Solomon darwin's Talk at TEDx
One idea - can change the lives of 3.4 billion people living in rural villages around the world. I was born an untouchable, a Dalit, in a remote village called Mori, in South India. Only a few people born as untouchables manage to leave India. Most that do leave, never return if they become successful. But I did - I think you will appreciate the reason why.
I would like to share lessons from my journey with you and in a few minutes, I’m going to ask you to do something that could transform your life and your own village. We all come from a village – even if you are one or two generations removed. It is the umbilical cord that connects us. Mahatma Gandhi said “the soul of India lives in villages.” There are 650,000 villages in India alone where 70% of her people live. Around the globe, 3.4 billion people live in rural areas.
My story of changing the world one village at a time begins in January of 2016, at a meeting with Chief Minister Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. As the Executive Director for the Center for Corporate Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, I was invited by the Prime Minister’s office to develop smart city frameworks for the 3 cities endorsed by President Obama.
Minister Naidu upon hearing my student presentations said to me building Smart Cities is good but making villages smart will bring happiness to 70% of my people who live there. He invited me to develop a scalable prototype for a smart village to demonstrate what is possible. He said something - that resonated deeply with me.
While teaching courses on Building Smart cities at Berkeley, I had learned that Smart Cities cost a lot of money, and sometimes the only ones that benefit are the firms that build them. Soon the expensive infrastructure and technology becomes obsolete and needs to be replaced frequently. In contrast, building people in villages requires practically no investment – it’s inexpensive to equip villages with digital tools that are portable, affordable, save time and money and requires no learning curve for people to access global markets.
This was the cathartic moment for me – I realized that, I could help by joining hands with like-minded people to start a grassroots movement to impact lives where people have no access to proper information, resources, practical training, and simple transformative technologies. I began to reflect on how I could use what God has put within my reach to empower people’s lives. Following my meeting with Chief Minister Naidu, I was invited by the President of India to participate in his Global Innovation Roundtable in New Delhi on March 12, 2016.
It was at this meeting that some of my ideas were first shared. I wanted to express what our research had shown about the key pain-points of rural people. When I was growing up, my village was clean and peaceful, with many hardworking men and women labouring in the fields and in their cottage industries at home. I left my village as a teenager and came to the United States and returned many times to find that nothing much had changed.
Instead, things had gotten worse: The canals that I once swam and fished in were full of pollutants and plastic. Air pollution from unregulated cashew-processing plants had skyrocketed. There were high levels of unemployment, with many fleeing to the Middle East in search of jobs, tearing their families apart. Farmers stopped growing many crops, as costs exceed revenues.
The only thing that had increased was the number of suicides among farmers, weavers and artisans. I told the distinguished panel at the Presidents round table that our exponential growth in knowledge and advancement in information technology and business model innovations did not benefit the rural populations. Our research has shown that – many government programs, subsidies and free handouts are killers of innovation - these programs may be great tools for politicians to secure votes but not the solution to empower people to build a strong village economy.
What villages need is fairly simple: access to correct and timely information, simple digital tools and user-friendly platforms that eliminate the need for gatekeepers and middlemen, thereby enabling producers to get full price for their products. The platforms currently being developed provide access to global markets to the dying breed of 250 million artisans and 200 million farmers in India. This will help preserve the Indian art, culture and legacy while curtailing the weaver, farmer and artesian suicide rates.
This is what a Smart Village is all about. It is not about building infrastructure – roads, water tanks, toilets, or public buildings. It is all about “building people” – investing in modest resources that empower lives. This is what families and communities have always longed for. Here is my formal definition “a Smart Village is a community empowered by digital technology and open innovation platforms to access global markets”.
This is what we had demonstrated in Mori Village with the help of many Silicon Valley firms that participated in the project. We demonstrated what is possible in a village. A Smart Village is an idea, and not a specific location – it is a destination where we all need to get to. Yes, there will be many bottlenecks and barriers along the way but we can get there.
How can we make this a reality in villages across India? How do we scale this model? Someone is asking, show me the way. Someone is asking, does it require 650,000 Solomon Darwins to move this forward? Someone is asking, are there proven models that will help us scale fast? Yes, there are several proven models. A village community can scale as an open platform in the same way that Alibaba, Airbnb, Uber, and Facebook had scaled through networks that connect them to conduct trade. Just imagine.
Without owning a single item of inventory, Alibaba became the world’s biggest bazaar. They list over a billion different products on their platform. Without owning a single hotel room, Airbnb, in less than 10 years, lists over 500,000 properties, served over 10 million guests in 120 nations, and is valued at over $10 billion. Without owning a single car, Uber, in less than 5 years, was valued at $50 billion, operating in 200 global cities. Without producing a single piece of original content, Facebook, became the world’s biggest media firm hosting 1.5 billion subscribers —generating $14 billion in revenue in 2015.
These are social sharing platforms, if done right, they create transparency, dual accountability and establish trust in the system. This is how we scale - organically and exponentially. Someone is asking, how can we overcome the social, political and judicial barriers to accomplish this? We can do this in same way Mahatma Gandhi capitalized on the social capital of India’s population – he said to the British: “In the end, you will walk out, because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate.”
We can do this in the same way Airbnb community used their social capital leveraging their customers to push for changing the laws of the state of New York and the state of California. Today, village communities empowered with digital technology, like cell phones, can vote politicians out of office, overturn ineffective laws and demand justice to achieve economic prosperity. This is the emerging power of social capital. We can do it - We should do it - and We must do it.
I stand here today as a living proof of three things that liberate rural people: Those are: 1. Access to Entrepreneurship, 2. Access to Education and 3. Access to Equal opportunity. Coming from a downtrodden untouchable village, I would like to share my family story to illustrate what is possible. My grandmother, who was thrown out as a baby, a child bride at the age of 6 given to a man 20 years older, persecuted and finally discarded at the age of 40 for not bearing children, having no hope, attempted suicide by downing.
She was rescued by a passer-by Englishman who taught her how to read and write – this one simple tool of communication allowed her to build an export business – shipping lace to England and textiles and pickles to Burma. Empowered with this one tool and connection, she became the largest employer of untouchable women in her village. She overcame the constraints of the caste system as an entrepreneur by having access to global markets.
My father who was the first man to earn a PhD in the state as an untouchable was educated through the profits from his mother’s business, but still could not get a job due to his caste. He came home one day with an address book from the library that contained the list of prominent US universities – I remember as a child sitting on the dirt floor in our mud hut, under the kerosene lamp, late into the night licking stamps and putting them on envelopes while my father wrote the addresses. One of those envelopes reached the world-famous Scripps institution of Oceanography at University of California which hired him.
As destiny would have it, I ultimately was able to return to my home village, endorsed by the President of India and commissioned by the Chief Minister of the State to show what is possible to make my village smart. This Smart Village movement did not start because of any special abilities that I possess. It is not my ability, but my availability. My willingness to say “Yes” when the challenge to help others was placed before me.
A few days ago, I was invited by the Chief Innovation Officer of the United Kingdom at Her Majesty’s Treasury, a part of the Prime Minister’s Office. My presentation was about what the Kingdom can learn from a small village in India. Following my talk, they had me standing on this balcony and waive at the tourists below. I was told that this is where Winston Churchill stood and announced the end of the 2nd world war.
I was able to do these things because I’ve made myself available. It was not my Ability but my Availability that has led me to accomplish what I’ve been able to do. I have had very few resources during most of my life time but I did it. If I can do it – you can do it – You have far more resources at your disposal than I have had – You can do far greater things. So now, I have a challenge for you. Your challenge is this: Write down one sentence by filling in the blanks.
I will start. I, Solomon Darwin, will transform my village into a Smart Village by leveraging my connections. What will your sentence be? Once you fill in the blanks, please write on the wall so that the world may see it. May this day, mark the birth of the Smart Village Movement worldwide. Let us make it happen!