In my earliest memories, I picture my mother constantly working as a volunteer, connecting people and fund rising for scholarships and to fund holiday parties for low-income children in Cali, Colombia. I grew up visiting slums and meeting incredible community leaders with amazing ideas.
Even though these leader’s hard work and creativity brought well-being and smiles to dozens of people, the impact of their work turned out to be small, especially when contrasting their limited capacities to increase scale with the rapid rate of poverty growth. Today in the South we face an unprecedented expansion of fellow citizens living in the slums. Poverty is spreading like an epidemic. One in six inhabitants of the globe survive in the slums today.
Left: During the Cartagena Practicum, Mom-and-Pop store owners from Cartagena, Colombia tell MIT and Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar students about their role in local food distribution. Right: Colombian University Presidents visiting MIT during the 2006 Renewal of Research Universities conference. Photo by Jorge Barrera
Because I grew up as a witness to that rapid expansion of poverty, I first studied Economics, and then worked for about twelve years in leadership positions in Colombia and the US. I was struck by the disconnect between academia and community needs. I was disappointed by the limited capacity of the academy to stimulate community learning. Since then I have been asking myself how communities learn and transfer their new knowledge into actions for collective opportunities? How can higher education institutions in the global south play a stronger role in tackling local challenges?
During the last five years, I have been studying how higher education institutions in the U.S. bridge knowledge production with local needs. I have seen this bridge lead to the discovery of new medical treatments, or the creation of new entrepreneurial ventures.
I am searching for examples of how universities are identifying innovation in the margins and build on these with research?
What can higher education institutions in the global south do to facilitate community learning and knowledge transfer for progress?