Watson Institute for Internation and Public Affairs
Brown International Advanced Research Institutes

"If you don’t translate it into policy, into real life, you’ve only accomplished half of your work.” 

Prudence Mambo, South Africa, BIARI '13

It Was Like We Were Becoming the World

Thinking inside the box at BIARI

BIARI is not a conference. This I was told again and again, adamantly, with mantra-like regularity, by the faculty and administrators I talked to about Brown International Advanced Research Institutes (BIARI), a collaboration between Brown, the Watson Institute, and Santander Universities, which brings young scholars from the Global South to Brown every summer for two weeks of intensive, collaborative study.  

I was also told that BIARI is not a “mini-training,” not a “summer school,” and not an “academic boot camp.”  That is to say, BIARI is not remedial. The people who participated in each of this year’s four institutes—one focused on global health, one on population and development, one on theater and civil society, and one on engineering in the Global South—are extremely smart and highly trained young scholars, most of them PhDs, all engaged in important, often groundbreaking work in their fields. They are, as Brown Vice President for International Affairs Matthew Gutmann put it, the “rising stars from all over the world.”

That is to say, BIARI is not about “enlightening” under-exposed scholars from the academic and social margins with the “superior knowledge” of an elite American university. BIARI’s learning is multi-directional, communal, intent on challenging—rather than reifying—a knowledge/power dynamic that privileges North over South. “It’s not, ‘we know everything, come here and learn from us,” says Gutmann, “It’s more, ‘we have a lot to teach, we also have a lot to learn, let’s develop the dialogue.”

BIARI is not even, strictly speaking, according to Gutmann, an institute. An institute is permanent, fixed, housed in a building like Watson. Whereas BIARI is unfixed, itinerant, self-generating its own spaces for thought and discourse: a conference room in the morning, the Faculty Club at lunchtime, a bench in a garden at dusk, where two performance artists from different continents share coffee and an argument about Brecht. BIARI is impermanent but iterative. It buzzes and crackles to life every summer, lasts for fourteen days, and then disappears.

And there’s a reason, I think, people seem to have an easier time identifying what BIARI is not than naming what it is: because it’s genuinely unique—negatively defined because it has no obvious analogues in the rest of the academic world. And its resistance to existing definition—to the musty taxonomies by which we have made sense of the academy and the structure of academic work—is precisely what makes it powerful. Perhaps Gutmann is right, but for another reason: BIARI can’t be an institute because, in a certain sense, it’s not institutional.

BIARI in Between

As Geri Augusto, who co-convened the engineering BIARI, put it, “in the real world, outside the university, people’s problems and aspirations, their difficulties and challenges, don’t really come discretely packaged in disciplines. They come up as a surrounded, embedded type of thing.” An awareness of the embeddedness of our world’s great challenges, their tendency to slip back and forth across the neat boundaries separating different forms of knowledge in the academy, guides BIARI’s faculty, participants, and visiting presenters—away from an expectation of singular, self-contained academic questions and answers, to an appreciation for the multiplicity of lived experience and lived struggle. 

BIARI isn’t just interdisciplinary; it occupies the interstices of institutional categories, exceeding their confines, threatening their coherence. And what we might call BIARI’s between-ness extends to its transnationalism, to its concept of the global. When I spoke with Keith Brown, director of BIARI for the past four years, he referenced the anthropologist James Clifford. Clifford argued in 1997 that the question “Where are you from?” is increasingly not as interesting or instructive as the question, “Where are you between?” Some seven hundred scholars from more than 92 countries have participated in BIARI over the past six years. But these numbers only signify participants’ origins. Not their trajectories, not their routes. Many of the BIARI participants I met were born in one country, educated in another, and work in yet another. Their global lives traverse borders. They are between. And it is the hope of BIARI, says Brown, to “bend their path through Providence.”

For Brown, BIARI represents a break with a traditional conception of what an academic career looks like, from ivory-tower solitude to grounded, collaborative endeavor. The idea of the “lone researcher who becomes an absolute specialist in his field, contributing to a notional aggregation of knowledge and understanding”—this vision, says Brown, is a fiction, unavailable to the vast majority of PhD recipients today, and ill-equipped to take on the multi-dimensional challenges of the present. The way universities are structured, he says, has created an “inertial resistance” to embracing collaboration between scholars and across disciplines—even at a place like Brown, where interdisciplinarity is basically part of the DNA. But BIARI, says Brown, builds a “platform for collaboration.” It asks scholars to “take a bet, early in their careers, on a future where collaboration is rewarded, both institutionally and intellectually.”

For Augusto, BIARI also represents a break, both chronological and epistemic. “People don’t get time off to think,” she said, “Often someone who teaches at a university in the Global South carries a load of 200 or 300 students in a class, and teaches four or five classes per semester…BIARI is a rare opportunity for them to think about issues, to meditate, to ruminate, to ponder, to deliberate.” A break. Not a respite, but a shift in momentum, a syncopation between the expected rhythms of an academic career. BIARI creates, in her words, “a set of conversations, a set of presentations” that foster a “participatory, reflective practice.” A time to think, and after which, to think differently.

Connections and Flows

A joke about engineers goes like this: “An optimist sees the glass as half full. A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. An engineer sees the glass as twice as big as it needs to be.” Uninterested in the philosophical dimensions of daily life, the engineer sees only a lack of efficiency, a problem with a solution. Jokes about engineers—somewhat of a cottage industry on certain edges of the Internet—always emphasize their aloofness, pedantry, and literalism. Fixated on her work, the archetypal engineer eschews human relationships and sociality. She wears mismatched socks and quietly sniggers at esoteric jokes about “quarks.”

These are, of course, stereotypes. From what I could tell, few if any of the participants in BIARI’s first engineering-based institute—titled “Connections and Flows: Water, Energy, and Digital Information in the Global South”—fit the archetype. (Admittedly, I usually couldn’t see their socks). But the kernel of truth here is the idea that engineers are typically trained to think in terms of discrete problems and solutions, to see and evaluate what’s in front of them, to think logically with attention to minutia. Which are all positive attributes for a scientist to have. While the social scientist is distracted by theoretical abstraction, consulting Foucault and Bourdieu, the engineer is on the ground, solving the problem (with paper and pencil). 

The flipside of this image, however, is the potential to become too narrowly focused and alienated from the real-world social implications of one’s work. One participant, Hlamulo Makelane, a chemist from South Africa working on a nano-technological device to detect organic pollutants in wastewater, put it this way: “As a chemist, you spend most of your time in a lab, forgetting about social issues, about social justice…about even the people that we are trying to solve this problem for.”

It’s precisely this gap, between engineering solutions and their implementation in social space, between the product and its living beneficiaries, between the lab and the world, which co-conveners Geri Augusto and Chris Bull hoped to address in “Connections and Flows.” Together they conceived—as Augusto puts it, “like a baby, from zero”—of an intellectual space that would “use the lenses of humanities and social science” to think about engineering. They began that process by translating between themselves: one a humanist—Augusto teaches in Africana Studies and Science and Society—the other, Bull, who teaches classes on design, sustainable energy, and technology of development, an engineer. It was the combination of their perspectives, the months of careful translation between their respective forms of knowledge, which gave birth to Connections and Flows.

Augusto, who worked for a regional economic development organization in Southern African for nearly decade before returning to the USA in the early 90s, sees engineering as  “embedded in life, and ways of life, or else superimposed uneasily on it…with consequences both intended and unintended.” In the end, Augusto hoped participants would begin to see engineering not merely as the task of solving “physical, tangible problems,” but also as the process of defining and structuring those problems, of “insert[ing] them into social space and time.” As she put it succinctly in her opening remarks, she hoped participants would learn “to think about engineering differently.”

Thinking Inside the Box

In organizing the program, Augusto and Bull combined presentations from Brown and visiting faculty, and practitioners in renewable energy, water management, design, architecture, and conservation, with daily studio sessions in which the participants themselves would present on a work in progress—or as Professor Bull put it, “a problem they’re stuck on.” All events were structured to include at least as much time for dialogue as presentation.

And it was in the space of these dialogues that the real work of the institute was accomplished, that truly “different thinking” began to emerge. By the second week, whether the discussion was about wind turbines in Tanzania, flood management in Lagos, Nigeria, or water supply redevelopment in St. Lucia, questions of social implication, of embeddedness, of ways of life began to surface, weaving webs of complexity and uncertainty.

To be sure, there were moments of pure see-a-problem-fix-it engineering during those two weeks. At one point during Y Quoc Nguyen’s presentation on natural ventilation systems for homes in Ho Chi Minh City, another participant raised his hand, walked to the front and demonstrated, with white-board marker, an elegant aerodynamic solution to a problem Nguyen was having with his turbine. It was a sort of sublime moment of pure technical ingenuity. He finished the drawing with a stab of the marker and walked back to his seat. The other participants clapped.

But such moments were far more rare than those in which the messy complexity of the socio-political undermined the seeming simplicity of a given solution. That messiness was precisely the focus of Gladman Thondhlana’s presentation about biofuel production in Zimbabwe. His study found that the theoretical benefits of growing crops for bio-fuel—energy security, job-creation, lowered carbon emissions—were completely undermined or otherwise dwarfed by the real, tangible harm done to local communities in the process, who were not consulted, and whose lands were seized as part of the government’s efforts. Even the most “immaculate” engineering solutions, says Thondhlana, “can become meaningless and irrelevant at a local level if they do not factor in local socio-economic needs and environmental concerns.”

This problem—of a distance, often both geographic and cultural, between those coming up with solutions and the communities where they’re being implemented—was another point of gravity around which the discussion revolved. Participants emphasized the necessity of a relationship of mutuality and dialogue between engineering practitioners and the people who are the intended beneficiaries of their solutions—not just to avoid implementing a solution that causes more harm than good, but because people on the ground have knowledge that engineers don’t, indispensible local knowledge that may challenge their assumptions, making their work more difficult but ultimately more substantial.

 “Sometimes we look at the problem outside the box,” Hlamulo Makelane, the nano-technologist, told me. “We stand outside the box, while everything is happening in there. You have to go into the box, be with the people, and then you understand what they are going through.[SB1]  So as an engineer, you come out with a solution that is relevant, that is profitable to the people.” It’s actually being there, “involving people,” Maklane says, that good engineering demands. “We spend most of our time in a lab thinking, ‘I’m going to solve problems,’ when outside there are people who can help you to solve the problem.”

For Juan Pablo Rodriguez, an urban planner from Colombia, attending to the way engineering interacts with social reality is “something we have to learn, we have to do, if we want to impact the real life of the people. In our education it was perhaps not that important, but now, if you don’t translate it into policy, into real life, you’ve only accomplished half of your work[SB2] .” Prudence Mambo, who studies environmental biotechnology at Rhodes University in South Africa, posed the challenge this way: “It’s up to scientists to translate their research so that it’s specific to the needs of the people.”

I asked a few participants, near the end of the two weeks, whether—despite the endlessly complex terrain of social and political impediments—they felt optimistic about their capacity to make change, to improve lives in the years to come. And to my surprise, most of them were. Not naively so, still aware of the distance, the twisting, fractured channel, between a beautiful solution in dry-erase marker and its implementation in the social world, but optimistic, even hopeful. And they all felt this way for the same reason: because they had met each other.

“It was amazing to meet people from other countries and realize that we've got one thing in common: [a desire] to save the world, to save the water, to have detailed information, to have energy,” said Makelene, “meeting them, it was like we were becoming the world. The solution, globally.” She says she’ll go home optimistic because she knows she’s not alone. “Because I know in the world, I'm not the only one, and I know in the world people are trying so hard to come up with solutions.”

Prudence Mambo agreed that meeting so many “likeminded” people from all over the world has made her hopeful for their collective capacity to change things: “I firmly believe that with people who are alive today, we can alleviate poverty, we can improve access to not only water, but energy as well.” She added, attending BIARI “has exacerbated my idealism. It’s made it worse.”

It’s this element, the formation of ties—personal and academic—among participants that is ultimately BIARI’s most inspiring and enduring impact. It’s what Geri Augusto calls the “thickening” of the BIARI network, a network of shared knowledge and resources that encircles the globe, creating webs of mutuality and respect across oceans and borders, and leading to countless collaborations that long outlast and expand well beyond the time and space of BIARI itself. It’s as good a reason as any to be hopeful, to see the glass as half-full.

And yet, I can’t help but hear voices echoing down the now-quiet corridors of the Watson Institute. “But where did the water in the glass come from?” they ask.

“Who has access to it?”

“What significance does this particular water have in the knowledge traditions and ways of life of its surrounding communities?”

“How will climate change affect the availability and quality of the water over the next two decades?”

“Who will bear the brunt of the impact of those changes?”

And on and on.



-- Sam Adler-Bell