Don’t wait for the storm to pass. Start learning how to dance in the rain. – Interview with Khanjan Mehta
Professor Khanjan Mehta - Vice Provost for Creative Inquiry and Director of the Mountaintop Initiative at Lehigh University was a keynote speaker at WUD Silesia 2019 conference. We have invited Khanjan for a short interview to deepen some of the insights from his lecture as well as discuss the COVID crisis from a designer's, social entrepreneur's and educator's perspectives. The interview took place in late May 2020.
WUD Silesia: Hello Khanjan. We are happy that you have found time to talk with us. We know that as an academic professor you are very busy nowadays, even busier than usually, running all your projects and educational activities from home. How does your life look like today?
Khanjan Mehta: For the first few weeks after COVID-19 hit, I was busier than ever and less productive than ever at the same time as we moved all our programs to virtual mode. Now that things have eased a little bit and we have established a new normal, I am working on new opportunities and programs to engage our students in meaningful and impactful projects. For example, hundreds of students had their Summer internships and research experiences rescinded and we quickly developed and will shortly launch the Data for Impact Summer Institute. On the personal front, my wife, a research scientist, is extremely busy since she is part of a team working on a COVID-19 diagnostic test. So, I have been working hard on finding new ways to entertain my little kids!
WUD Silesia: We read a lot of news about the COVID-19 plague in the United States. What does the situation look like?
Khanjan Mehta: In Pennsylvania alone, over 70,000 people have been infected and about 5,000 people have died. It has been a rough journey! I am very privileged to have a job I love and be able to work from home. But for countless people across the state and across the country, it has been incredibly difficult. The shutdowns have significantly affected the economy and millions of people have lost their jobs. And, of course, there’s the toll of the illness itself – over 100,000 people have died and while you can bring the economy back to life, the people we lost are gone forever. A common saying nowadays is that “We are not in the same boat; we are in the same storm.” and I think it really captures the situation. The pandemic has surfaced the severe disparities in American society along racial and socio-economic lines.
WUD Silesia: During your WUD Silesia lectures in 2014 and 2019 you were presenting projects and social enterprises that you are setting up and helping to run together with your students in so-called low- and middle-income countries. Western civilizations are struggling with pandemia, so how underdeveloped countries are fighting with the COVID-19 outbreak?
Khanjan Mehta: The situation is significantly different from country to country. In India, for example, about 4,000 people have died from COVID-19 and the nationwide shutdowns have led to millions of workers that live on day-to-day wages to starve. Migrant workers are forced to walk for days and weeks to return to their homes empty-handed. I wonder how many lives have been lost to hunger and exhaustion vis-a-vis the lives lost to COVID-19?
I have several active projects in Sierra Leone and while they have had relatively few cases, the food system and supply chains have been severely compromised, and it will take years to recover from the pandemic. At the same time, countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia have learned many lessons fighting the Ebola epidemic and they are slightly better prepared to come out stronger. Overall, I am glad that the African continent has not been as severely affected by the disease itself and I suspect that the younger demographics have contributed to it. The median age in the US is 38 years, for Poland it’s 42, and for the African continent, it is 18 years!
WUD Silesia: Could you provide some of the specifics of the projects you run and how they are affected?
Khanjan Mehta: One of our flagship projects is Ukweli Test Strips – a venture in Sierra Leone, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Urinary Tract Infections and pre-eclampsia (resulting in eclampsia) are major contributors to maternal mortality and morbidity. Our team has developed a 2 cent test strip to screen women for these conditions and, in December 2019, we received regulatory approval to distribute the test strips in the country. We hired our first employee and started training health workers at rural clinics on how to use the test strips, how to educate pregnant women about these issues, and how to encourage them to get tested in the comfort and privacy of their homes. In just two months, we had made our test strips available to over 250,000 people, and then COVID-19 hit. Our distribution manager cannot travel to clinics to conduct training and sell the test strips as there are lockdowns and restrictions that prevent the health workers from reaching out to pregnant women or for the pregnant women to travel to the clinics. It took us almost five years of research and development and field-testing to get to this stage, and just when we were so incredibly excited and getting our test strips out to health workers and pregnant women across the country to fight the scourge of maternal death, the pandemic significantly slowed us down. That’s just one example of how COVID-19 is affecting our projects, and we have ~12 ambitious projects focused on health, food systems, and environmental sustainability that have all been adversely affected.
At the same time, these are all complex projects where the goal is not to just design one product. We design entire ensembles and systems in collaboration with government ministries, non-profits, manufacturing partners, and communities, and there’s always more work to be done. With travel coming to a standstill and all fieldwork postponed, we are engaged in critical reflection, scenario planning, and systems thinking for all our ventures. We are identifying gaps in our ventures and finding ways to make our products and envisioned systems more robust.
WUD Silesia: How is it possible to manage and supervise such specific and local businesses remotely?
Khanjan Mehta: What are we without all our partners! All our projects emerge organically from partnerships cultivated over years. For example, in Sierra Leone, we work very closely with a non-profit called World Hope International. We serve as intellectual partners on projects for which they serve as the operational partners. We identify impact opportunities together and then Lehigh students and faculty take the lead on research, product development, and systems design. Field-testing and subsequent iterations are incredibly collaborative – we co-create systems and once we find out what’s working and what is likely to scale, our partners take the lead on implementation. Our ventures are under the legal organization of our partners, they ultimately hire and supervise the staff, and maintain the formal relationships with external parties such as the government ministries and communities. We seek extramural funding collaboratively as well – research-focused grants are typically led by the university and implementation-focused grants are led by the partner. The pandemic has strengthened our partnership and challenged us to communicate more effectively and find creative ways to advance the ventures forward.
In Kazakhstan, we jumpstarted two new projects around air quality issues and sustainability education just this year. We have been working with three Kazakh universities – the Almaty Management University, Suleiman Demirel University, and the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University. We have had students and faculty from these universities virtual-teaming with our students since the start of the semester and now, moving into the Summer, we are accelerating and intensifying our work with the Kazakh students leading the in-country activities that our students would have pursued otherwise. I know for sure that this collaborative model will be more productive than our teams working by themselves. It’s not that this outcome is a surprise – there is timeless wisdom in the saying that “if you want to travel faster, travel alone. If you want to travel farther, travel together.” Building collaborations, getting to know new colleagues and building up trust, takes time and effort and in our mad dash towards deliverables, we often don’t give the relationship the time and effort it needs and deserves. Now, we have no option but to rely on partners, and the students are learning not just how to work with partners and be effective, but they are developing a true appreciation for the importance of building good partnerships.
WUD Silesia: Last November in Katowice you said that you “teach your students to prepare them for a life of impact”. Could you share with us how designers can make a meaningful impact during the current outbreak and in the post pandemic world?
Khanjan Mehta: Everywhere we look around us, there are opportunities to strengthen and democratize ineffective and inefficient systems. If we’re not sure where to look, just a few conversations with non-profits, academics, or government officials can help identify ways to contribute to building a better world. For example, design and visual communication are at the heart of public health messaging and now is the time for creatives to find ways to encourage people across languages, cultures, nations, and mindsets to change their behavior.
The post-pandemic world is going to look radically different – the way we work, travel, socialize, celebrate, relax, is all going to change radically. We are not going back to normal, a normal that never was. The COVID-19 crisis has surfaced inequities along racial, linguistic, national, and socio-economic lines that have existed in our society all along. We normalized greed, inequity, hate, and violence…and now we have been given an opportunity to reflect and collaboratively create a new normal, to build a world that, as Buckminster Fuller said, works for everyone. The best place to start is around us, or in communities and places where we have the ability and agency to take meaningful collaboration. Just connecting the WUD network with organizations on the frontlines of fighting the pandemic in Poland and beyond could open hundreds of engagement opportunities.
WUD Silesia: You have also presented the IKIGAI model which helps to define a meaningful career path. Currently the market is in crisis and this crisis will probably deepen in the coming years. A lot of people lost or will lose a job. Is it a good moment to reflect and rethink the career? What do you advise your students now who are entering the job market?
Khanjan Mehta: Who knows what the next few weeks and months have in store for the global economy and the world of work! However, I think that the pandemic will only accelerate the disruption in the world of work that has been building up for a few years now. Enough has been written about the changing world of work – the growing freelancing (gig) economy, rise of automation, integration of AI into every aspect of life, and non-hierarchical organizations. More than half the jobs in the next decade will be completely new and they will be in response to challenges that we probably don’t know are coming our way. I have always talked about a VUCA world — a world that is becoming increasingly Vulnerable, Uncertain, Chaotic, and Ambiguous. The COVID crisis is one snapshot of this VUCA world and we can expect many such disruptions to come our way.
Graduates have no option but to embrace this chaotic world and find creative ways to make meaning and add value to it. Their success in the longer term will depend much more on their mindset than their skill sets. Skills quickly become obsolete but your mindset stays with you for life. Graduates need to build their personal resiliency, be ready to learn quickly, and always strive to find ways to add value. I think the World Economic Forum Skills of 2020 framework captures important skills that every graduate must have and this aligns perfectly with mindsets such as a data-driven approach, evidence-based approach, systems thinking, design thinking, and ethical decision-making. The combination of skill sets, mindsets, and portfolios can help graduates find new opportunities that align with their deeper sense or purpose and help them find their place in the world.
WUD Silesia: And the last but not least, if you could share with us one thought, quote or sentence that is very up to date and can give us uplift and bring some peace to our minds, what could it be?
Khanjan Mehta: This too shall pass! I keep reminding myself the quote from Vivian Greene:
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”
WUD Silesia: Thank you! We wish all the best to you, your family, students and colleagues. We hope to see you soon again in Poland!
Khanjan Mehta: Thanks Pawel! And convey my best regards to your lovely family and all our friends. Please stay safe and healthy! Do zobaczenia wkrótce!
Want to learn more about the ideas shared by Khanjan? Please listen to Dostarczaj Wartość podcast and watch his 2019 WUD Silesia lecture:
Khanjan Mehta is the inaugural Vice Provost for Creative Inquiry and Director of the Mountaintop Initiative at Lehigh University. Mehta champions the creation of learning environments and ecosystems where students, faculty, and external partners come together to increase their capacities for independent inquiry, take intellectual risks and learn from failure, recognize problems and opportunities and effect constructive and sustainable change. Mehta has designed and launched several impact-focused programs including the Global Social Impact Fellowship, the Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellowship, the Creative Scholarship Institute (for PhD students), and the Creative Inquiry Faculty Fellowship. In a previous avatar, Mehta was the Founding Director of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Program at Penn State. Mehta’s latest book, Solving Problems that Matter (and Getting Paid for It), takes a deep dive into STEM careers in social innovation and global sustainable development.