A Vision for SIGHT’s Future: Parting Words from Kartik Kulkarni


Photos by Glenn McKnight

Throughout the institution, IEEE is in the midst of a shift as its members increasingly focus their talents on technology that meets basic needs in underserved communities, Kartik Kulkarni says. Kartik has chaired IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology’s Steering Committee for the past four years with this transformation as a backdrop. He steps down this month after leading IEEE SIGHT itself through a monumental transformation.

“Under his watch, we have seen IEEE SIGHT grow from a handful of groups in a few countries to nearly 100 all around the world and in many IEEE Societies,” says Holly Schneider Brown, Director of Public Imperatives and Corporate Development at IEEE.

“There was a time, several years ago, when IEEE SIGHT was not very established and did not have many champions,” Holly adds. “I have to admit that there were points that even I was not sure what the future would hold for this initiative. But Kartik always believed in the vision and potential of SIGHT – and its volunteers – and fought for it.”

“Kartik always believed in the vision and potential of SIGHT – and its volunteers – and fought for it” – Holly Schneider Brown

Kartik’s colleagues have described him as a visionary who is fiercely dedicated to his work, willing to pick up the phone or send a timely email to resolve issues that are inevitable in a worldwide network of volunteers.

“The most humble (and probably youngest) IEEE chair I have ever seen. I have seen him grow from a boy with a funny bone to a man capable of handling the toughest personalities, all in the span of being the SIGHT Chair these last 4 years,” says Nirupama Prakash Kumar, IEEE SIGHT’s Chair for Marketing and Branding.

We asked Kartik to reflect on his leadership these last four years and to share his vision for the future of the organization. These are his parting words as Chair of the Steering Committee.

What led you to join SIGHT?

I believe that IEEE is undergoing a renaissance in that, across the organization, there is an increasing desire to contribute to global development efforts leveraging technology expertise. From the Board of Directors to the organizational units working at the local levels including the Sections, Student Branches, Affinity Groups, Societies, Society Chapters, several Boards and the Corporate Activities, all the stakeholders are working in ways in which their strengths can be leveraged.

“In the next few years it is very important to continue to move away from one-off, short term events and activities towards small but long-term local projects and try replicating them in areas with similar context” – Kartik Kulkarni

We needed an organization within IEEE to harness this movement, organize it and help develop synergy. Thus, SIGHT was born and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to lead this important effort.

What milestones has SIGHT passed while you’ve been Chair?

In some ways, a major chunk of IEEE’s volunteer-led efforts involves short term activities such as events. However, if our volunteer task force needs to make any considerable contribution to the development sector in a direct way, then our efforts will have to be long-term, local, and based in strong partnerships with the communities that we seek to help.

This is a big shift in thinking, and although we have a long way to go, the focus on sustainability of impact has started to develop and we have a few initial SIGHTs that are evolving very well to become the role-models.

Would you name some important accomplishments in your service as Chair?

1) Bootstrapping the idea of a globally local organization of engineers working on solving local problems by partnering with the communities and leveraging tech solutions, and making it a reality. Today, SIGHT is successful in tapping into the IEEE’s huge network of engineers to create such an organization, although there is still a big scope of penetrating wider. Today, close to 100 SIGHTs in 36 countries and six Societies are working in the areas such as off-grid power, connectivity, water, sanitation, and education, and are collectively helping close to 20,000 people.

2) Making SIGHT resourceful in IEEE’s external collaborations and helping IEEE become a partner in the efforts that aim to reach the UN’s sustainable development goals.

3) Cultivating a culture that focuses on going beyond just having good intentions to taking actions that have a tangible impact in the local communities, and that orients the participants to think about the sustainability of the impact – both operationally and financially. This culture is being inculcated into the organization using various ways such as having structured requirements, aligning the project funding criteria, and engaging the participants in relevant events.

What message would you like to share with your colleagues?

SIGHT Steering Committee members, and the staff including Holly, Jackie, and Betsy among several others, have done an incredible work of launching this program from scratch. Building an organization that works is hard; their hard work reflects their commitment to change the world, one SIGHT at a time!

What is your vision for the future of SIGHT?

In the next few years it is very important to continue to move away from one-off, short term events and activities towards small but long-term local projects and try replicating them in areas with similar context. I see SIGHT proactively recognizing projects that have worked and not worked and replicating a few selected efforts emerging from the grassroots level.

This direction, in which where our IEEE Societies bring in the best technical expertise and where our feet-on-the ground volunteers bring in their local expertise, of incubating “Communities of Practice” that are also aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, will make SIGHT (and IEEE) a relevant contributor to the global, mainstream development sector.