Monday, October 29, 2012

First passage to India

There is a reason why Christopher Columbus, The Beatles, and Julia Roberts all wanted to go to India. It’s a very funky place. For one incredible, intense week in October, I was introduced to the modern India.

The purpose of my visit was to attend National Instruments Educators’ Day in Chennai, followed by a series of visit to several prominent universities including three of the renowned Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) network. And for the most part, I consider my trip to have been successful. My presentation at the conference went well and I had very stimulating discussions with prominent Indian professors in various control specializations. But I could have said the same thing about pretty much every business trip I make. What was really special about this particular trip was exploring and discovering the cultural dimensions of this unique place. A place that seems a little bit more unique among all of the unique places in the world.

Over a thousand professors attended the NI Educators Day conference.
The strongest memory from my first impressions of the country was the traffic. Rome, Seoul, Boston pale in comparison to the ferocity of Indian metropolitan traffic. It’s truly a study in Brownian motion as vehicles squeeze into impossibly small gaps at full speed. Oh yes, and there’s occasionally a cow that wanders on to the street at which point the traffic flow parts in a very laminar fashion and life goes on.

The engineer in me was also fascinated by the famed “auto” three-wheeled taxis. Based on the motor sounds, I suspect that there is a small two stroke engine puttering beneath body. For about a dollar you can cross a pretty impressive distance on one of these marvels. And because they are tiny, they can easily zip in and out of those fleeting traffic gaps. The business guy in me, pondered whether we could import these beauties then refit them with electric motors and make a killing driving tourists around Toronto’s tourist districts.
“Auto” cab scoots along in Mamallapuram, a small town near Chennai.

But it all works! Even with TWO flat tires in an auto cab, I made it to my meeting with time to spare. This phrase probably describes my first India experience best … it all works. At first encounter, it’s so easy to interpret the blistering pace and machinations of this country as utter chaos but beneath that visibly hectic layer lies a strange order that, to be honest, I think only Indians fully comprehend and command. Whether it was a horribly cumbersome process of getting an entry visa, missing parts in our demo equipment, serpentine queues at the airport, random or possibly scheduled national power shortages several times a day, or full contact haggling with souvenir vendors, it all works out. This is the magic of India.

But it makes so much sense. India, with over a billion people, is the largest democracy in the world. This means, somehow, this country constantly reconciles the voices of its immense population to do anything. Of course this often begets a bureaucracy of cosmic proportions, but the fact remains that the modern India has achieved some pretty spectacular things. It has redefined the global computing segment producing roughly the same number of software professionals as the US within a single generation. Tata Motors have become a global company with legendary marques such as Jaguar and Land Rover in their portfolio. And its entertainment industry has produced Bollywood … and now Collywood (the Chennai-based film industry) and collectively, they constitute the most prolific film region in the world.

Closer my own heart, and very indicative of India’s emerging role in the world stage are the renowned Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) – a network of 16 internationally ranked research universities located in most of the country’s key metropolitan areas. My hometown of Waterloo is a “college town” similar in vibe to Berkeley in the US and Cambridge in the UK (and the US), and with the university’s reputation in engineering and computer science, we have a very vibrant and healthy local population of scholars from India. My Indian peers at university were often some of the brightest and the best and I always wondered what kind of an education system produces such consistent talent. On this trip, I got closer to the answer as I had the pleasure of visiting three IITs on this trip IIT Madras, IIT Jodhpur, and IIT Delhi.

From the campus of IIT Madras!

During these visits, I had a chance to chat with professors about this and that in research and teaching and other topics that typically comprise a nondescript academic discussion. I am happy to report however, that I got a fascinating glimpse into some of the more current trends in Indian Academe. One very happy discovery was the seemingly universal desire to develop interdisciplinary, or system-centric engineering methodologies. As in many places, Indian engineering is discovering that the traditional disciplines of engineering are not capable of addressing the increasing complexity of modern engineering systems. Those who know me, also know that the systems approach has been a key part of my own education and professional life. It’s good to know that these methodologies are increasing in importance throughout the world.

There was also a noticeable tendency towards highly theoretical frameworks for both research and teaching. This is, of course, very consistent with the grand traditions of mathematics in the culture. This fully explains why Quanser products appeal to so many faculty in the country. The “Quanser Method” – a term coined by Founder, Jacob Apkarian, stresses the harmony of the theoretical and the practical. Our devices provide efficient and creative platforms for exploring very challenging engineering concepts -- from fundamental models, to advanced controller prototyping, to testing and data acquisition, the Quanser method provides a holistic framework for modern control systems.

An IIT Jodhpur researcher with a Quanser Active Suspension.

As the week went on, this country so full of exotic contradictions made more and more sense … or at least stopped making me nervous. This was definitely one of the more action-packed itineraries that I have had in a very long time but once I and my travel colleagues got into the groove and the rhythms of India, things became much easier. We were never late for meetings. There was always a cab near by. The hotel bar tender Vipin always had a cold glass of Kingfisher beer ready at the end of the day. Even the domestic airport experience became tolerable if not enjoyable. Ha! I pity you tourists struggling with the 15 extra steps that you need to clear security at the airport.

In the end, I felt sad to leave. Ironically, this country that is so challenging and different from home, that drains you daily, physically and mentally, also connected with me in a way that so few countries have done. Although I had an opportunity to use up all of my cash supply at the hotel on the last day, I left 800 Rupees in my wallet, hoping that it will be useful the next time I visit and continue my education.

Danyavadh India. Nandri Chennai.

- Tom Lee
As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.