We need to protect the planet we have and not look to Mars: Sonam Wangchuk

Social entrepreneur and educator Sonam Wangchuk believes that we have to look beyond technology and textbooks to create impact.
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Technology and sustainability may prima facie seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, but in recent times, more and more companies are leveraging digital technology to find sustainable alternatives to solving our everyday challenges.

Sustainability was a key theme at the recently concluded Bangalore Tech Summit 2020, where Sonam Wangchuk spoke to the virtual audience from his home in Ladakh.

“It’s great that we are talking about innovation for social impact. I was told that the theme was 'Next is Now'. When we say Next is Now, we usually think of the next gadget or the next rocket. But I also want you to understand that what’s next can also be a little gloomy. It could be the next forest fire, the next glacial melt, the next flash flood... all this is our future if we don’t act now,” he said.

Wangchuk said that it worried him that people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were speaking about the next planet that humans could inhabit, because it showed a defeatist attitude. “I think the energy they are putting into leaving the earth needs to be spent on improving the earth.”

A mechanical engineer, Wangchuk has been working in the field of education reform for more than three decades in Ladakh. He played a key role in the launch of 'Operation New Hope', a collaboration between the government, local communities, and civil society to bring reform to the government school system. A key focus area of the programme was training teachers and rewriting textbooks to suit the needs of children in Ladakh.

Relearning from nature

Drawing a parallel between humans and technology, Wangchuk said, “When human babies are born into this world, they are preloaded with great software that will make them learn. We end up breaking that software called curiosity in our schools and our families. If we don’t kill curiosity, you cannot stop a human baby from learning.”

Explaining that he learned everything from being out in the nature till the age of nine, Wangchuk said, “I think that 'schools' are worse than 'no schools'. Then nature takes over and curiosity is your school, and your innate software helps you learn. I tease my friends who went to good schools, by telling them that when they were all learning about roots, shoots, and leaves from pages of a book, I was there on a farm, putting a seed in the ground and seeing the roots go down shoots come up.”

To further this philosophy, he founded the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) Alternative School near Leh, which only admits those who failed in the State exams. Wangchuk teaches these students to innovate, and with their help, has designed and constructed solar-heated buildings out of mud that maintain a constant temperature of 15ºC even in the harshest Ladakhi winter. An artificial glacier called the Ice Stupa stores water from the local streams and rivers as ice cones, which are then fed to the fields in Spring to help the farmers. The Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh, also co-founded by him, uses experiential learning for higher studies.

Build for impact, not money

Wangchuk said that amidst all the buzz around innovation and building new-age technologies, few were leveraging the wisdom of the past. The key to success he said did not solely lie in building hardware or writing code, but also in empathy.

“Without feeling for others, or wanting to solve their problems to make it a better world, curiosity is just entertainment or a burden on others. Empathy for the pains of the world and the challenges people face makes curiosity like a prayer that makes the world a better place.”

He said that gadgets and gizmos would only bring temporary success, and last a few years before becoming redundant.

Wangchuk said that when a business or social entrepreneurship was built on a foundation of wanting to make an impact, “The best businesses, entrepreneurs, and solutions are the ones that solve the serious problems real people face. Money is just a byproduct, and is best left at that. It should lead to impact. If you have the will to change things, you will go far,” he said.

Edited by Megha Reddy

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