Changing the Conversation about Technology in Development: Report from SwitchPoint 2012
On April 20, 2012, I attended IntraHealth’s first annual conference on innovation and global health, SwitchPoint 2012. It was a reinvigorating experience! The focus wasn’t on all the global health problems in the world and boiling people down to statistics, but rather on the potential for true co-created solutions – with all of the technological improvements, possibilities, and cultural shifts throughout the world.
Three main themes that spoke to me were:
(1) Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd
We can’t take for granted individual and community participation. When starting any public health intervention or introducing a product to market – whether it involves technology or not - it is essential to first seek input from the local knowledge base. As individuals, we don’t have all the answers; it’s by working together and leveraging multiple people’s perspectives, commitments, and talents that we have transformative power to make a real difference.
This was emphasized by all the panelists working with local entrepreneurs and Jenny Stefanotti, formerly with Google, highlighted that we “need to think about partnerships to support local ecosystems and pick a few places and engage deeply to ensure accountability of all parties.”
(2) Do, Learn, Report – Accept Failure
In the afternoon, we heard from a number of panelists talking about building for scale. Jane Chen, CEO of Embrace, shared her experience developing an innovative, low cost infant warmer for vulnerable babies in developing countries. She explained how important it is not to fall in love with your own idea or product because “you are never going to get it right the first time.” As Jane and her team sought input from women in India, they soon learned that the design of the infant warmer needed to be further revised due to fears and skepticism they hadn’t anticipated.
In addition, Narayan Sundararajan, Chief Technology Officer of Grameen Intel Social Business, shared his experience exploring how technology can bring more pre- and in-service training to health workers at scale. He said the most valuable lessons he’s learned are:
- Listen and take advice – co-creation is critical;
- Be patient yet committed;
- When you find a problem, build a business on sound products that can be used and sustained; and
- Technology is a small piece of the whole equation – an enabler.
(3) Technology is a small piece of the whole equation – an enabler.
Narayan’s last point was repeated by a number of presenters. We were reminded sometimes the best solutions are low tech solutions. It’s important to remember what the problem is that you are attempting to solve and engage with the local knowledge base as to what the potential local solutions are in order to ensure that the solutions are owned and sustained by the community.
The importance of collaboration and sharing knowledge was emphasized, along with how the open access, open data, and open source movements have revolutionized knowledge management. In 1836, Antonio Panizzi, the first librarian of the British museum, explained how knowledge sharing and learning is the greatest of equalizers in a society and a moral imperative. He said “I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom.”
According to the keynote speaker, Michael Tiemann of RedHat, “The Web provides access to scientific learning and understanding and individual learning leads to increased community capacity through the diffusion of scientific knowledge.” The transformative power of technology and learning for a common good was exemplified by all presenters.
So, now I’d like to ask you: How do you propose that we as the development community tap into the local knowledge base for appropriate, relevant solutions? And what technological tools/platforms can best help us promote these knowledge sharing flows? Are we doing everything that we can?