Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Day 1- IDDS 2009 is officially underway!

Almost eleven months after the Closing Ceremony of IDDS 08’ in MIT, Boston it is finally time for the summit to reconvene in KNUST, Kumasi. With the wealth of participants that we have among us this year, the exciting design challenges that are there to be solved , and the altered landscape we are operating in, IDDS 09’ has potential in abundance. It also offers some fresh challenges, both to the participants and organizers, and one of these is certainly the level of expectation that has accompanied our relocation to KNUST.


After a quick breakfast and registration, the participants listened as the Vice Chancellor of the University urged them to help write a “new and exciting chapter” in the history of KNUST. His welcome to the participants took place in the Great Hall, and was preceded by some comments from the Chairperson of the Opening Ceremony. She sensed there was “creativity in the air” and while acknowledging the potential difficulties involved in summit, she invoked the soon to be visiting Obama by pronouncing “Yes We Can”. As she handed over to Amy to make her presentation she introduced her to us as the “Development Queen”, a title that Amy said was definitely a first for her!

Our commander in chief introduced the concept of co-creation behind IDDS to the crowd, before giving some concrete examples of how IDDS has changed the lives of its participants, and the people around them. She relayed to us the story of Bernard Kiwia, a bike mechanic from Tanzania, and Carlos Enrique Marroquin Machan, a Guatemalan working with pedal powered machines, that somehow seems to encapsulate all that IDDS attempts to be. The two met at IDDS in 2007 and were heavily influenced by each other’s work, exchanging ideas and techniques in the space outside specific project work that IDDS provides. Bernard then went back to his work at Global Alliance in Tanzania a transformed inventor: “I used to teach people how to fix bicycles. Now I teach them how to create things”.

Amy then handed proceedings over to John Powell, our keynote speaker for the very formal opening ceremony. Dr. Powell was director of the Technology Consultancy Centre( T.C.C.) in the 1970’s and helped transform Suame Magazine, the informal collection of artisans and mechanics in the centre of Kumasi. Dr. Powell stated that if you ask an old man to speak “you should get ready for some ancient history” and he treated us to a hugely informative lecture on the growth of Suame, and the reasons behind the sustainability of that growth. In the 1970’s there were 5,000 artisans in total but over the course of a couple of decades that number has grown to almost 100,000. The reason behind this, Dr. Powell argued, was as a result of abandoning the ‘trickle down’ approach of industrialization and adopting a grass roots or ‘springing up’ approach. By focusing on the growth of small and medium scale enterprises in the Magazine, the benefit that accrued to the local economy was clear from the very beginning.

Crossman closed the ceremony with a prayer of thanks and the participants had a chance to get to know one another before retreating to the more intimate location of the KCCR, where most of today’s sessions took place. Away from the slightly intimidating and formal atmosphere of the Great Hall, participants were tasked with introducing themselves and their backgrounds, often complete with a funny anecdote or two! Amy gave a more detailed description of the IDDS vision, focusing on the three related movements of Appropriate Technology, Participatory Development and Co-Creation. The last of these is the central driving force behind the work that we are attempting to do here in Kumasi. By working with community partners in designing and prototyping solutions to their problems, IDDS attempts to create active creators of technology, rather than merely passive recipients and users.

The next activity of the day, the hotly anticipated design activity, certainly required participants to get into the spirit of co-creation as they literally had to co-create a solution to the mini-design problem posed by Ben Linder and his intrepid team of designers. Amy prides herself on the fact that IDDS creates physical prototypes rather than paper proceedings and as such she was delighted to segway from the bureaucracy filled morning to the hands on afternoon sessions. We divided teams up for lunch and they each went about getting to know each other, as well as coming up with what would prove to be some pretty interesting dance moves with which to close off their teams attempts at the solution.

The top floor of the Credit Union Hostel was the venue for this auspicious event and after hearing Ben give them their list of materials and design and time constraints, they set to work. The task itself was pretty simple. Participants had to figure out a launching mechanism for a seed (materials ranging from corn cobs to paper pieces) that could clear the wall in the centre of the fourth floor and drop down to the central area on the bottom floor. Perhaps these pictures will help explain better than I can in text…

The red dot represented the holy grail for the participants

Materials for the deisgn activity

Contemplating the chasm

The design activity is an apt first activity for the participants because in many ways it offers a microcosm of the whole IDDS conference. The participants must first learn to work within a team of individuals plucked from all corners of the globe before working through the different steps in solving the design challenge. They first frame the problem, draw some quick sketches, build their initial prototype and spend the rest of the time tinkering with what they have made before presenting it all in front of the whole group. There are a lot of similar lessons to be learned from the activity that will apply to the conference as a whole though, such as making sure that all the relevant information has been gathered and that the height of the ceiling on the third floor is the same of that on the fourth (Stephen’s team should be able to relate to this!).

Practice run attempt almost makes it

Having said all that, it also represents the perfect way for engineers to get to know one another! The difference between observing the participants conversing among one another outside the lecture over coffee and tea, and watching them interact with their teams in the design activity, was monumental. Some of the 6-person teams represented as many as four continents but this wasn’t to prevent heated discussions and hilarious antics breaking out as they went about building their mechanisms. Language barriers weren’t a problem as people used their hands to convey their messages, rather than their mouths. Once the physical outline of the structure was in place, words quickly became redundant, as teams feverishly worked to have their solution ready for the final showdown!

Sue leads the discussion around altering their prototype

I don't think any caption could shed any light on this...

As the teams gathered together on the fourth floor to prepare to do battle it was fascinating to see the different designs that each had come up with. There were practically no replications of design, as each team took a different approach to solving the problem. I feel this highlights just why IDDS attempts to bring people from so many countries and professions together and in particular, why we have re-located to Ghana this year. In the intersection of disciplines there thrives a huge amount of innovation and if that can be seen in something as small and specific as this design activity, I can only imagine just how fruitful this approach may have proved at the end of the five weeks spent working with local workshop managers and rural farmers and villagers.

This team really got into the design activity!

After a glitzy awards ceremony (Lisa and Andres’s team won the prestigious Golden Pineapple award) Amy took centre stage once again. She introduced the R&D processes behind two of her main projects over the past few years, the Corn Cob Sheller and the Charcoal Press. Over time, both of these processes have been improved, made cheaper and more efficient. Watching Amy give the enthusiasm laden lecture it’s easy to see how she has inspired so many people to join the co-creation movement she is helping spearhead. The simplicity that she brings to the process and the clear sense these technologies make, even has the ability to draw in an English student into thinking about appropriate technologies!

"We really weren't expecting this..."

A quick Corn Cob Shelling contest was to follow (Ruben Sanchez Fernandez, a return participant from Guatemala, won this round) and after this the participants were free to get ready for dinner in the Engineering Guest House. The restaurant put on a wonderful spread for us and the meal represented a great chance for everyone to get to know each other a little bit better, away from the work atmosphere. I got talking to Patricia Zainab Tarwallie, a participant from Sierra Leone who works with educating young girls in her home country who have not had opportunities through the formal education system. She lived through her country’s brutal Civil War in the 1980’s and the work she does helps many young girls who have been born into broken families, still recovering from that period in Sierra Leone’s history. Everyone at IDDS seems to have a story to tell, and it’s up to all of us to make sure we have our eyes and ears open to try and capture all the new ideas and experiences we are being exposed to on a daily basis.

Just when we thought the evening was drawing to a close, a small speaker in the corner of the room started to tentatively emit some Ghanaian dance tunes. Within moments, the chairs and tables were swept away and the restaurant was converted into a fully fledged dance floor. It’s important to remember that the participants have known each other for little over twelve hours but it seemed that when the music came on, it was impossible to resist! A special mention has to be given here to Vaibhav Uppal, an Indian mechanical engineering student, and Carla Tennenbaum, an artist from Brazil. They really made the rest of us look like the amateurs we were when the going got tough on the dance floor! This brief glimpse into the group dynamic definitely bodes well for the remainder of the conference, and the creation of a new branch in the IDDS family.

Getting into the swing of it

As we arrived back at the hostel we had a quick check in meeting for the organizers to see if there were any lessons that could be learned from the first day. A few small concerns aside, it seems that everyone was pretty chuffed with how the conference had begun, and long may that continue! There is a worrying theme developing of late night meetings for the organizers though,,,

Twi phrase of the day:

Mepε se me - I want to