Vijay Modi | Engineering in the Developing World

Vijay Modi
Professor of Mechanical Engineering
This profile is included in the publication Excellentia, which features current research of Columbia Engineering faculty members.
                                    Photo by Eileen Barroso

Vijay Modi is an engineer in search of problems. That is, he has changed the way he approaches engineering, and in the process, is helping address some seemingly minor challenges that, on further investigation, are extremely complex and can change the lives of a large portion of the world’s poor.

“Instead of starting with a particular narrow skill I had and trying to apply it, I’m trying to figure out what the interesting problems are and then seeing how we can bring engineering to bear on them,” said Modi. “Sometimes it can be something as simple as creating a solar-powered lighting system that enables people in rural villages to do things after sunset like study or run a small shop.”

By taking this bottom-up approach, Modi has discovered that he can categorize the problems he encounters into three groups: those he can make little immediate impact on, those that can have impact but require decades of research to solve, and those he might be able to solve with the help from the right people. It’s that last group of problems that has attracted his attention of late.

It wasn’t always that way. When Modi arrived at Columbia in 1986, he focused on questions involving fluid flow and heat transfer. Exposure to fellow Columbia Engineering professor Nicholas Themelis, and the Earth Engineering Center soon re-focused his priorities on problems that have fallen through the cracks of the academic community and private sector alike.

“Engineering research carried out in academia has started to lose connection with the profession of engineering, which is about solving problems,” said Modi. “What historically separated science and engineering was that science was curiosity driven and engineering was problem driven.”

But many engineering problems today are inherently multi-disciplinary and require “system” integration.

The key, he believes, lies in assembling people with the diverse skills needed and a desire to apply them. In recent work to understand the problem of electricity access for the two billion who do not have it, Modi’s team recognized the importance of allowing a “pay as you go” model for providing electricity from a “system” that did not require long wires from a central power station. The team included engineers who can design lowwattage meters, programmers writing communication, control and payment gateway software, and field practitioners who understand rural needs and capabilities.

Modi has helped design and test solutions to such developing-world problems as the need for a cleaner and more efficient cook stove, and robust IT systems that allow one to access information from remote villages.

“These are projects that are not typically driven by large amounts of funding, but they occur in places that are in need of innovation,” said Modi. “The key is to figure out how to make innovation happen in a lowtech, low-cost market.”

B.Tech., Indian Institute of Technology (Bombay), 1978; Ph.D., Cornell, 1984

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