The challenge behind technology transfer

Why do international development interventions often blow up in the face? Here’s a thought exercise that helps explore that.

Imagine you invent a time machine that can give you a one-way trip to a tribe of hunter gatherers who live in 12,000 BC – before civilization as we know it. However, the machine doesn’t let you bring along any materials along – just yourself and the hunter-gatherer outfit that you wear. You know this a year in advance, and are trained both physically and culturally in the language and the ways of your host tribe. Being from an advanced era, your mission is to help your host tribe. Now here’s the question – what knowledge can you impart to enhance their lives?

You could probably create a wheel and help your tribe transport their belongings or meat from a hunt across large distances. Wheels are simple to build and seem to be useful in a variety of situations. But the problem is that even if you could craft wooden wheels that are perfectly round with the tools at hand, you wouldn’t have enough good surfaces to roll them on. Wheels need roads, or at the very least, clear patches of land to function well. And considering how much your tribe moves everyday, towing along wheels on hard terrain is a burden.

Maybe you could teach them to grow crops and secure their supply of food. By observing which plants they eat, you could teach them to sow those plants, water them and harvest them. But growing crops requires a particular lifestyle that needs decades or even centuries of preparation. Crops require intensive care and require people to live in large settlements near them – all of which are ill suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You are met with ridicule at the mere suggestion of an idea so preposterous.

At the very least, you could be a storyteller. You could tell your hosts captivating stories about how the future would unfold. You can tell them about how people would one day settle in cities with thousands of people, how we would grow our own food, domesticate animals and sail the oceans. You could tell them about trains and flying machines – about democracy and how people from hundreds of tribes would come together to elect their own leaders. At best, though, they would just dismiss your tales the crazy ramblings of a sick person. At worst, they could accuse you of being a sorcerer and burn you alive.

Any progress within society happens on the margins – the boundaries between the familiar and the unfamiliar. As a modern person in an ancient society, our margins are too far apart for us to help each other. This isn’t because hunter gatherers were primitive – they led wonderful, sophisticated lives and were both physically and mentally more capable than modern day humans (they even had larger brains). And yet, every single piece of knowledge and technology that we posses exists in a particular context. To be relevant, wheels need roads, and agriculture needs settlements. Even stories involving flying machines need enough familiarity with technology to be deemed acceptable.

While this thought exercise explains an extreme situation, it gives us an idea of why it is difficult to move to a new social context and try to change it for the better. That is why we see repeated failures of Western interventions in African, Middle-Eastern countries or Asian countries. Our ideas are all have their place in a particular context and separating a part of them out to fix a problem in a faraway land doesn’t often succeed.

Despite the best intentions, any intervention that does not understand the margins of its target society is bound to end up in consternation and eventual failure.

Busyness as a symptom

Busy people aren’t nice because in the time they can pay attention to you, they have fires to put out.

Empathy, listening, compassion – all of those qualities don’t scale. They require slack in the system – the ability to pause and to pay attention to whomever we engage with. A culture of busyness does not encourage this. That is perhaps one reason why people in busy cities are considered rude.

Busyness within an organization isn’t usually the busy person’s fault. That depends on whoever is making them busy. As a manager or a team leader, it is your duty to give them enough slack to listen to customers, train new co-workers and do a job that they are proud of. It is your job to be the doctor – to detect and to treat busyness as soon as it appears.

If you don’t, your team and its customers will bear the brunt of that chronic illness.

Higher order consequences

Several tech startups have a “unlimited” vacation policy. They mention how they trust their employees enough to take time off responsibly and don’t even track it. And yet, in most such firms, people take less time off overall and end up more stressed out.

People often take important decisions based on their immediate results – their first order consequences. But they fail to foresee how the higher order consequences, which are far ahead in time, may have larger repercussions. When a patient goes to a doctor with a belly ache, she gives him some medicine that relieves his pain – the first order consequence. But since the patient consumed that medicine, he does’t identify the root cause of his belly ache. Perhaps he is allergic to some ingredient, or perhaps he shouldn’t have overeaten at the party the previous evening. The higher order effects of consuming medicine here is that it encourages the patient’s self-destructive eating behaviour.

When a company starts an unlimited vacation policy, the first order consequence is that employees see it as a perk. A couple of them may even take a few weeks off. But the vast majority of the office is going to hold back and look at what everybody else does. Their goal would be to take a day or two lesser than the average. Pretty soon, nobody is taking too many days off for fear of being labelled a slacker. The higher order reaction of unlimited vacation time is that it discourages people to take time off even when they really need to.

These decisions aren’t restricted to individuals. On a global scale, the first order consequence of using fossil fuel was the industrial revolution. One of its higher order consequences is the climate catastrophe that we currently find ourselves in.

Higher order consequences may not always be bad. Riding a bicycle to a work has a few unpleasant first order consequences – riding in the cold, for instance. But its higher order consequence is that one develops better health and greater immunity in the long run.

Humans are a unique species, for we are the only ones in the animal kingdom blessed with foresight. However, this foresight is often myopic and lures us into making decisions that aren’t in our best long term interest. The ability to buck this trend and take decisions based on understanding higher order consequences is rare, but well known.

We call it wisdom.

“Pawns are the soul of the game”

The great French chess master François-André Danican Philidor once proclaimed, “pawns are the soul of the game”.

At first, that might strike you as being odd. Anybody who is even a little familiar with chess knows how the pieces – the sprightly knights, the incisive bishops, the formidable rooks, the majestic queen and even the king are all more powerful than the lowly pawn. The very name “pawn” hints at something that maybe staked for the greater good.

Pawns are not the soul of beginner’s chess though. In those games, the powerful pieces usually take center stage, for neither player is able to plan a few moves in advance. They often make the move that would yield the best position immediately, and pieces are able to do this more easily than slow and slumbering pawns.

But that doesn’t work with a player who has some foresight. The moment you play with an expert, she has already foreseen how you could make those elaborate moves with the pieces, and has either defended against them or laid a trap for them. When two experts are at play, both of them can see these obvious lines play out in their mind. Therefore, they are likely to avoid them. Instead, they make pawn moves that are small, subtle and stealthy. While a single pawn move in isolation may not seem significant, how the pawns sit together on the board has a large influence on the position. It is this tension between the subtlety of single pawn moves and the synergy that they achieve together that makes experts mindful about how the soul of your game play lies in how you handle your pawns.

This is true not just of chess, but of any endeavour. In football, the best player among beginners is one who can dribble his way past novice defenders. But masters of the game are well versed in the subtle movements and stealthy passes of positional play. With programming, while a beginner and an expert might have code that looks similar at a glance, the way the expert handles unforeseen exceptions sets her code apart. The difference between an ordinary writer and a great writer isn’t their choice of words, but the more subtle elements of their writing such as word order, cadence and the structure of their sentences.

Identifying the pawns of your art, for they are its soul.

Training your focus

How do you balance a bicycle?

A balanced bicycle looks effortless and smooth, but in reality, involves a series of continuous micro-adjustments. When the cycle leans towards the left, the cyclist unconscious leans towards the right. When the cycle takes a sharp turn, it bends at a certain angle to sustain its balance. A continuous stream of dynamic, unconscious input from the cyclist is needed to sustain the cycle’s balance. That is why it is harder to keep a cycle balanced when you let go of the handlebars.

Similarly, focusing our attention on anything involves a series of micro-adjustments that return our focus despite momentary distractions. Even as we are engrossed in a movie playing on our laptop, we are aware of who is in the room, the noises of vehicles whizzing by and the fact that we are hungry after about an hour. Despite those distractions, we return our focus to the movie because of how engaging it is. Similar to balancing a bicycle, it requires a constant redirection of our attention back to the moving pixels on our screen.

Who is a more skilled cyclist? Is it one who can ride for 100 kilometers on a flat, well paved road? Or is it one who can maneuver through a 1 km long dirt track, with pits, bumps, slopes and several obstacles? Similarly, who has cultivated better focus? A person who can stay focused for hours in absolute quiet without distractions, or one, who despite the constant noise and chaos around her, manages to bring her attention back to a demanding task?

A victory isn’t merely the ability to spend long periods with a task. It is the ability to bring one’s wavering attention back as it wanders off.

Why we *still* gossip

As the popular saying goes, we may not have descended from fearful men, but we certainly did from gossipers. Gossip played a pivotal role in human evolution.

Why does gossip flood our news streams in the place of several other issues that are far more worthy of our attention? Why does gossip take the place of historical rulings, technological breakthroughs and pressing global problems? It is perhaps because we started caring about the behaviour of our neighbours far before history, technology or the world mattered.

Humans are able to cooperate in larger groups and in more complex ways than any other animal. Initially, we were able to do this purely on the basis of gossip. By means of gossip, everybody within the tribe knew about each other’s virtues and vices. They knew with whom they could trust their baby while going on a hunt, who was pulling their share of the collective load and who was sleeping around with whom. It also focused on negative information, for it was far more important for the tribe to single out detractors. Even today, gossip continues to revolve around a person’s character – especially on their negative traits. For the same reason we, as individuals, are also sensitive to what other the people around us think about us.

Yuval Harari calls gossip the original fourth estate. It was here before the media, performing the same role – disseminating the most compelling information about the people around us. Thanks to our innate propensity towards gossip, we are more interested in movie star hook-ups, royal weddings and celebrity stunts than saving coral reefs or applauding technological breakthroughs.

While that is still a pity, at least it comes as no surprise.

Inspiration – Sapiens: Yuval Noah Harari

Explore the opposite

It wasn’t land explorers who created our best land maps. It was sailors. And the sailors are not alone in exploring the opposite.

Buddhist monks understand happiness by studying suffering.

Doctors tell us about good health by learning about all manners of disease.

Neuroscience tells us about good health by studying patients who suffer from mental disorders.

Psychologists tell us how our mind works by looking at cognitive biases – by exploring the systematic errors of our minds.

The Stoics have taught us how we are unable to appreciate pleasure until we have pushed ourselves to the boundaries of abstinence.

To study something difficult and the elusive, try and explore its opposite. 

A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers. – Mortimer Adler

An alternative to “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“What would you do if money were no object?”

The philosopher Alan Watts used to ask this question to students would told him how they have no idea about what they ought to do for a living. I find it to be an excellent alternative to what we normally ask kids: “What you you want to be when you grow up?”

The problem with the latter is that is has the phrase “grow up”. Those two words pollute the question. Instead of thinking about what they truly enjoy, they are likely to look at the grown ups around them and ask themselves which of those people they wish to emulate. And that leads to two pitfalls.

Firstly, grown ups are at least a couple of decades ahead of the children who seek to emulate them. Therefore, their careers and world-view is already outdated by the time the kids grow up

Secondly,  grown-ups are preoccupied with furthering their own careers and making ends meet – the careers that they, in-turn, inherited from their grown-up advisors. Therefore, they  inevitably lead youngsters down a path that is the safest bet to put money on the table based on their present reality.

Of course, making enough money is important. But it doesn’t have the same relevance to a child picking a line of interest, as it does to the grown-up who advises her. We are talking about interest that is innate here – not interest that banks collect. And as grown-ups, we have a conflict of interest here.

The genius behind Watts’ question is that it deliberately removes money from the picture. If that were the case, what you would willingly do with your time? All of it? If you answer that question early enough in your life, along the way you will find out how you can make it pay the bills.

The regulator knob

Fire feeds on itself. The more fuel it has at hand, the faster it burns. That is why our ovens, stoves, lighters, heaters and kettles come with mechanisms for regulation – an external means to control their fire’s insatiable appetite.

Busyness works the same way. Left to its means, it feeds off itself to create more busyness. It multiplies and eats up large tracts of our life, just as fires consume forests, leaving a smouldering pile of ash behind.

Does your busyness come with its regulator knob?

A few moments to look away

When a car is new, you notice its extra spunk, its glitzy features and the sparkle it has on the finish. In a couple of months, you won’t notice it.

When deciding between Colorado and California for a new move, you think about how the weather is a factor. But it isn’t – not as much as you think it is. In a couple of months, you will adapt to the weather. Scandinavians are among the happiest people in the world, and it isn’t because they have lovely weather.

My mobile banking app has a cool feature – if I waved my hand across the screen, it blurs out sensitive data like my account balance. But I never really used this feature. Not once. At the outset, we cannot imagine our lives without some apps on our phone. But by going for 30 days without them, we learn how we don’t miss them much.

Breaking news. It’s live! We’re first at the scene, and so are you. So pay attention! Just wait for a day, though, and it’s yesterday’s news. Can you remember what was on the news a month ago? How about 6 months ago? What other information do we value so much, whose relevance is merely one day?

The loud, the shiny and the urgent are all designed to hijack our attention. But look away even for a moment, and they lose their importance.

Let us spare a few moments to look away.

We will match your donations

Large institutions matching donations in charitable appeals have often struck me as being odd. Why should that be the case? If I care about a cause, why should somebody else’s matching donation influence my decision. Moreover, as a large institution contributing to charity, why am I holding up my generosity until several other people volunteer their money?

Imagine that a flood has rampaged a particular Indian state. Let’s say that the Tata Trusts has set aside Rs 10 million towards this cause. On the one hand, the trust directly donates this amount towards flood relief, while on the other, it offers to match donations made by the general public. Put yourself in those two situations. Where are you likely to contribute more? The appeal to match donations isn’t as much about holding back as it is about inspiring other people to chip in.

We humans are quid-pro-quo creatures. When we see our actions are being reciprocated, we are far more likely to act. We do unto others what we would have them do to us. When we see someone’s else’s generosity, we match it with ours.

Give, and thou shalt receive.

Practice like a taxi driver

Whose brain would you rather have? That of a bus driver or a taxi driver?

A few neuroscientists decided to take that question seriously. They compared the brains of London cab drivers and taxi drivers, while controlling for driving experience and stress levels. They found that the taxi drivers had more grey matter in their hippocampi (singular: hippocampus). Their brains literally grew on the job, giving them an ability to snake the city’s intricate nooks and crannies.

It is interesting that driving experience did not correlate to this change in the brains structure. Nor did stress levels.  Both taxi drivers and bus drivers spend hours on roads amidst stressful traffic. It’s just that while one of them drove around new parts of the city each day, the other followed a fixed set of routes. It isn’t as much about how much of something you do. It is about how demanding the task inherently is.

If your practice feels entirely comfortable, you might not be learning. On the other hand, if it causes your head to hurt, take that as a good sign – of the brain strengthening existing neural pathways or forging new ones. Also, long hours on your job doing the same task do not develop your brain as much as new ones do.

“Just a couple of minutes”

Here’s a tiny list of things that take longer than we imagine they do:

– Buying three items or fewer from the supermarket
– Eating at a restaurant
– Taking a flight
– Writing a program
– Almost every large infrastructure project
– Installing plumbing
– Cooking a meal
– A drive across the city (going by Google Map’s estimates)
– A visit to the doctor
– Household contract work
– Fixing a bicycle
– Checking email
– Going to bed

If you don’t believe me, try measuring with a stopwatch.

The problem isn’t that we do not have enough time. It is just that the more time we have on our hands, the more optimistic our estimates seem to get.

When machines run people

People build machines to run them, hoping that they enhance our lives. But when machines run people, the opposite tends to happen.

Consider night shifts in factories, which the industrial age introduced to humanity. Humans are built to sleep through the night – staying up and working instead can wreak untold damage on one’s health. Strong evidence tells us that working night shifts is probably carcinogenic. Why do we do this? Because it is efficient to run the machine around the clock rather than spend a few hours each day warming it up. The large industrial machine has humans working in shifts to keep it turning around the clock.

The smartest minds in the world are huddled today in Silicon Valley, running large corporations that spare no opportunity in manipulating people into clicking on ads or buying stuff they don’t really need. Now if you asked these clever folks, they would tell you how they are innovators, artists and harbingers of the future – not malicious manipulators of human behaviour. But the machine that they work for, with its attractive stock options and incentive structures, aligns them to its goal without their explicit knowledge or consent. Once again, the machine is running the humans.

The machines can take different forms – like that of nationalistic fervour. When neighbouring countries are at war, people who might share ethnicity, cuisines and even languages, want nothing more than to blow each other’s brains out. If they met outside their countries, in faraway lands, they would share only warmth and bonhomie. Yet, within their own borders, they brand each other as the enemy. This machinery of nationalism, with its slogans, anthems and symbols, breaks the world down into narrow domestic walls.

Science fiction is replete with the stereotype of robots and computer programs subordinating human society to a class of slaves, living in the dark ages. But that cliche, like most others, lacks imagination. The machines have always been with us. Can you see through their machinations?

Calibrating your intuition

Every decision we make is informed by our intuition, whether we like it or not. But how reliable is our intuition as an instrument?

I recently ran the same distance twice while measuring my speed, once with earphones that told me my running speed every kilometer, and once without these updates. During both runs, I felt as though I was going fast and pushing hard. But when I looked at the measured speeds, I had clocked 9.64 km/hr without periodic updates, and 12.07 km/hr with a voice telling me how fast I was going. My intuition, in both cases, told me that I was doing well. But the mere act of having immediate feedback improved my performance by 25%.

Our intuition is a versatile, but unreliable instrument that requires constant calibration – one that keeps us within our comfort zone but gives us the illusion that we are pushing ahead. 


Frustration as fuel

The great Indian epic, Ramayana, may have never been authored but for one man’s rage at the thoughtless action of a hunter.

The poet Valmiki, who composed Ramayana entirely in verse, was wandering through the forest, when he saw a pair of cranes frolicking about. He stopped to admire how affectionate they were to each other. All of a sudden, a hunter’s arrow shattered this perfect moment. The male crane dropped dead and the female bird crooned in agony at the loss of her partner. Valmiki, enraged by the hunter’s thoughtless action, uttered a curse in perfect verse. In that moment, he discovered the poet within him.

Anger and frustration often grip us and distort our judgement. Yet, there is beauty within those feelings – beauty that we could express through our creative work.

Read Valmiki’s poem in its original Sanskrit here.

A hack for commute podcasts

Do you listen to podcasts or audiobooks on the way to work? Here’s a little hack that can help you learn better.

1. Listen to the podcast during your regular commute
2. After it’s done, write down what you learnt in bullet points
3. To help with recollection, mentally trace the route you took and try remembering what you listened to in each place

You’d be surprised by how much step 3 helps. One caveat, though, is that if you don’t do the recollection exercise on the same day, the next day’s commute will overwrite those memories.

Our brains are excellent at committing routes to memory. The memory palace technique harnesses this ability to help us organize and remember facts.

The toughest part about using a memory palace is constructing it in the first place. The beauty is that every time you listen to something during your commute, you are unconsciously building a memory palace. All you have to do is to explore it later.

Reduce uncertainty

Traffic signals in India are unpredictable. The same red light could just as easily let you through in 20 seconds or hold you up for three minutes.

One small tweak in their design makes these signals more tolerable – a countdown timer that tells you your waiting time. As a motorist, I used to hate the lights without timers more – even if they were quicker. Once I see the number on the timer, I know that I have about 100 seconds to relax. I can then stop staring at the light, worrying when I would need to scamper ahead amidst a chaotic deluge of vehicular horns.

A large part of an inconvenience we put somebody through is the uncertainty that comes along with it. Reducing this uncertainty could go a long way in mitigating their dissatisfaction.

The behavioural case for preparing your own meals

120 women were asked to prepare a low-calorie smoothie themselves and compare it to an identical recipe made at a store. Any guesses on which one they liked more?

Several arguments exist for making your own meals – ranging from the health benefits from control over ingredients to financial and environmental factors. Now, behavioral science has a contribution to make as well. In the study mentioned above, the women reported how the self-prepared smoothies tasted much better. The very act of preparation adds to a meal’s taste.

We also know how food prepared outside home (including food at fancy restaurants) is full of sugar, salt and empty calories. Meals at these joints lacks that extra bit of taste that self-preparation adds to our own meals. Therefore, these establishments are forced to compensate with more salt, sugar and other substances that aren’t in our best long term interests.

The labour of love that we pour into our meals isn’t merely a chore. It is also the secret ingredient that makes our meals taste better while keeping them healthy.



Two paths to inclusion

Why should we include people on the margins? Why should that be our organization’s mission?

The first narrative, and the one that most activists use, is that of justice. Historically, several groups of people have been discriminated against and unfairly denied opportunities. And yes, that is true. This approach relies on the “goodness” of the individuals who are already in power. It appeals to the conscience of the predominantly white, male leaders of organizations to change the status quo. It appeals to people of privilege to accommodate more immigrants and refugees. But it does so by using pity and shame.

The second narrative is underutilized – that of potential. Copious research shows how adopting a truly inclusive approach has incredible benefits. Organizations become more effective and profitable. Countries become more vibrant, peaceful and harmonious. In Seth Godin’s words, when you have only knives in your kitchen, what you can cook is very limited. When you have ladles, bowls, whisks and colanders, you can conjure up a wider variety of delicacies.

We have been appealing to people’s conscience for far too long. We now have data to support another argument – one that recognizes how inclusion leads to a better world not just through a moral lens, but also through creativity and profitability. Despite our best intentions, we continue to do disservice to the worthy, but marginalized by neglecting their potential, .