Monday, June 29, 2009

D Day (-9) - All Systems Go!

From as early as 7am this morning there were mini-committee brainstorming meetings happening all over the hostel, as teams tried to track each other down to get started on their agendas for the week. Learning the dynamics of how KNUST functions is important at this stage as we are quickly finding out that, like most Universities, there are specific channels and bureaucracies through which everything must pass before it can be ratified. John Quansah and George Obeng in particular have been exceptionally helpful in this regard, as their knowledge of the KNUST political landscape has been invaluable in the progress we have made so far.

The logistics of hosting a conference such as IDDS outside of the safety zone of MIT certainly carries some difficulties, but also enriches the conference in so many ways. One of the main aims of IDDS is to help enable individuals and communities become active creators of technology, rather than simply passive recipients and I think that we are adopting and adapting this hands on approach in learning from scratch how we can operate IDDS in the altered setting of KNUST and Kumasi. Learning how to interact with the local media is a perfect example of how the IDDS model of collaboration and co-creation is being applied daily by organizers during this summit. The Publicity team have drawn extensively on Killian's, one of our Ghanaian organizers, knowledge of the local media landscape and worked with him to come up with a Publicity strategy for the summit.

Another way in which IDDS will be working with the local community, rather than simply for it, will be through it’s interactions with Suame Magazine. This is an engineering cluster located in the centre of Kumasi, spanning twenty miles and with a working population of over 200,000 people. There are approximately 12,000 independent micro, small and medium enterprises located in the area and their main activities of vehicle repair and metal fabrication (welding and casting) are renowned for their ingenuity all across West Africa. During the summit, participants will be working with these engineers and mechanics in the ‘Magazine’ and they will have the chance to share ideas, techniques, and technologies with each other in the hope of solving a design challenge that could help transform the lives of those living on less than 2$ a day.

Some of the organizers had the chance to visit Suame today, while other’s among us took a trip to Tech Junction to pick up some food for the suites in our hostel. Perfecting your haggling skills has to be at the top of your priorities at this IDDS as otherwise you will find yourself out of pocket pretty quickly! The more stalls there are, the more you can work the price down but regardless, it seems that everywhere has a certain ‘obruni’, or ‘white person’ tax that you really need to be persistent to avoid. There are some interesting and delicious local dishes here in Kumasi though, which is one of the major upsides of relocating from MIT. Earlier in the day we took a trip to a local student restaurant, the KCCR, and there you can choose from a variety of dishes for only 2.5 Cedis, the equivalent of about 1.50 USD. However, getting the choice of dish right for your own individual stomach is pretty important. While the rest of us enjoyed the wonders of palava, jollof rice, fried plantain and red-red, Stephen was struggling to make his way through Fu-Fu, a traditional soup with goat meat. Most Ghanaian’s I’ve met so far absolutely adore Fu-Fu but it seems that it was just too much, too soon, for Stephen’s conservative English stomach.

Amy, Gwyn and Ela playing hardball with a Ghanaian fruit seller

Later in the evening Amy decided that she had been sitting at her laptop all day and invited us all out for some form of game induced run around. After toying with a couple of concepts we eventually settled on a pretty exiting(namely because it was pitch dark) game of Capture the Flag in a nearby field/forest. A quick game of British Bulldog was to follow and then we decided to race back to the hostel, just to make sure we were really tired out. As Stephen and I gracefully broke clear of the others we suddenly became a target for about 7 fox-like dogs that simultaneously left their housing posts and decided that the tasty looking Europeans needed to be chased. It was with a definite sense of relief that we arrived out of breath at the hostel and the only consolation to be drawn from this pretty harrowing experience was that I had won the race, and thus finally triumphed over my colonial oppressor.

Miguel and I, clearly amused by Stephen's reaction to the Fu-Fu

Just when we thought we could sneak off to bed(it was 12am at this point) Amy remembered she had promised one of the security guards, Bright, that she would play a traditional Ghanaian game of cards, Spar, with him that evening. Five of us decided to join her but had we known just how long this card game could go on for, we might have thought twice about it. Spar is played by round, and on a points system with stones as counters and the look on Amy’s face when Bright came inside with about thirty stones was priceless. Amy, Laura and I thankfully were some of the first to be eliminated but I went to bed at 130am half expecting to still see Bright, Stephen and Michael huddled together around the table when I woke up in the morning!

Twi phrase of the day:

Wu din deh sen?What is your name?
Je fre wo sen? They call you how?

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

D Day (-10) - A meeting of minds

Our first group organizer meeting was not due to start until 7pm this evening and thus we spent much of the day taking the time to adjust to our new surroundings in KNUST. It takes some time to realize just how huge this campus actually is. The land was granted to the University by the Ashanti King in the early 1950’s and ever since has been slowly filling up with new buildings and departments for KNUST. Even still, there remains a huge amount of the college covered in forest and tropical fauna. While the campus is a beautiful place to live for seven weeks, it is important we do not become too comfortable in the bubble that is provides as otherwise our village visits will come as a bit of a shock!

We took a walk to the Engineering Guest House for lunch and then began some work on readying the suites for the participant’s arrival in just over a week. While the Tek Hostel currently seems a fairly serene setting for the conference, I can imagine things getting a little bit hectic when the sixty or so participants arrive! However, we are quickly coming to the conclusion that Sundays will not be incredibly constructive from a work point of view as everywhere seems to be closed for the day as people take the day off to go to church. Ghana is predominantly Christian country, although Islam is on the rise and there are a huge number of indigenous religions practiced in rural villages around the country.

The internet in our hostel was also completely down for the entire which was quite frustrating but in a strange way, quite refreshing. In a world where facebook and gmail completely dominate our lives it is nice to take a step back and realize that we are not often living in the real world! Physical human interaction or ‘the Reality-net’, as Amy likes to call it, is actually much more important and I think this is in keeping with the spirit of IDDS, a conference that aims to produce physical prototypes, rather than paper proceedings.

Joe and Dennis go into the finer details after the meeting

After a quick game of afternoon football we made our way up to the aptly named “Business Centre” in the Hostel for our first official organizer meeting of the summit. The vast majority of the organizers at this year’s summit were participants or organizers at last year’s summit and Amy will be looking to the experience of this team to ensure that the first IDDS outside of MIT runs as smoothly as possible. Even among our small organizing team there is huge diversity with representatives from America, Britain, Malawi, Brazil, India and Ghana. There is even a solitary Irishman who, being perfectly honest, is still not exactly sure how he ended up here. In our first meeting we signed ourselves up for mini sub-committees to help make the work more manageable. The organization of Social Events, Orientation, Build Its, Publicity and Speakers being just a few examples of the huge number of little things that need to be done to make sure that IDDS runs without any major hitches. As always with IDDS, some over enthusiastic committee members had to be restrained from attaching themselves to too many committees and Amy imposed a limit of four or five for each of us.

Mid-way through the meeting we were interrupted by Miguel Chaves, a Brazilian organizer and participant at every IDDS since its inception, as he announced his arrival at the hostel with a enthusiasm laden scream of “IDDS”. He was also joined by the less abrasive Jessica Huang, a past participant and graduate from Berkeley University, and we quickly descended the stairs to the ground floor to welcome them into the 09’ family. We spent the evening cooking together (Sumit’s sensational Indian rice has to get a special mention here) before getting some sleep before what looks set to be a fairly action packed Monday.

Twi phrase for the day:
MadaaseThank You

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

D Day (-11) - The beginning of a new chapter…

We may have only arrived in Kumasi today but the planning for IDDS in Ghana has been in the pipeline for well over a year. MIT Senior lecturer Amy Smith founded the summit in 2007 and describes it as her “passion project” but this is the first time since its inception that it has been located away from her home University. IDDS prides itself on the spirit of co-creation and innovation which informs its vision and thus this has been the main motivating force behind the move to Kumasi. Over the course of the summit there will be the chance for participants to work with communities in rural villages in the Kumasi region and also with Swame Magazine, a collection of over 80,000 artisans and mechanics in the center of the city. There will thus be increased input from local partners into the creative process and it is hoped that this will make the projects more applicable to the localized context.

Four of the main protagonists at this year’s summit (John Quansah, Crossman Hormenoo, George Fuachie and George Obeng) were organizers and participants at last year’s conference at MIT. George Fuachie has been instrumental in securing the trust and enthusiasm of local villages towards the IDDS venture and the others are our main representatives at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), where most of the conference will take place. I seem to recall all four having frequent meetings about bringing IDDS to Ghana during the last IDDS and thus you can imagine how excited they all are about the almost unlimited potential that exists in the next seven weeks.

Amy had been here with Joe Agoada, a main organizer of this year’s summit, for just over a week before the rest of the organizing committee began arriving. I personally flew into Accra on Friday evening and then got the bus to Kumasi with Steven Gerrard and Hayley Sharp, two English past participants, and Andres Sierra, a recent design graduate from the Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala. We had been given the rather onerous task of transferring about eighty hardback copies of a certain author’s (to remain unnamed) book from London to Kumasi so we may have looked slightly suspect to the customs officials as we hopped off our flight with a suitcase bursting at the seams with eighty of the same book!

After a hectic scramble to the taxi rank we eventually managed to squeeze all of our bags into a car and made our way to a hostel, to be up bright and early the next morning for the bus. Surviving solely on a diet of McVities digestive biscuits, dried banana plantain crisps, and a healthy serving of quality Nigerian drama we eventually managed to reach Tech Junction, our stop just outside KNUST. The hustle and bustle of the market junction was slightly overwhelming as we stepped off the bus so the smiling faces of Joe, George and Sumit, another of this year’s organizers, was most definitely a welcome one.

The Tek Credit Union Hostel will be our home for the next seven weeks, and it didn’t take too long for us to settle ourselves in. After a quick meal we made our way down to the campus pool for a swim and to take some time out to catch up with each other, one year on from IDDS 08’. None of us felt too guilty about this brief diversion from work as one gets the feeling that this could be our last night off in a long while!

For the duration of the conference I will be ending each blog post with one twi phrase, just you can learn a little of the local language, and get a flavour of the local culture, as you follow the progress of IDDS at KNUST.

Twi phrase for the day:
Akwaaba! - Welcome!

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