consideration how much we have been able to use their research to serve the lowest and most vulnerable strata of society. In our approach to sustainable development, we should not forget that it is by strengthening the people at the base of the pyramid that the entire edifice of society becomes healthy and strong’.
Combining the objectives of traditional incentive structures of academia with impact on the poorest populations is challenging but not necessary incompatible as the conference precisely showed. It featured presentations of pioneering research by experts from the world’s top academic institutions, including Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the National University of Singapore, on specific areas of technology and innovation in a wide area of topics, including nanoscience, molecular medicine, biotechnology, wireless networking and haptics (Reuters).
A topic of particular interest for NORRAG, as part of its programme of work on Technical and Vocational Skills Development and, in particular the innovative role of technology and ICTs’ in vocational education, related to the presentation by Prof. Bhavani, Director of Amrita’s AMMACHI Labs, and Prof. J. Kenneth Salisbury, Jr., Research Professor, Department of Computer Science, Stanford University. They presented their joint efforts related to the creation of low-cost, tablet-based training simulation for vocational training courses accessible to all. These novel approaches show potential as scalable, cost effective, and implementable means of contributing to the SDGs. This issue is of concern for NORRAG as part of its ongoing work on Technical and Vocational Skills Development and the post-2015 SDG agenda, in which the transversal role of education and training on achieving the other SDGs is emphasized by NORRAG.
Prof. Bhavani moreover pledged with Dr. Silvia Hostetller, of the EPFL, for further collaboration in their skills development work in rural villages of India as a part of Amrita’s LIVE-in-Labs educational programme. This programme enables international students, both undergraduates and graduates, to spend two weeks to a semester as a member of a multidisciplinary team of students and faculty at one of the program sites across India. It aims to expose international students to problems faced by rural communities in India through experiential learning opportunities that put theory into practice by generating innovative solutions and facilitating critical and collaborative problem solving abilities of participants. EPFL has already sent a number of students, whose work in India was briefly presented at the conference, and which showed how simple technological solutions and creative thinking can have great impact. This kind of learning opportunity reflects a trend that NORRAG has been observing in the frame of the project that it has launched on building a new vision on Development Studies and International Education in the post-2015 era. It shows the increasing demand by students to gain genuine practical understanding of challenges in development and the increasingly applied nature of Development Studies. By the same token, it illustrates that increasing efforts are made by academia to combine both classical academic approaches and incentive structures with academic work and learning seeking to impact the poorest populations directly.
Joost Monks is the Managing Director of NORRAG, Geneva. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,200 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.
 UNAI is a global initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the UN in furthering the realization of the purposes and mandate of the UN through activities and research in a shared culture of intellectual social responsibility.
 Amrita University is the first university to co-host a new series of initiatives launched by UNAI in its efforts to create an opportunity for leading international universities to present groundbreaking developments with scope for helping the UN to meet its proposed Sustainable Development Goals.
 Haptic devices apply forces, vibrations, or motions to the user; this stimulation can be used to assist in the creation and manipulation of virtual objects in a computer simulation.