Bridging Socioeconomic Distances through Bottom-up Education

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Rivers, lakes, crevasses, and other geographical gaps exist in terrain requiring bridges to transport people, goods, and resources across distances that otherwise may be impossible to navigate. Similarly, a physical and mental gap exists between individuals facing global issues first-hand and their counterparts who are farther away with the necessary resources. Such detachment particularly occurs when issues arise in an area at a different socioeconomic level than the one in which the leader lives and works. While construction workers build geographical bridges, professors and other educators help bridge the gaps preventing the rising leaders from fully understanding global issues. Madhubalan Viswanathan, a professor of business administration at Loyola Marymount University, understands this concept and teaches educators to bridge these distances through bottom-up education.

The Distance

Viswanathan compares the circumstances of subsistence, or developing, marketplaces and advanced marketplaces to show how each one results in particular barriers to overcoming global challenges—such as feeding struggling populations, providing clean water, and preserving forests. For example, societies in subsistence marketplaces understand the implications of having limited access to clean water, but they lack the resources to solve the problem. On the other hand, societies in advanced marketplaces have the technological and innovative resources to help provide clean water to their subsistence counterparts, but they lack a full comprehension of what limited clean water access implies. These two types of economies demonstrate the distance between societies that must be bridged in order to effectively combat shared environmental and humanitarian problems.

Subsistence Marketplaces

Viswanathan categorizes the people living in subsistence marketplaces as “unable, but willing.” Subsistence marketplaces often exist in third-world countries. Their defining characteristic is that the people live off the environment. According to Viswanathan, “despite low literacy and low income,” these individuals “have to envision the medium term to survive.” In other words, they must balance their short-term and long-term needs. He explains that subsistence marketplaces put people in a position to more easily understand that if they cut down a tree, it won’t be there for future use. Relying on the environment for resources of survival, these individuals have front row seats to many environmental and humanitarian issues, such as deforestation, animal populations, food supplies, and water sanitization. However, the issues pertain not only to those experiencing them firsthand, but to the larger world that may only hear and see evidence of such problems on screens and in textbooks.

Advanced Marketplaces

Viswanathan characterizes people living in advanced marketplaces as, “we’re able, but are we willing,” to help with these global challenges. Advanced marketplaces exist prominently in first-world countries. Surrounded by miles of concrete and teaming with technological innovation, such economies can lead people to feel removed from the environment with its benefits and constraints. Returning to the example of cutting down trees, Viswanathan suggests that people in advanced marketplaces may not see that by cutting down a tree, they won’t have it there tomorrow. Viswanathan claims, “in advanced marketplaces, some of these problems seem far away, even though we have the ability and resources to envision the longer term.”

This difference between leaders who are willing, but unable, and those who are able, but not as willing, is the distance educators must work to help rising leaders bridge in order to solve some of the world’s greatest problems. Viswanathan asks, “Can we bridge distances to create innovations?” How can leaders with resources be exposed to global challenges and gain awareness similar to those in subsistence marketplaces? Similarly, how can leaders with awareness be given more access to the necessary resources and technological knowledge? How can educators help global leaders bridge the distance?

Bottom-up Education—Bridging the Distance

Viswanathan proposes bottom-up education as the solution. Throughout the bottom-up process, professors offer students experiences to help them understand situations from which they are far removed. They then task students with designing solutions to problems in those settings. The experiences are generated by tools ranging from videos and pictures, to virtual reality, simulations, and even real-life immersion—where students from advanced marketplaces travel to subsistence marketplaces and experience for themselves the different way of life.

One example of Viswanathan’s bottom-up education is a simulation through which students view maps to virtually walk-through Kadambur, India in order to get water from the city’s water tank. Similarly, Viswanathan employs a virtual reality experience through which students observe cooking in a hut in Tanzania. The reason for this form of education is that it “puts you in the situation.” Another example of Viswanathan’s bottom-up education is a web portal housing several day-in-the-life videos from subsistence marketplaces such as Uganda, Argentina, and India. Not only do these videos demonstrate the circumstances in different locations, but they focus on different dimensions as well—understanding needs and idea generation to name a few.


Viswanathan’s goal, and that of many other professors and educators, is to educate students to become global leaders. Bottom-up education offers students a valuable opportunity to understand the circumstances of world challenges like accessing clean water and preserving forests. To unravel these and other global issues, professionals must understand the circumstances in which the problems occur. Beyond preparing students to solve problems, educators can use bottom-up education to guide students on how to connect with people in conditions much different from their own. Viswanathan says, “no effort is too much to make this meeting of the cultures happen, because this experience will stay with the students for the rest of their lives.”

To learn more from Madhubalan Viswanathan on the how bottom-up education can improve teaching about subsistence marketplaces, view his Global Perspectives Summit presentation here.

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