Your home has no water

Civil engineering student Adam Witt helped design a sustainable solution from the ground up

Big social problems. Students from different countries working together to design business solutions. A spirited competition to see whose ideas are most viable. A distinguished "venture capital" panel to make the call. That's the Acara Challenge–part of the Acara program at the Institute on the Environment.

And Adam Witt took part.

Q&A with Adam Witt

How did you discover Acara?
Around the time of registration last fall, I got an email about a class being offered in the civil engineering department on sustainable design for developing countries. I had just begun my Ph.D. in water resources engineering (I had previously spent four years working as an analyst for an insurance company), and one of the major factors driving me back to school was the potential to participate in global projects related to water resources development and improvement.

How would you describe the problem you set out to solve?
Imagine waking up every day with no water in your house. Before you eat breakfast or use the sink, toilet or shower, you have to walk a couple miles carrying a plastic container in each hand that you'll fill with water from a pump, and then carry back to your house. Some days you walk to the water pump, and it's not working. You have to walk another mile in a different direction hoping some other pump is working. There are five pumps within a couple miles of your house, but none of them are close to each other and you don't know which ones are working.

How would you make it easier for people in this situation to get water? That's the problem we're trying to solve. Our solution is to update people through text messages about where and when water is available in their communities.

What do you love most about the work?
The challenge that comes with total freedom of direction. At the beginning of the Acara program, we were told we'd be developing a sustainable business to solve an issue related to water security. And that was it. We had to build the business from the ground up, which was overwhelming at first.

Our U of M team held multiple brainstorming sessions, and we put in a lot of time going through data our partner students from TERI University in Delhi had gathered. We made a point of being critical, but at the same time we didn't hold back on any crazy idea we had, and it was very exciting to see some of those crazy light bulb moments turn into critical sections of our business plan.

Why is what you're doing important?
Everyone can relate to water, everyone knows how it looks, feels, and tastes. But the appreciation for water is very different in developing countries with severely limited resources like India. People have no idea how they're going to get water for their families, the government is scrambling to distribute what limited water is available, and the future is so uncertain. Without water everything falls apart.

What's been the biggest challenge in the work?
Most of our team is not in India working on the project. It's easy and necessary to make assumptions here, but those can fall apart instantly if you're not familiar with the local geography, cultural norms or people. When brainstorming here we may want to know the answer to a simple question, like when is the local food stand open. We end up making a lot of assumptions that we have to keep track of and test when we are in the field.

What's your team's big goal?
To develop a business that is locally sustainable and helps people. Ultimately we would like to see the project run by some local entrepreneurs in Delhi. We think our business would be most effective if we were able to hire three-four people for every 4,000 customers we serve. In India you can find a community of 4,000 people living in an area the size of a football field.

We don't need a lot of employees to cover a lot of ground, but we need the right employees who are trusted within the community. A critical point we learned during our experience in India this summer is that solutions to local problems must involve the local residents. If we could hire them as employees, they would be more invested in seeing the project through and making sure it is working and helpful for their community. Plus, local businesses tend to keep local money within the community, which helps everybody living there in some way.

What's different about this learning experience?
The multidisciplinary approach of teaching and learning, and the unlimited potential to take an idea wherever you wanted to. The Acara challenge is less like a class and more like an adventure. It wasn't your traditional classroom setting. We met in small groups quite a bit and met with mentors once a week who were really good at refining ideas we had and molding them into a viable business plan.

We also had a lot of conversations over Skype and Gmail with our Indian counterparts, and we had to be disciplined in our communication with them in order to get the information we needed every week. Then to be able to travel to India and really put our plan into action in the field, that's not something you get to do with many classes.

What inspires you in a teacher or student?
Passion and enthusiasm for their respective field. The best teachers I've ever had have been excited about learning. They've been able to convey that excitement to students in an interesting way that really makes them want to learn. I respect teachers that have a solid foundation, but are always looking for new ways to solve problems and convey ideas. The same goes for students.

Why the U of M?
I'm from Minnesota and I wanted to conduct graduate research at a global research facility. I chose Water Resources Engineering because I feel it's an important field that will require a lot of work in my lifetime, and I'm very interested in the intersection of scientific and environmental thinking. Luckily, the U has a great research facility in water resources engineering—the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, where I'm currently working on my PhD. The faculty and students there are brilliant and I've learned a tremendous amount over the past year.

Advice for fellow searchers?
Keep at it, and approach everything you do with controlled excitement. In the pursuit of new and interesting ideas you always encounter what appear to be monumental roadblocks. View them as temporary and focus on the most pressing issues at hand.

Don't be afraid to scrap an idea completely and start over from scratch—some of our most important progress was made on the third or fourth round of brainstorming a specific concept.

For me, the most rewarding part of doing the work I love is looking back at where I've come from, and acknowledging the time I put in to get me there.