Development Engineering: Reflections from a Development Impact Lab Postdoctoral Fellow

By Kweku Opoku-Agyemang

Kweku Opoku-AgyemangWhen I first arrived at UC Berkeley to work as a Development Impact Lab and Global Poverty & Practice Postdoctoral Fellow, I did not know what to expect. Like many economists, I was most attuned to the fact that impact evaluations—economic studies based on experimental designs—were changing development research around the world. An increasing interest in technology and its potential to contribute to these discussions drew me to the Development Impact Lab where I have spent two fruitful years.

My ongoing research interests are on how voice-based mobile surveys can strengthen democratic outcomes, particularly among poor people. Having collected survey data using traditional pen-and-paper surveys for many years, I was curious about how mobile innovations could help measure behavioral outcomes in precise but relatively less effort-intensive ways. I knew that the Development Impact Lab, with its collection of economists, engineers, and social scientists would provide an excellent environment to explore how mobile survey experiments could help strengthen democracy in Ghana.

The emerging field of Development Engineering emphasizes new technological innovations, rigorous and rapid evaluations, as well as high-quality monitoring evaluation and novel data collection—all of which were key aspects of my research. At my first Development Engineering seminar, I proposed using mobile surveys to conduct impact evaluations, receiving enthusiastic feedback from engineers and computer scientists—who were just as passionate about the project as the development economists in the workshop. Over time, I had opportunities to collaborate on research projects as well.

As an economist at the Development Impact Lab, two interrelated themes in Development Engineering have stood out to me.

One is the end-user impact of new technologies—the effects that new innovations are having on the real lives of the poor. In many cases, monitoring and evaluation can help us quantify the importance of new innovations over time; as part of this effort, Development Engineering can feed such insights into future iterations. There is an ongoing global conversation on present and anticipated technological impacts, and Development Engineering allows graduate students to contribute to such discussions.

Collaborations are another important theme. In my informal estimation, there is a strong demand and unmet need for collaboration between engineers and social scientists on the UC Berkeley campus. Many engineers are interested in the social impacts of the innovations that they spent years working on and perfecting. The need for engineers among economists is just as strong in my opinion, due to a growing momentum in the economics profession towards harnessing complex and high-dimensional data with better measurement tools, smart hardware and sensors, software approaches, and analytical methods inspired by engineering units, such as the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) group.

Graduate students are the core audience of a designated emphasis like Development Engineering and integral to its continued flourishing on the UC Berkeley campus. Some graduate students in the social sciences might wonder whether Development Engineering is exclusively the preserve of engineers. Development Engineering, however, is distinct in that it is an interdisciplinary doctoral minor program that is just as open to quantitative social scientists as it is to engineers. As a result, any doctoral student with dissertation research interests at the intersection of technology and poverty is eligible to join an expansive ecosystem of researchers and practitioners spanning engineering, business, quantitative social and information science, and the natural sciences across the UC Berkeley campus.

The Development Impact Lab emphasizes the lifecycle of innovation in holistic way—from needs assessments, research and development, product design, prototyping, developing economic models, and assessing impacts, to scaling up successful programs and knowledge dissemination. Its unique efforts to foster partnerships within and outside campus, coupling coursework with mentoring and professional development opportunities, imply that the next generation of researchers has much to be excited in regard to Development Engineering. I would have loved to join such a program as a graduate student.

My research experience and agenda has benefited significantly from the Development Impact Lab, which I would strongly recommend to any economist or social scientist with an interest in technology and development. Since poverty knows no intellectual boundaries, I believe that multidisciplinary programs like Development Engineering are an important step to understand our changing world.