‘When you have failures, your mind is more stimulated than with success’

Pankaj Mishra October 18, 2018 23 min

Sonam Wangchuk is a technology outlier in the true sense of the descriptor. An engineer by training, he turned his anguish at fellow Ladakhis leaving his home region for greener pastures into solving real-life problems of the citizenry there. In doing so, not only is Wangchuk, 52, overhauling education at his alternative school but is also forging new technologies such as ice stupas to address water problems in the Himalayan desert and temperature control solutions powered by solar energy and combined with the use of local building materials. We revisit this 21st episode of Outliers podcast in which he talks about his ambitions to build the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh – an alternative university, as he calls it. See the transcript of the podcast lightly edited for language below. Credit for transcription, as with other Outlier episodes, to Kanika Berry:

Pankaj: Welcome to Factor Daily Outliers. It’s podcasts with Outliers and I am so excited and happy to have travelled all the way from Bangalore to Leh to meet someone I have watched and heard a lot about – Sonam Wangchuk. I will let him describe himself. The first time I really heard about you, Sonam, was when I was in Jalgaon and I was meeting the Jain Irrigation team and they talked about what you were trying to do with ice stupas. To be honest with you, I didn’t get much what it is and how it works. And then, Rohini Nilekani mentioned you and that got me really excited when she discussed in detail. I have been chasing you since then. This is clearly one of the longest chase and one of the farthest I have come to meet someone and I am excited to look around and see what you have built, what you are doing. Just to start with, Sonam, and to get our listeners to understand better, who you are and what do you do?

Sonam: First of all, welcome, a warm welcome after your journey up the Himalayas. You mentioned about the ice stupa and Jain Irrigation and Rohini… There have been people who have been supporting us with this, so I warmly think of them when you mentioned.

I would say I am, basically… I like to describe myself as a teacher. I like teaching very much and teaching while engaging young people to find real-life solutions to problems. Education is meaningless if it is just for the ritual of education, to pass some exams and to get some degree. When you use it to solve problems and make people’s lives comfortable, then there is a purpose for education. So, therefore, my journey has been of finding solutions… and to do that (by) engaging young people. Therefore, it is both innovation and education. So it could range from examples like high up in these mountains from where you had come and you must have realized first hand that it can be very cold even in June. You can only imagine what it would be in January.

Pankaj: I am shivering now.

Sonam: Exactly. So, what I want is that people to not leave Ladakh because it’s cold. I didn’t and I don’t want young Ladakhis’ to do that. Instead, use all the education, the sciences, the mathematics, the geometry, you study in school for 10-15, 16 years to make lives comfortable, to make people happy people… that’s what we basically do here. For example, talking about the cold climate. In January, it can be minus 20 degrees (Celsius) but in this room where you are, the building is built in such a way using high school science which students designed and built that this room remains at +12 to +15 degrees when it is -15 to -20 degrees outside. That’s how much science can be of use if you use it; if not, it will only torture you in some exams and the ritual is done.

Anytime I go to Delhi in January, I feel cold, I miss my buildings in Ladakh because in Delhi you have like 7 degrees, 5 degrees outside and hardly any different inside whereas here, outside maybe -15 degrees but inside it is +15 degrees which is much higher than Delhi’s +7 or +10 degrees. Using science, you can make Ladakh much warmer, more comfortable than even Delhi. That’s the value of application of science in real life.

Pankaj: I could feel it when we walked into the room and even downstairs clearly. I will come back to understand the real science that you are talking about, Sonam. But, just to go back a little and understand, where do you come from and why do you do the things that you do? You seem to be quite a bright mind, why did you pick this cause and where do you really come from on it, what are the inspirations for you, what’s been the early life for you, and did you get inspired to do what you are doing now because of your early life? I am just trying to understand and sketch it to get a sense of what are your inspirations really to do this.

Sonam: I studied engineering because I loved some of the things that I found in my 11th class science textbooks. To be precise, it was about light and lenses and mirrors. I took engineering for that reason. Then I saw that education was a bigger mess. When I had to teach children to earn my expenses for engineering, I came across the fate of children in the schools and I thought rather than adding another engineer to the crowd, the education system needs to be reformed. So, I started working with government schools to improve their performance, to make them owned by the people, children loved by the teachers and talked in engaging friendly ways.

That’s how I started after finishing my engineering. I put it on the backburner for a while but then at some point I saw, we had, you know, trained all the teachers, textbooks were re-done to make sense to mountains because they made no sense when it came from Kashmir or Delhi, so we did that, we trained all the leadership to take ownership of schools in villages. Having done all those things, a lot of things changed. Performances changed, school results changed, but then at a point we saw that it’s not only about textbooks and teachers, the buildings are also a very important contributor.

For example, in a classroom that is at -5 degrees, you can’t expect people’s hands to even work, even if you knew all that you want to write, your fingers don’t bend and your mind doesn’t perform. There are studies that say optimum mental performance comes between 18 degrees or 22 degrees or so. Now -5 degrees is your classroom, so it’s also about thermal comfort in buildings, so there I started using my engineering again and so we designed and built this solar campus where all the buildings would be as good as in summer, even in winter. And when the technological part journey began again which was for a while on backburner, so then I started engaging the same students, young people to co-innovate solutions for such problems.

So to your question, why I do these things, I think that’s only natural. When you have a problem, you try and solve it, you don’t run away. People ask me ‘How come have you stayed back in Ladakh, you have not moved?’. I think this is more natural. Don’t ask a person who does a normal, natural thing, why he does it? Ask those who are not doing it, ask those who are leaving Ladakh or leaving India to go to the US or some other country. I find that abnormal. Abnormal should be questioned not the normal, natural thing. You stay and you solve your problems for the next generation at least and they should solve the problems for the next after them rather than run away from problems and take asylum in US or UK, that’s unnatural not this.

Pankaj: I think one of the key things that you also mentioned is about, you know, engineering is about problem-solving. Generations of engineers in India who joined large services companies to code, somewhere they lost that mission of engineering… because what you are saying sounds engineering to me, the old world, classic engineering: there is a problem, you solve.

Sonam: At its best, engineering is about solving any problem that you see people facing. At its worst, we become mercenaries for some other people somewhere on the globe and we get hired. That’s ok but that’s not the best form of engineering.

Pankaj: Tell me a bit about some of the life lessons on this journey. What have been the top learnings for you in terms of the challenges you have faced, in terms of the problems you tackled?

Sonam: I think some of the things that I decided and feel very happy about is like taking problems head-on, full by the horn. So I used to say when I had no experience, I hadn’t even done, I am going to make it a point that I spend the winters in Ladakh, I would say. Apart from the people who may leave Ladakh and go as well, there are many Ladakhis’ who leave Ladakh in winters. Understandably so, it’s very cold, the roads are closed, there’s hardly any fresh greens to eat, so food shortages, cold temperatures, people find it cheaper to go to Goa or somewhere. So amidst that, I would say I am going to make it a point to spend my winters in Ladakh. I may not spend summers but I will spend my winters because if I don’t spend my winters, I won’t know the problem. If I don’t know the problem firsthand, I won’t be motivated to find solutions. So, the first thing I am going to do, I don’t know the problems, I don’t know the solutions but I am going to spend the toughest time in Ladakh every year and I think that was such a good decision. Because spending time, you firsthand feel through your bones how difficult it can be for people.

That moved me into, you know, using science to improve not something that we get from US or UK again but from our ancestors. So, our ancestors used to build with mud or earth since thousand years or more. I started applying science to make what they did even better rather than throwing it away for cement, concrete and things because some Europe, some America told us it is better. I see forts and fortresses, palaces standing there exposed to elements for 800 years, 1000 years. So what’s wrong with that? Why should we just drop something because somebody tells us that this is backward, primitive? Why not use your sciences to bring it back to life again?

Then, I started using earth, mud as a modern material which can be safe, comfortable… then add to that the passive solar energy science which our ancestors didn’t have. So, our duty is to add what they didn’t have rather than throw the baby with the bathwater. That’s what I started doing using science to add solar energy science and then you could create these buildings that would be warm in winter and cool in summer. That’s how I see the use of engineering technology to solve your immediate problems and make lives more comfortable.

Pankaj: Very insightful, Sonam. The other thing you mentioned is why question someone who is doing natural things, question someone who is abnormal. But from the outside what you are trying to do is clearly not mainstream and, pardon me if I am being wrong in saying that, but what I really mean is, the way you are tackling education is not how they do it in mainstream schools. In that sense, you are not following the mainstream crowd. Now when you are doing something like this which is against something which is playing in the mainstream, what is your sense of conviction? And it’s one thing for you to be convinced but it’s another thing to convince people who adopt your idea of this and put a leap of faith in you.

Sonam: One part is that when things are applied to a different place, it has to be adapted. You can’t transplant a solution from London to New Delhi, New Delhi to Srinagar, Srinagar to Ladakh. These are very different places and solutions have to be different because problems are different but unfortunately what we found in Ladakh was something transplanted that didn’t even work in Srinagar, where it was something that didn’t even work in Delhi, and Delhi had got something that didn’t even work well in London. So, a copy of a copy of a copy was what was given to Ladakh in the name of the education system. Of course, things have to change. It’s stupid not to question such, you know things that don’t make sense.

For the first part, we started bringing reforms in the normal schools, government schools to some extent that is easy and possible where it is clearing differences. Now, other things that are more radical like learning things by doing, applying… often normal systems like that of the government are not ready for that because they have many constraints of time and other guidelines and so on. That we started applying on students who were failing the system. They are failing the system, therefore, they need to be helped. Actually, they are not failing, the system is failing them, there is nothing wrong with them but the system is such that they are rejected.

So, we started applying other principles or experiments in education while trying to, I would say, rebuild broken products from the system. And call it design, call it serendipity that people who have failed in a system are ready to try anything, they don’t have much choice because they are rejected by a system. It has always been convenient for us to use our radical experiments on people who have been dropped and are ready to do anything to rise again. We have been lucky in a way to be able to try our new concepts. In this school, where it is not for the top scorers who would be very finicky about what they want, what they don’t… we do it together with those who are rejected by the system and they are ready for something new and we are ready for something new to experiment. So, it works fine.

Pankaj: How long have you been doing this and what has been your experience in doing this?

Sonam: Well, with dropouts or 10th grade failures, we have been working for some 20 years now and we have been trying to teach them, help them learn the way they learn, if they don’t learn the way they were taught. So, doing things, experiencing, managing the school campus itself, that’s how this school is run.

Classes are not just in classrooms but it is around them being here. They run this school, they run it like a little country, they have an elected government for every two months and then they get an elected leader who gives them roles, responsibilities. That’s what prepares them for life because this is what they will see. All those challenges that life will pose are not there in the textbooks but running a system, the school itself, they get to see, you know, problems of many many different kinds than what you have in your syllabus. This is what prepares you for life and those chapters may help in that that you find in the textbooks.

So, what has come out is many of these called so-called ‘failures’ have become stars. They have become star filmmakers, they have become star leaders, administrators, businessmen and so on. Often, way bigger than those who didn’t fail.

Pankaj: Wow.

Sonam: Yes.

Pankaj: Just couple of questions more… And, of course, you are famous for ice stupas and, of course, SECMOL, where we are sitting today and all. Had there been failures in your life and career and how did you cope with them? What are the key lessons in failing for you personally?

Sonam: Educationally, in school, I didn’t exactly fail but was always very close to failure at various points of time and that grounds you. In experiments, in projects, half the time you fail, things don’t work the way you thought but that’s a part of it, that’s a part of the learning process – you learn what doesn’t work and what may work and you start with experimenting, ruling out what doesn’t work, excluding things. It’s a process and the rates are different.

If you take a scientific experimental project like Ice Stupas, exploring something that has never been done in the world, then the failure rates are very high. We work on designs… like nine out of ten don’t work and one works. These are small experiments of freezing water in different ways but that’s expected, that’s not taken as something like a big surprise or so. In projects, the failure rate is lower because you look at what are the possibilities, study them and make them work. But, when it is how to warm a building, you may try five things and one may work. So, different type of projects have different rates of failures but failures are there for sure and they are not to be taken as something regressive but as a stepping stone, as an addition to your experiments and experiences. Actually, when you have failures, your mind is more stimulated than with success. With success, you know this works and that’s where your brain stops whereas failures stimulate you to think of 100 different other ways and it is these stimulations that makes our grey matter grow.

Pankaj: You have put me in a spot. I don’t know whether to wish you more failures or more…

Sonam: Exactly. I often say ‘I wish you a life full of problems’ because that’s when you grow.

Pankaj: Just before we sign off, so many awards off late… you know, what do accolades mean to you? What do awards mean to you? And the follow-up question is, if we are sitting 10 years down the line in this very room, I hope this doesn’t fail, what would you like to have achieved by then?

Sonam: So, we were working on these artificial glaciers and they became an indigenous solution to local mountain peoples’ problems of water shortage. Similarly, we had earlier worked at our school on making solar heated mud buildings that stay at +15 degrees when it is -20 degrees – that stay warmer than houses in Delhi here in Ladakh in winter with no fossil fuels burnt. We thought such solutions should not be for a few people in a corner. It should be for all young people to engage in their education, to find solutions to real-life problems in the locality. So, we thought of institutionalizing such innovations also inspired by our experience at the SECMOL Alternative School. We thought of scaling it up to make an alternative university which engages young people in finding solutions to peoples’ problems rather than just memorising books and listening to lectures and writing paper exams, paper degrees… (it) should be something practical, engaging (with) real life. Therefore, we thought now why just ice stupa, why not make a university using the ice stupa method and greening a dessert? Establishing a university would be a beautiful story of indigenous innovation to solve problems and help future generations also solve their problems. A university is a nursery where people of different generations will study and apply to make life comfortable and people happy. So that’s the idea of this university that we are building. It will be different from others.

Firstly that it will address mountain issues. We are in a mountain range where the climate and everything is so different from the plains. We cannot expect solutions to our problems from New Delhi or New York. We will have to innovate, we will have to find solutions. So, this will be an International Mountain University where students will come from different mountains of the world and engage in finding solutions learning; half of their study or more than half will be application. It will be little listening, little thinking and a lot of doing. That’s when you learn really. And then we hope these young people will go back to their own places whether it is Nepal, Tibet, Arunachal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Afghanistan and implement set solutions for their regions. Right now, the problem is that mountain youth rather than solving mountain problems are immigrating to big cities and then you are leaving the mountains worse off. So we will be empowering and enabling them to go back and face the challenges whether it is climate change or economic (challenges) or tourism and make the best of it. That is what we hope to do with this university. And, then, we think that while solving mountain issues, it’ll also have an impact on other universities worldwide in finding their own contextual solutions. It could be people around the oceans have contextual education.

Pankaj: How are you acquiring land for this university? How are you funding this whole project?

Sonam: So, the whole world has been very overwhelmingly supportive. Like they say, “If you are determined, then the universe conspires to help you realise it.” With land, the Hill Council Government and the village and the monastery of Phyang have been very generous to give this university some 200 acres of land – the abbot of the monastery has been very involved and they are partners in this because they see a green vision for the village; so, it becomes an example. We started funding this university… the seed for it was this Rolex Award, the money from that. Then, together with that, we launched a crowdfunding campaign so that anybody could contribute whatever amount to this. Once the Rolex award of roughly INR 1 crore was contributed, people with their 500, 5,000 and 500,000… This might be the world’s first university which is crowdfunded.

Then corporates. Companies have been very generous. Like you were seeing these pipelines, this was donated by Jain Irrigation, which is one of the biggest companies in the world in this field… agriculture. They helped us with the pipelines. Indian Air Force helped us with airlifting these pipes in winter.

Everybody has been very very helpful and that’s how it should be. We are at a stage where the world is facing problems because of climate change. These mountains with the glaciers gone will be one of the first victims along with people by the ocean and it’s none of our fault; you know, we are paying for something we didn’t even do and, of course, it is expected that the world helps these regions to solve the impact of the problems that they created. So it would only be only surprising if they didn’t come to help.

Pankaj: Just finally, this crowdfunding program, if someone wants to participate or donate, how can they do that?

Sonam: We have a live crowdfunding platform on Milap and Milap has been so generous as to waive off all platform fees for this particular project. Normally crowdfunding platforms charge 7% to 9% and seeing the significance of this project, they have waived all such charges. Similarly, everybody has been, yes, as I said. So anybody can log on to Milap and look for Ladakh or ice stupas or the university – Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh, and then you can contribute together with all of us.

Awards are a recognition of what you have done, so to know that people appreciate the impact is good but to be more than that, to go into your head and become complacent and all that is childish, that’s very immature. They don’t mean anything for me, actually, some of these awards are even designed for a bigger purpose of our goal, for example, we saw that ice stupas are an answer to mountain peoples’ water issues but these should not be, you know freak incidents here or there. This should be a part of young peoples’ education. That’s when we thought, there needs to be an alternative university which engages all young people in solutions like this. So, the university system needs to change and it needs to be more practical, more engaging.

Now, how do we open an alternative university? It needs lots of resources, lots of help, how do we reach out to lots of people to get support and to get human resource, financial resource? So we said, ‘Okay, a good fast way of reaching out to people for help is a well-known renowned award.’ So, we applied for the Rolex Award on those grounds. The award was a secondary thing. The goal was to scale up into a university what was a school. We applied and luckily we got. Now the publicity around it took our message of this university together with the award. The day it was announced, we announced the university concept to the world.

So, the award took the message of the university and the award came with some substantial money. And we said, we are contributing this money to this university, you can also help. Otherwise, you are like beggars, ‘We have nothing, please help!’ Here we could say, ‘We are contributing $100,000, we welcome you.’ So that was a strategy to, you know, to ride and that’s how I see, they (awards) are as useful as you can make of them for the next goal.

Pankaj: Amazing. The final question was ‘Sonam, if 10 years down the line, we are sitting and having a conversation, what would you have liked to achieve?’.

Sonam: I would continue to wish to change the education system. What we call an alternative university that we embark upon, I would like that in 10 years it’s no longer an alternative, that it becomes mainstream, higher education, that it’s established in Ladakh but it has ripple effects all over the world where universities that are today just chalk, talk and paper. No paper degrees, no paper exams, nothing but paper.

Pankaj: More power to you, Sonam. It’s amazing conversing with you and I wish you, like you say, enough problems but more importantly I think you have faced a lion’s share of your problems already on your journey. More success and wish you achieve your dreams. Thank you so much for talking.

Sonam: Thank you.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)

Photos: Rajesh Subramanian


Updated at 08:20 am on October 18, 2018  to add photo credit.

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