Inspired #3

A compilation of just a few thoughts to remember Paul and inspire others as we think big…

– each segment expands and collapses…enjoy

A Conversation with Paul Polak

World Travels

In 1957 Paul and I went to Europe on a freighter. We hitchhiked as far south as Rome, with France, and Spain en route. I am nearly 100% certain he insisted on running with the bulls in Pamplona and that I resisted the invitation to join him. Later, when we were in Toledo, he discovered the importance of steel products and insisted on buying many pairs of scissors to bring back to London to sell at a huge profit. To do this he had to exchange money late at night in a scary part of the city. Once again, he was brave, but I was not.

We roomed together during our last year at Western. Even before then it was clear Paul was determined to become a psychiatrist. I don’t recall if he came to Montreal for his internship first, but I know his resolve to do psychiatry was what lead him to Colorado. A short while later he and Aggie moved to Dingleton Hospital in Melrose Scotland. There he worked under the legendary Maxwell Jones. Dingleton was one of the first “open door” hospitals. Paul (and I hope, Aggie) loved that time and I know he wanted to remain there. But he knew he had debts to pay and reluctantly returned to Colorado. To help pay those debts he started buying and selling houses, did well, and eventually was able to pay off what he owed and to start IDE.

One last memory, so typical of this eccentric genius. Soon after IDE began one of his early projects was the treadle pump. My wife and I were living in London and one evening Paul called to say he was in Cambridge but coming through London en route to somewhere in India, I believe. He wanted to drop by and arrived on the tube (Metro, Underground) with tubes draped around his neck and what I guess was a pump in one hand and his luggage in the other. I hope I offered him a lift to the airport; most likely he declined and climbed back onto the Tube.

We did not always agree. When he was preparing the lecture he was asked to deliver when he received an award as an outstanding alumnus, he flattered me by calling about once a week for a month or so, seeking my advice about what he should say. I repeatedly told him what I thought. In the end, typically, he completely ignored me. Dare I say I was not surprised? 

Over the years since our first meeting – about 60 years ago – we remained in touch regularly. I marveled at his ideas, his writing, and his many accomplishments. From time to time I wondered if he truly was a genius and a saint, or maybe just a wee bit misguided. In the end, the former won out. In any case, that is how I choose to remember him. And, I am sure that is true for most of those who read this.



l went with Paul to MIT in Boston to seek out the next crop of technical innovations that he would consider turning into viable business opportunities for low income communities and also to his regular talk for Harvard business school MBA students to show them how working to support gainful employment and to ensure water, food & energy supply levels for low income communities and humanity at the same time as for your own bottom line & livelihood makes a lot of life sense. He would put up his bank accounts over many years on a PowerPoint for them, and tried to teach them that there was little extra gain between being comfortable and being more comfortable, and that it was worth their while investing their energies also in helping the  earth & its inhabitants.

“He was an innovator, a trouble maker, and a visionary who will be sorely missed.” He certainly was, in so many ways, at every stage of his long working life, whether in  
community psychiatry practice and research, or in alleviating poverty, creating employment, viable business models  and ensuring freedom from exploitation over water access and safety, and environmentally friendly energy supply for so many families in low income regions of the world. We had learned Paul’s Denver mental health teams’ methods of crisis and social system intervention in family homes, and  
replicated their successful research in Australia.

Alan & Viv


I remember visiting his program in SW Denver in 1977, shortly after he left there but at a time when his influence still permeated the program. At the time they were still operating the crisis homes using regular community people to take in guests who were suicidal or psychotic, and they were hiring consumers as support people at a time when this was considered bizarre.

These and other ideas were way before their time but are now commonplace.  We took these ideas back to Madison and they became part of the core of our own community system of care.

I remember the meeting in Praque and the visit to Thereziinstat, and occasional other meetings and contacts over the next couple of decades. His influence on me and on the field was enormous.  He was at the very beginning of wanting to push what was possible, and to blow up basic assumptions, and to question how we could reengineer everything. And his focus on recovery and hope came at a time when these ideas were in very short supply.

His influence on me as a very young Psychiatrist and on the other people with whom he had contact cannot be overstated. I remember my personal sadness when he decided to leave Psychiatry to pursue other dreams.  I understood, but I remember wanting him to still lead the charge in expanding what was possible.


Market-based Development

When Paul came to Bangladesh in 1987, IDE was still a very small NGO and, as newly appointed country director of SDC, my responsibility was to disseminate the treadle pump across Bangladesh, a daunting task. The idea of setting up a private supply-chain from small manufacturers, dealers and installers instead of working with and through the government was original, but we did not know whether it would work… It did work, Bob Nanes, the first IDE country director in Bangladesh, made it work: over 2 million treadle pumps were sold over 10 years, and each one generated between $100 and $500 additional net income per year or between 200 million and one billion additional income annually for the poorest in this country. The pump was told to be “self-targeted” to the poor.

For me, this experience in Bangladesh was an eye-opener and it inspired me to write with Paul the book “Poverty Alleviation as a business”. It also greatly influenced my life to the point that I left SDC to follow Paul’s big steps and dedicate my work to promote market-based development approaches.

How much do we owe Paul and Aggie as a family, how much we learnt about “human-centered design serving the other 90% of the pyramid”.

Françoise and Urs Heierli


I had a single conversation with Paul Polak that lasted fifteen years. It carried a thread from Aspen to Nova Scotia to Maine, Connecticut, California and Colorado. Through it, we spoke at conferences together, wrote articles together, taught and mentored together. In all that time, there wasn’t a day I didn’t learn from him, not a day he didn’t inspire me with his values, his brilliance, his relentless optimism and his delightful, predictable inability to resist a pun.

In one way, I’m like millions of other people, in that Paul Polak transformed my life. But I’m also one of the luckiest people in the world to have had this crazy, realistic and wildly hopeful conversation with him.