Prototyping Pakistan

I had the great opportunity to spend about 2 weeks in Lahore, Pakistan, a 10+m people city in the Punjab district, not too far from the Indian border, where I joined about 40 people from all over the world to take part in a design workshop called IDDS: International Development Design Summit. What a ride!

 Photo: Debby Tien

The Summit

IDDS was a mix of input and working sessions – and basically a 2-week design sprint, that brought about quite a few approaches, insights, and prototypes. Together with the local communities of Lahore, we spent out time interviewing, building, iterating and hacking prototypes, to develop applicable, practical, and affordable solutions to local challenges and problems. Working in 6 different groups, topics included infrastructure, maternal health care and access, education, agriculture and live stock. And while we set out to come up with ICT-based solutions, that are co-developed with stakeholders on the ground – and can be continued without external intervention after the program ends – along the way I learned and discovered a lot more.

A little background maybe: IDDS is an initiative of IDIN, the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN), that came out of MIT’s D-Lab. For this summit they joined forces with IPAL, the ‘Innovation for Poverty Alleviation Lab’, based at the Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore. IPAL is run by the thoroughly amazing Mustafa Nassem, and among other things hosts Make-i-Stan, an open maker space, run by ThignsCon partner in crime Max Krüger.  In other words: Quite a bunch of incredibly dedicated people from around the globe teamed up, to make IDDS Lahore a reality. And they did a great job!

The Project

Design by Shehzil Malik

I got to work on a collaborative project, led by a local organization, that trains and supports female artisans and micro-entrepreneurs throughout Pakistan, called Kaarvan. Together, we developed WeSMS: a low tech-solution that provides access to relevant market information via an SMS-gateway, allowing for simple usability and dissemination in areas with low tech penetration. (Learn more) In just about two weeks we pivoted 3 times, led about 15 interviews with entrepreneurs, artisans, shop keepers, and other stakeholders, and developed a (working!) technical prototype, as well as a branding and go-to-market strategy. Next up is a pilot and the sourcing of more market information, to make things fly. As a local protect, this requires local ownership – we will be supportive and further developing the project, but future initiatives lie with our local partner for now. (Any updates will be published here as well).

Just as important as this planned and calculated impact, I feel, is the unintended impact those two weeks did have on everyone effected. To me this kind of making for change and raising new questions is even more intriguing than calculated problem-solving plans (that rarely work out anyway): Impact through the process of innovation, rather than the product of innovation, is one of IDDS’ mantras. Definitely harder to assess or monitor, these little changes and effects of serendipity tend to trickle down and last way longer than a contracted project mandate, I believe.

The Place

Pakistan is an amazing country. Admittedly, pretty much of a blank spot for me before, it was intrigued by its food (!), music (!!), people, history, conflicts, pain, and beauty. Lahore, more than 2000 years old, is a vibrant, chaotic, mysterious, and thoroughly amazing place. I enjoyed learning about the Sufis’ Dhol music, about the Mughals’ pride, about courageous people that do important cultural and critical work on the ground. We were hosted in a rather calm area, and sticked to work most of the day. Still, 40 internationals based in a government education building, partly funded by USAid, working on matters of Polio Vaccination and Women empowerment, did not exactly make us friends with everyone. While we went pretty low-key, we were still shocked, grieved, and often unsettled, by the news of attacks carried on in other parts of the country. What saddened me the most, however, was to see the Pakistanis’ reaction to this: The bare and essential want to not be painted with a single brush, to make a point of being different, open, caring, and welcoming – and the feeling of futility in trying to shape that global picture of themselves. If I had not been there, over those two weeks, all I’d have heard about Pakistan would have been yet another attack being carried out somewhere, making the news in Germany. And while this is grim reality, I’d have missed out on so much more beauty and courage and acts of humanity. Little things, that never make the news, but are often far more powerful than a blast. I’m truly grateful, especially to my Pakistani friends, to have had the chance to learn this.

The Family

Talking of friends: I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to spend my time with a super diverse crowd, that just did not stop to surprise and amaze me. While about half of them where Pakistanis, the the rest of the crew was hailing from other parts of Asia, Africa, South America, Europe, and the States. A wonderful mix of folks from all kinds of backgrounds (entrepreneurs, business professionals, researchers, engineers, designers, natural scientist, artists, hackers), some of whom I’ve had the chance to work with at occasions like the Global Innovation Gathering, re:publica, or ThingsCon before, some of them new friends that I am grateful to have in my life. They had amazing and very personal stories to share – about civil engagement and social injustice in Pakistan and the States, about running open hacker spaces in the slums of Brazil, about seeing good things in bad things, about identity and deliberately deciding who you want to be for whom, about dedication. It was these people that made IDDS a game changer for me on a personal level. In just two weeks we had grown into a family of like-minded and dedicated people, that even though spread globally, will surely meet again in different places and keep sharing learnings and trust.

Photo: Kendra Sharp

I’m back in Cologne for now and onto work and regular-life-things. Pakistan started this year on such a hopeful and wonderful note, I can’t wait to see what’s ahead!