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I am drawn to people who get inspired by challenging situations. In this era of the meme and the like and the retweet, I never tire of stories about people who have built something incredible out of nothing, especially when they have built it to help someone else.
There are incredible people out there, and once a year, our team at IntraHealth International gets to invite a bunch of them to SwitchPoint—a global conference to connect thinkers, doers, and entrepreneurs from multiple disciplines to innovate and collaborate on solutions to critical issues in global health and development.
We bring together people who are building innovation hubs around the world. They are designing solar toilets, printing 3-D organs, crowdsourcing crisis response via text, driving policy, shaping investment, mapping everything. They are building medical devices out of broken toys and using boats and motorcycles and mobile phones to care for people. They are using film and photography to change mindsets, visualizing data to make people pay attention, and sharing their ideas and designs and code to scale and develop sustainable systems to help people all over the world.
And they all come together for a few days in a little mill town called Saxapahaw, just outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with the belief that putting great ideas, inventions, and people together can have a measurable outcome for good.
We call this gathering SwitchPoint because we believe there is a point when a good idea can become something more—and make a real difference in the world. We are looking for the intersections—the unusual combinations of people, organizations, tools, and ideas—that transform concepts into concrete work with real and measurable return on investment. In this case, that might be a solution that saves people’s lives, supports entrepreneurship, opens the door to new business initiatives, or prompts beneficial partnerships. This can happen across sectors, cultures, and geographic borders.
We designed SwitchPoint to allow the unexpected to happen. Switchpoints could save lives, change behaviors, manifest sustainable partnerships, and build business opportunities at the same time.
Last year, representatives from the World Bank, Intel, GOOD, the UN Foundation, Google, Red Hat, USAID, and many others joined our inaugural event. Even President Bill Clinton beamed in with an inspirational message to the crowd. Numerous public/private partnerships and initiatives were launched directly as a result of the gathering, including a featured Clinton Global Initiative Commitment made by many of the attending presenters.
This year we have expanded the conference to two days. We expect more than 300 attendees to join us. And more than 35 speakers from 15 countries will participate in panel discussions on topics including big data, humanitarian technology, mobile phones, emerging markets, communications, campaigns, and social entrepreneurship. They will be sharing their inventions, successes, failures, experiences, and expertise.
Speakers represent the Gates Foundation, the UN Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, the iHub, and Pfizer Inc. They also include winners of the Gates Foundation Prize, the MIT Technology Review’s Humanitarian of the Year, the artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and members of Time Magazine’s 100’s Most Influential People list.
Day one is a carefully ordered barrage of information—fast, furious, and inspiring—delivered through an array of panels, performances, presentations, and keynotes. Day two includes panels and specialized micro-labs—smaller gatherings where participants work closely with leaders and innovators from around the world on topics of particular interest. Participants can choose from a large menu of micro-lab options to tailor their conference experiences to their specific interests and goals. Topics range from “Tech for Good” to “Hacking Devices,” from communications to partnerships, microfinance, campaigns, and guerilla filmmaking.
The event takes place in a venue that is very dear to me: Saxapahaw’s award-winning Haw River Ballroom. The ballroom is a geothermal- and solar-powered music and event hall built in the former dye house of a historic cotton mill on the banks of the Haw River. As co-owner of the ballroom, I am glad to merge my own local and global worlds for this event and to watch some of the people who inspire my dreams walk onto the stage of one of mine. Saxapahaw is the perfect location for SwitchPoint, not only due to its proximity to Research Triangle Park, the Triangle, and the Triad, but for the same reasons I have grown to love it over the years: this little village has its own collaborative and innovative spirit.
The setting allows for a retreat atmosphere with lunchtime riverside concerts, select performances, interactive networking opportunities, kayaking and yoga breakouts, a mini-film festival, a food truck rodeo, and a major concert with renowned multimedia performer DJ Spooky, who also serves as artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as executive editor of ORIGINS magazine.
In this era of increasing connectivity, as we seek to fuel new economic engines and build solid partnerships with provable value and benefits, new drivers such as SwitchPoint create opportunities to expand prominent and promising sectors while unleashing powerful innovations that can change the world. I can’t wait to see what happens at this year’s SwitchPoint.
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