Akwaaba! (Welcome! in the local Ghanaian language Twi).
I began writing this post more than a week ago, excited to share some of my first experiences at the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) in Ghana. Amy Smith, the MIT professor who dreamt IDDS into being 3 years ago, offered an insightful comment that may help explain why it has taken so long to post this entry. "What we are trying to do is completely unreasonable... but we pride ourselves in being unreasonable people." I could feel grins of complicity spreading across many a face.
Here is IDDS 2009 in a nutshell: 80 people from 22 different countries have come together to solve some of the critical challenges facing developing countries. In 5 weeks, we will visit remote Ghanaian villages to gain insight into the design challenges and co-design with the community, build and field test prototypes, and end with 12 working, innovative technologies. This is the first year IDDS has taken place outside of the U.S., and while working in a developing country provides invaluable context, it necessarily increases the logistical difficulty of accomplishing our goals.
IDDS time and Ghanaian time are often at odds with each other, which means that our furiously busy days come to a sudden halt when transportation or meals are involved. Internet access comes and goes as it pleases, making project research and contact with the outside world rather difficult. Eighty percent of the participants here don't speak the local language - Twi, and although the summit is officially in English, a majority of the participants don't speak it as a native language. Power and water outages are common, Malaria is a constant threat, and the great majority of our drinking water comes from 500 mL plastic sachets.
Trying to buy materials and equipment for our projects requires a resolve of iron, for which we received formal training: Imagine you have been searching for a particular item for hours in the crowded, hot and dusty streets of Kumasi. Finally, you spot it out of the corner of your eye - but careful! No sudden movements or leaps of glee. Casually saunter over to the vendor, look him or her in the eye and ask "How much?" The ensuing bargaining can be deemed successful if you hold out to the 3rd or 4th "Last Price."
But despite the challenges, I wake up smiling and by the end of the day my mind is racing with new perspectives and knowledge gained from conversations, seminars, and activities. To be part of such a diverse group is altogether incredible. Where else could I sit down to dinner between a Ghanaian Chief and Brazilian artist, bump through chaotic streets with Indian music wafting through the bus from a cell phone, listen to the beautiful undulating songs sung by our two Tibetan participants, converse in French with a Guinean woman and then turn around to speak Spanish with a Guatemalan participant, and finish the day with a sunset yoga class led by a participant from India who spent 3 years in an Ashram.
I have already learned so much from these inspiring people, and I see reflected in each of them my own passion to positively impact the lives of others. The IDDS logo, an ancient West African symbol, perfectly encompasses the spirit of this summit:We are here to learn from each other, from the Ghanaian communities with whom we are working, and from the unique experiences and energy we will create together.
More entries from Ghana will follow shortly, as I have a backlog of stories to share: visiting the villages, my team and design challenge, etc. I must mention that Olin Professor Ben Linder is also here, as one of the original IDDS organizers, and hopefully he will guest blog in coming weeks.