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SwitchPoint 2013: Reengineering the Back Yard

On April 19 and 20 in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, IntraHealth convened more than 300 people for the second annual SwitchPoint Conference, Retreat, and Concert. SwitchPoint is not just another conference. It is an experience—and a new approach to building partnerships and making progress.

If you want to help save the world, look for a problem to solve in your own back yard.

Erik Hersman, a Nairobi-based technologist and blogger, shared this sentiment during the closing remarks of IntraHealth’s SwitchPoint 2013. It was a brave statement to make to an audience comprised largely of global health and development professionals—people who have devoted their lives to helping others very far from their own back yards.

I looked around—no one had bristled. I looked at the stage—no signs of tomatoes.

Swooping in to fix something isn’t fixing something. While development systems and practices haven’t entirely shed this old approach, most of the people operating within those systems have and they are fundamentally changing the way we approach global development.

Hersman went on to say that you can’t fix what you don’t know, which, I believe, is the main point. (I happen to have a horse farm in my back yard, but I’m the last person you’d want to call in to deal with a runaway or sick horse. Call in the equestrians and the veterinarians—those who have dedicated their time and careers to these animals—not the communications gal who happens to rent the house out front.) He wasn’t saying that we are only capable of contributing to positive change in our own communities. Quite the opposite. I took away two main points:

1) The tools and approaches we use to solve our own local problems, if shared, can and will be used and adapted by creative individuals around the world in ways we never imagined.

2) I can’t solve a problem for you, but I can collaborate with you. And in doing so, not only may I share something you might use to solve a problem, I just may solve one of my own, too.  

Unexpected collaborations

Hersman defined collaboration as an interaction in which all parties get something out of the partnership. Creating sustainable social good is not an act of charity; it can’t be hand-delivered or transferred during a webinar. But mutually fruitful collaborations can lead to change.

And we’re getting there. Listening to Chris Elias from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and our own Pape Gaye converse on stage about the next generation of global development, it was clear not only how much development has changed already, but that it’s headed in an exciting direction. Historically, development efforts were isolated. Elias said that innovation most often happens along the edges of communities: Get your technologists talking to your agriculturalists talking to your public health officials and see what they come up with. Get your public and private sectors working on the same problems to achieve mutual goals, and see what happens.  Do all this while genuinely collaborating with those you seek to serve, and see what they propose.

Sure, there are risks and pitfalls in new models of collaboration. But when aren’t there?

Creativity + Action = Social change

Other presenters took the idea of unexpected collaborations even further. Mahali Hlasa and Andrea Coleman of Riders for Health reminded us that bringing motorcycles—and the skills and tools to maintain them—together with health workers can deliver more services to more people than a new drug or medical device. David Gere of the Art & Global Health Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, told us that to solve the world’s most entrenched problems, we should invite artists to the table. Check out Through Positive Eyes and try to disagree. And DJ Spooky and Jennifer Kelso Curtis demonstrated that when you mix hip-hop with the molecular structure of a snowflake and you accompany it with a cello and violin—well, whatever it is, it is genius and beautiful.

Pierce Freelon and Stephen Levitin (aka the Apple Juice Kid) credited connections they made at SwitchPoint 2012 with helping to get their international Beat Making Labs, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Panama, and the US, up and running. After meeting Casey Caplowe of GOOD at SwitchPoint last year, they were contacted by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), who, in turn, documented what they call their “365-day around-the-world SwitchPoint journey.” This year, they shared their vision of connecting creatives around the world using open-source software and Beat Making Labs so that artists in Afghansistan could mix beats with artists in Senegal and North Carolina.

That sounds like one large, funky, and eclectic back yard to me.

Solving complex problems—like the global shortage of health workers, poverty, or hunger—takes more than partnerships, resources, technical expertise, and political will. It takes creativity and action.

Just do it

Josh Nesbit, CEO of Medic Mobile and a member of IntraHealth’s board of directors, reminded attendees that next year we won’t remember the thoughts we had at SwitchPoint—we’ll remember what we did as a result.

And there is a lot to do. Our own Cheick Touré spoke of the atrocities health workers witnessed during the crisis in northern Mali last year and the uphill battle the health sector now faces. And my colleague Laura Hoemeke provoked us to think about unintended consequences. Did the United States’ decision to use a vaccine worker to gain access to Osama Bin Laden, as popularized in the movie Zero Dark Thirty, prompt recent attacks on vaccine workers in Pakistan and Nigeria?

There is no shortage of problems in our collective back yard. And my fellow SwitchPoint attendees reassured me that there is also no shortage of creativity and drive among us.

We can take action. We can lend our voices to the advocacy efforts of groups like the Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition. We can share approaches and tools and make them open for others to adapt. We can facilitate connections. We can convene people and organizations. We can learn from each other. We can open up code, data, and markets. We can make music together. We can try something new. We can each walk away with something beneficial—more funding, a new market, improved health, a better product, humility, a new direction, or a new approach.

What are you going to do?