Fighting “intellectual obesity”: A fellow’s perspective
The original version of this blog post can be found in May’s blog, Art’s Power
How do we link our day-to-day activities to the vast knowledge that we have? How can we align our learnings to the challenges we face?
As part of a Melton Opportunity, I was invited to attend the MIT Practical Impact Alliance (PIA) Co-Design Summit in Kumasi, Ghana. The PIA was established by D-Lab, an MIT initiative that focuses on translating innovation into solutions to meaningfully improve the lives of those living in poverty.
“This program was born out of my frustration with academia,” Amy Smith, D-Lab founder and senior lecturer at MIT, told us in the opening workshop.
It is surely frustrating to have great people with great knowledge, remarkable gatherings of genius minds, without practical application of their insights or ideas in relevant situations. I dare say that this is a common situation that many in higher education settings can relate to.
“We want to create more prototypes instead of more papers,” Amy continues, and I’m hooked. Yes, the D-lab program at MIT promotes this “urgency of doing” that Leonardo Da Vinci so famously spoke of and lived:
“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do”. – Leonardo Da Vinci
As members of the Practical Impact Alliance, organizations participate in unique activities designed to foster practical innovation, collaborative action, and shared learning. Basically, this network wants to enable us “to do”.
PIA’s activities are conceived to be hands-on and action-focused to discover – or build – solutions to real-world challenges both inside and outside their organizations. These activities and methods are a remedy to the concept I often use to refer to this complex phenomenon (or disease): “intellectual obesity”.
This is how I personally understand the energy cycle in human beings that occur when you learn information but don’t use it properly. You get a disease that is similar to physical obesity. It limits or prevents you to move.
I understand that there are different causes for obesity, but for the sake of the analogy, I am talking specifically about the excess of input (food equated to information) and lack of efficient output, and even though eating is also information processing, we will differentiate it just because eating is more visible than learning.
So, what does intellectual obesity look like? Perhaps it looks like earning many degrees and having great ideas and vision, without looking for relevant ways to apply these ideas in the present or where and when it is most needed. It could be someone who knows a lot, but doesn’t bother sharing her perspectives and experiences with others.
Our basic aim should be optimum energy efficiency in these biological systems. Ideas are born to inspire you to build your reality — not necessarily to give you a better reputation. But it is only our choice to be a vessel of the “energy” we consume, or merely a container for storing it.
And yet, this is not an easy task: life, being the epic search for knowledge that it is, will naturally feast on the great banquet of information available in this day and age. However, we must look for this interaction, the healthy cycle between our knowledge and our actions.
Nowadays, in this world we share, the amount of information and technology grows at such an exponential rate that it starves the people at the end distribution. We have the data, but when we internalize or digest this information, it makes us do nothing. I wonder why? It should make us want to do something. It should make us move like kids after lunch running outside to climb a tree, just because they naturally feel they need to. Unless their diet is inducing fatigue, of course, which is something to take care of. A healthy mammal would react moving with the energy they put inside their bodies. We need to pay closer attention to this.
That’s what really impressed me at the PIA summit: the degree of awareness of reality, of the energy cycle our ideas usually have. How we tend to interact in teams. It is all energy.
For example, we got together in groups with a clear objective. There was no time to lose. We had larger immediate objectives. We were investigating problems and adapting to them in order to solve them now. We could not afford to be anywhere else but in the present. We were in uncomfortable situations with unknown people that had similar missions, so we could rely in their intentions.
D-Lab embraces the concept of engineering primarily as a service to people. Their International Development Design Summits develop technologists as well as technologies because people in underprivileged situations are the experts in their contexts and are capable of developing innovation. They can be efficient with their knowledge and create solutions to problems they see. Everyone can: it’s what we are born to do.
This pilot summit was a gathering of representatives from NGOs, corporations, social enterprises in Ghana and local community experts with similar missions. They were critical thinkers that chose to let go of some of the privileges and step out of their own comfort zones for the sake of social justice. They didn’t need to do so: they chose to, and that is powerful.
I was blown away by the confidence, humility and passion that these individuals showed, and the incredibly attractive stories and choices they have made in their lives. I could listen to them for hours, and work with them too. Because I keep finding out that the best way to fight intellectual obesity is practicing what you know. Feeling the urgency of your energy now demanding you to act on what you already know. That tells you that you are more than ready to do something today, and if it is with similar minded people, the better.