I’m on the train to NYC on the first leg of my journey to Mozambique, toting my new solar FLAP bag and a suitcase full of gadgets. I seem to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the rain’s pouring down outside and I’m surrounded by red and gold leaves. The best thing about my insane day so far is that the orange juice I spilled on my keyboard this morning seems not to have done much damage…. But now I have a few hours to stop and reabsorb PopTech.
What an experience, really. You’re in a room of brilliant people in an environment that promotes sharing of ideas across domains. Not only are the people on stage presenting a cross-section of the most brilliant ideas on the face of the planet, but every person sitting around you is brilliant as well.
Some major “Oh!” moments for me were related to design and innovation (surprise):
Design. I realized I’ve been totally unaware of “Design” (or is it “design” with a small ‘d’?). I’d understood design to be about fine art or architecture, or coming up with products to sell. I’d never thought about the relationship between design and the participatory community planning process that we (Plan) support and facilitate in hundreds of communities around the world in which communities design their own programs. I want to learn more about the intersection here. What can the non-profit sector learn about participatory design processes that are born in other sectors? We seem to wrestle with some of the same issues: Do you focus on quality or quantity? Eg., do you design something humble, elegant, good quality for a niche need, or do you go for broad, widespread, shallow, without so much meaning? Seems to be the question of scale and how we measure impact.
I’ve been recommended to read Liz Sanders, Participatory Design Methods, check out the Design Research Conference at IIT, and read Interactions magazine for some insight – thx Jon Kolko (@jkolko) from Frog Design. Also, check out Jon’s book Thoughts on Interaction Design.
Innovation. It’s hard to attend Pop!Tech and not feel humbled by the brilliance around you. As Erica Williams tweeted while Neri Oxman was presenting “Did you ever think you were kinda smart and then realize that you’re not?” I’m known for being innovative in my own circles, as someone who’s ahead of the curve. But that idea gets shaken up when I’m in a roomful of people with the same reputation, who are really hard core innovative, or who are innovating in areas that I know nothing about. The take-away for me here is the importance of constantly being exposed to new areas and people you wouldn’t normally be around so that you can be stimulated in your own innovation and motivated to keep moving. In the Pop!Tech environment, it was easy to see how things all fit together, how innovators at different levels can work together, or can work with non-innovators to improve existing things, and the sum is greater than the parts. This cross-pollination of people, fields, domains, ideas, ages, and sectors is exactly what makes the experience so useful.
Now comes the urge for action and the desire to see the connections we traced out in our minds while listening to someone speak or on paper during dinner become a reality. For me, that means being a bridge between the different programs that Plan supports on the ground and the people involved in them, and the new ideas I’m carrying with me from Pop!Tech.
A small step will be taking a solar Flap bag to Mozambique next week. We heard 2 weeks ago from staff in Mozambique that power is one of the main challenges at the community level. However, who knows if a solar bag is the right solution. (As I heard Emily Pilloton from Project H Design say – “we’re not designing a bridge, we’re designing a way to get across the water”) Will people like it? Will it fit their needs? Will it power what they want it to? What improvements to it would they make? Are they even interested in it at all? Is it yet another cool thing someone brings from the outside, or would they see it as something they could take, use, and own? Do they see it as a part of their daily life? I will ask them. And while I’m at it, what do they think about paper diagnostics being available to them? What about using SMS to improve their healthcare? Or a virtual SIM so that they can have their own identity on a shared mobile phone? Maybe I can hook them up! 🙂