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Skepticism + Playfulness = SwitchPoint?

Last Friday, I sat in the beautiful Haw River Ballroom in the enchanting town of Saxapahaw, North Carolina, with hundreds of eclectic, savvy, and well-traveled individuals at SwitchPoint 2012—IntraHealth’s first annual conference, retreat, and concert on innovation and global health.

I cannot take any credit for SwitchPoint, except for maybe a little glitch in the presentation slides during the afternoon session on challenges and global engagement (sorry folks!). I can say that I am beyond proud to be part of an organization that brings people together to advocate a new way of doing things, even if we don’t quite know what that new way is yet, even if our bread and butter for years might have at times been tied to the standard way of doing things.

Entertainment + Real Needs = SwitchPoint

We were treated to an amazing ensemble of presenters and to the talents of Apple Juice Kid, a gifted DJ and music curator who introduced each visionary speaker and brought the audience to its feet.

As I’m prone to do at global health conferences, however, there was a moment when my inner skeptic leaned over to a colleague and said, is there something wrong with the fact that this is so entertaining? Is this really about solving global health problems, or is this about tooting our own horns?

This is the first event I’ve attended that put me and my “holier than thou” attitude in my place.

Thank you SwitchPoint—I needed that.

My revelation came in the afternoon when Jane Chen, CEO of Embrace, delivered a keynote on saving babies through extreme affordability. She showed a video that included a young mother who had just lost her premature son; the mother’s grief was raw.

How do we juxtapose that reality with the reality we were experiencing, which included entertainment and playfulness along the banks of the Haw River?

As I continued to listen and reflect on the various speakers, I started to get it. Doing good is not a transaction that necessitates giving up something to balance the equation. In fact, maybe playfulness is just what the equation needs.

Doing good for others + Doing good for yourself = SwitchPoint

Casey Caplowe, a co-founder of Good, talked about his company’s founding principle that doing good for others and doing good for yourself are not mutually exclusive. As he reminded us, you can find the place where the two intersect. What happens when you take good design and profitability and apply them toward solving real problems?

Michael Tiemann of Red Hat kicked off the day with an ode to open access and open source that illustrated Caplowe’s point. Many people agree that life-saving information should be free, that research funded by the public should be accessible to the public, and that opening up source code can fuel technological progress. However, Tiemann was a pioneer in recognizing that not only is openness ‘good,’ it also can be profitable.

In the late eighties, Tiemann innovated a business model around open source software; he proposed making money off of something he would give away for free. I suspect the response at the time was something like, huh? But, it worked. Red Hat, which makes nearly all its money from building, maintaining, and selling open source software recently announced that it crossed the billion-dollar mark in revenue.

Disaster + Resilience = SwitchPoint

Andrew Zolli of PopTech, and the author of the soon-to-be released Resilience, wrapped up the day talking about interconnectedness and the importance of resilient systems. He described the moment when the right thing to do transforms from being a call to prevent an impending disaster to a call for strengthening a system so that it can withstand the now unavoidable disaster. That’s where we are right now, at that switchpoint.

I think most of us in the room related his remarks to development and to global health. We can’t only keep doing more of the same. We need to design more resilient systems, and as was echoed in the most recurring theme of the day, we need to design these systems with—not for—the people who are part of these systems, whether these are health, business, communications, or other systems.

You + Me = SwitchPoint

IntraHealth’s Stembile (Tembi) Mugore, a senior health sector specialist, nurse, and storyteller, told the audience, “I have seen innovation work and felt the celebration of its implementation.” She has also seen the reverse. She shared a story of enthusiastically walking into a remote health center targeted for a mobile technology intervention only to find health workers who, had they been given the opportunity, could have told program designers in the beginning there was simply no place to charge the mobile phones the health workers were expected to use.

The day echoed a Malian proverb that IntraHealth’s country director for Mali, Cheick Touré, shared with his IntraHealth colleagues earlier in the week: Whatever you do for me, without me, you do against me.

Design with, not for. Design in their best interest, and in yours. Solve real problems, but have fun doing so. See what happens.

The grieving young mother in Chen’s video is not entertainment; the fact that one woman dies each minute in childbirth is not an intellectual conundrum to ponder over a latte; the fact that in some countries less than half of all health facilities have access to clean water is not a problem to be solved in a festive environment on a beautiful spring day in rural North Carolina.

No, but….

Apple Juice Kid is indeed entertainment; unusual partnerships are to be pondered over a latte; and nothing but the status quo is to be transformed by a festive event dedicated to global health and innovation in Saxapahaw.

And that’s not just ok: that’s a good thing.

That spark, that new partner, that fresh look at an old problem, that infusion of fun with problem solving can catalyze change.

I look forward to seeing and being a part of balancing the equation: IntraHealth + X = SwitchPoint.