Smart Villages Podcast 1 – Cambridge graduates pursue smart villages projects – Interview with Dr Nalin Patel

In Smart Villages Podcast 1, host Sir Brian Heap interviews Dr Nalin Patel, Programme Manager of the Winton Porgramme for the Physics of Sustainabililty at the world famous Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Dr Patel tells about the experimental research they are currently conducting on batteries and superconductors. He also explains the links between the Winton Programme and Smart Villages, specifically the students who created unique projects focusing on rural villages, energy, ICT, and water for the Smart Villages Graduate Forum.

Please find below the complete transcript for Smart Villages Podcast 1.


Sir Brian Heap: Welcome to the Smart Villages podcast, where we discuss cutting edge technology, policy, and entrepreneurship for off-grid villages in developing countries.

My name is Brian Heap and I am the Senior Adviser for the Smart Villages project which is based in Cambridge and Oxford, UK.

You can find out more about the project at our website – – energy for smart villages. The project is about energy as a catalyst for development for the bottom billion people who live off the grid.

Today we’re joined by Dr. Nalin Patel who is Programme Manager of the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability at the world famous Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

Welcome, Nalin. It’s good to have you with us.

Dr. Nalin Patel: Thank you for the invitation to join you today

BH: I’m very pleased that you could join us and I wonder if you could tell us about the Winton programme for which you have special responsibility?

NP: The Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability started in 2011 following the donation of £20M to the Cavendish Laboratory, from an alumnus, David Harding. His vision was to support the basic science which would enable breakthroughs that could impact how we meet the growing demand on our depleting natural resources.

The Programme, led by Professor Richard Friend, and I am the Programme Manager, has given us considerable freedom to develop new activities, both within the Physics Department as well other Departments across the University and beyond.  We have focused primarily to start with a ‘bottom-up’ approach is enabled through appointments of bright Scholars and Fellows, with an annual competition attracting a high number of exceptional candidates from around the globe.  Nine offers have been made for the coming academic years and recruiting two for two Fellowship positions.

BH: Nalin, I’m very interested in your programme, and I wonder if you can tell us more about your main research themes.

NP: A number of research themes are emerging such as exploration of new materials with applications including new batteries and superconducting materials.  The experimental effort is led by two Winton supported Lecturers, Siân Dutton and Suchitra Sebastian who have established an advanced materials characterization suite.  This shared access facility is based in the new Maxwell Centre, where collaborative work can take place not only with other academics but also with industrial partners.

BH: And as you know, we’ve got a very strong interest in Smart Villages in the theme of energy. How does that fit into your programme?

NP: Yes, that’s right, Sir Brian. Much of the activities of the programme are related to energy, its consumption, generation and storage and hence have a natural link to Smart Villages.  These are all areas where there is considerable headroom for improvement and research in the fundamental science can lead to long-term major advances.  These advances can not only reduce our demand on natural resources but also provides an opportunity in the ‘off-grid’ community where the access to low cost energy can have a significant impact.  One of the examples is the use of solar cells which over the last few years have dropped significantly in price and when combined with LEDs which have improved markedly in terms of efficiency, you actually have an affordable solution to communities that are not connected to the grid.

BH: Last year we held a Forum for Cambridge Graduate students.  Can you tell us something about the Forum and you think what came out of it?   

NP: Yes, I first heard about the idea to hold a Graduate Forum in one of the discussions with the Smart Villages team.  An event to bring together Cambridge students to identify and explore solutions for the off-grid community sounded very interesting.  It also provided an opportunity to include the Winton community, a chance for the students to consider activities outside their normal academic research fields and explore how they could apply their scientific knowledge to real world problems.

Invitations were sent out to graduates in Cambridge to apply to attend a one-day forum.  We were very impressed by the number and quality of the applicants we received and a welcome surprise was how many of the graduates had already had some exposure to working on development projects.

BH: So, perhaps you could go on and tell us rather more about who was involved and what came out of it?

NP: The Forum was held at Trinity college with 40 graduates attending from across disciplines along with Smart Villages team and a number of invited guests to help facilitate. Eleven groups were formed with each brainstorming their ideas and then presenting these to the audience at the end of the day.  The teams were then provided some time to work together to produce a proposal.  With the help of the Smart Villages Advisory Board we selected six teams who were awarded bursaries of £3k for field trips to test out their ideas.

BH: I seem to remember that some of your students took part in the Forum.  What came out of it for you and do you think it can be applied to help make smart villages in developing countries?

NP: A number of Winton Scholars took part in the Graduate Forum including members in three of the teams that were granted awards.

Kerstin Gopfrich was involved in the Mobile Education for Smart Technology.  This project linked up with a local partner, Madanyu, which is a social enterprise facilitating ICT infrastructure and teaching and an Indian partner Agastya International Foundation.  The team went to a campus close to Bangalore where they taught local teachers how to programme and teach students using low cost Raspberry Pi microprocessors.  The teachers are continuing to build on this trip and are now developing additional lesson plans.

BH: And as you can imagine, water is something that repeatedly crops up when we’re discussing smart villages and what we can do to improve the quality as well as the accessibility of water. Is that a topic that came up at all in the programme?

NP: In fact, another of the projects was on this topic of water purification and water testing.  This was led by Hajime Shinohara, a Winton Scholar and Mike Coto a PhD student in the Materials Department.  The project collaborated with CDI, Cambridge Development Initiative, a pretty successful student-led activity that has successfully established a development programme in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. CDI provided tremendous support through logistics and making local contacts to help with the field trials.  A new water purification technique was found to be effective with the results included in Mike’s thesis and a follow on field trip planned for this year for both further water purification trials and for testing a new rapid water testing system.

I should also add that one of our Winton Scholars, Michael Price, after completing his PhD on new types of high efficiency solar cells took up a research associate position with Smart Villages, which has helped to strengthen the links between the Winton Programme and the Smart Villages Initiative.

BH: Thank you very much Nalin for telling us about what is happening in Cambridge. 

And it’s been a great pleasure to have you involved in the programme and also the Winton Fellows.

Can I remind you to go to our website for more information about Smart Villages, and we would encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter, which comes out weekly,

The website for the Winton Programme which Nalin Patel runs is at      

Both websites are in the text summary of this podcast in case you didn’t pick them up.

Thank you for joining us and stay tuned for our next podcast. 

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