When I first heard about the launch of Development Innovations (DI) in Cambodia I was at once delighted and shocked. The stated aim of DI, a lab funded by USAID and implemented by private contractor Development Alternatives International (DAI), is to catalyze development solutions through the use of technology. I was drawn in by the use of ICT4D, or information and communications technology for development, especially with all the traction around the use of tech in the field of development whether health, education, agriculture, or disaster relief. But what really caught my attention was the more nuanced, less flashy part of the project; DI claims to be a space, not a solution in and of itself, where people and organizations can connect, and ideas can take flight. I deeply appreciate this sentiment, and was more than a bit surprised to see it undertaken by the likes of USAID, given the risk in the unknown and untested.
In my previous life (before Fletcher), I helped to start up a cafe that doubled as an alternative learning space for a forum called Open Workshops in Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city. With a small mix of curious foreigners and Khmer students, we hosted workshops on a variety of topics from how to use social media to women's health to zine making to coding sessions. We leveraged the collective brainpower of interested parties, and had a great time building this informal learning environment. Today the cafe still stands as a training ground for young people, but the open workshop has suffered a crisis of energy and human resources. Originally we hoped it would catalyze projects, increase sharing of important information between NGOs doing vital work, and generally energize a young, high potential group. Unfortunately, this has not been the lasting legacy for a number of reasons, not least the difficulty in getting NGOs to spend the time to share ideas and collectively problem solve. Thus I went into the summer working with DI wearing my Battambang goggles, wondering if the story would change when a large development aid organization attempted a similar feat.
What's so special about DI?
DI is significant on several fronts that resonated with me. First, there was obviously a group of USAID personnel, involved in designing the project, that saw Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capitol city, as being a place fit for such an extraordinary undertaking, the likes of innovation hubs in Nairobi and Singapore. Second that USAID was willing to hedge bets on the success of the innovation lab concept at all, that even attempting it is worthwhile (and to the tune of 3 years and a generous budget). And for proof of concept, there is only very recently a small sampling of literature about other such undertakings. Two similar lab models, the World Bank's infoDev mobile labs and hubs, and UNICEF's Innovation Labs, both launched in 2011, so rigorous evaluations and impact studies are still underway.
A Summary of the project
DI launched in October 2013, and only moved into its current spacious four floor office setup in March 2014, so it's safe to say the project is still in start up state. The lab has three main objectives which all revolve around CSOs (civil society organizations) gaining increased access to and understanding of technology tools for development, and TSPs (technology providers) understanding their pivotal role in working with CSOs, and finally incentivizing both CSOs and TSPs to work together. Essentially, DI is creating a physical marketplace wherein these two sectors can learn about the other, and get set on their way towards creating tools, and solutions to Cambodia's most pressing social issues.
The DI Lab has several components: the "Innovation Resource Center", the Lab space itself, several different series including "Mobile Monday", "Technovation", "Women in Tech", and "Global Leaders", a "Lab Rats" gathering, a "Talent Development Program", and of course a grant fund. If that sounds complicated, that's because it is. So who is using DI, and how? Who should be using DI? How should they be using it? These are all questions I asked when I arrived at the lab, and questions that DI is actively trying to address in outreach communications and branding efforts. The truth is that it is all of these things and more, and DI itself is just waiting for a victory in one area in order to brand itself as the it place.
For the moment, participation in the DI lab and in events largely revolves around the grant fund, a pool of money for CSOs to develop and deploy their tech based programs. While in theory this should be a relatively hands off process, where the Lab simply invites CSOs to submit proposals, DI is finding that the capacity within CSOs to develop sophisticated, realistic programs is lacking. Further, many CSOs do not have enough experience or in-house knowledge to approach a TSP to assist in the development of a program to then propose to the grant fund. Of course, this is partly the reason why the IRC exists, to connect the CSOs and TSPs so that they might collaborate on the early stage tech development.
One assumption that DI makes is that CSOs do not have the depth in tech to design a tech program, and that often, they are approaching their solution, rather than the actual problem first. For instance, an education CSO might see a tablet as the answer to literacy problems, but perhaps further thought needs to be given to who exactly is using the tablet, what information should go on, and how to first introduce it to stakeholders. Technology is no different from other interventions, but it is often seen as a magic wand. Similarly, TSPs may have an ideal vision of how technology would actually work, but they are very unfamiliar with the stakeholder groups that would use and benefit from the technology. DI very much sees its role as bridging this gap. How best to bridge the gap, while also demonstrating the value of the relationship so that it can be transactional in the future remains a massive challenge. We spent hours building a process that would be sensitive enough to the future relationship, and landed on what is sure to be iterated in the near future; in our latest version the IRC uses vouchers worth $10,000 awarded to CSOs with promising ideas to use towards working to further test the technology with one of our partner TSPs. In my last weeks, we were just piloting this version with CEDAC, a large agricultural CSO, looking to develop "cloud based database" to improve communications between Cambodian producers and consumers of organic vegetables for a more efficient matching of supply and demand.
My specific role as Sustainability Fellow
Even though I assisted with a few different aspects of the lab, I went into the summer with a clear mandate set for me by DI (if not, it would have taken me the entire summer just to narrow it down). My role was to delve into the sustainability of the Lab, a crucial task, and problematically one that often gets overlooked especially in early stages when projects are busy trying to prove their worth. Sustainability for DI means the ability to pay for itself once the initial USAID funding expires in 2016. It is tempting to daydream about all of the possible private partnerships that might catapult the lab forward, the largest telecoms or internet provider, Mozilla or Google. But the lab would be amiss not to ask what exactly it is that should be sustained. According to USAID, it is the physical space that is the lab that should continue beyond the funding period, rather than any trainings or programs or events. In my opinion they have it backwards; the legacy should be a culture of innovation, perhaps more difficult to measure but surely more worthwhile.
In order to provide helpful recommendations towards lab sustainability, I spent much of the summer meeting with various DI community members. Meetings with lab members, prospective lab members, representatives from other labs and hubs (of which there are a handful), meetings with young tech entrepreneurs, seasoned tech professionals, large telecoms, university deans, and the list goes on. The first step, as I saw it, was getting the story from the community we were serving. Who are they, what are the challenges they face, and how might the lab, with our resources and mission, fill gaps for them. I found that the needs and hopes of our networks were not so disparate, that there was overlap that might actually result in some shared value. In one instance, I heard from several of our young techie lab members that they were looking for android skills. In an unrelated meeting with a mobile application company based in Phnom Penh, a hiring manager shared with me that they had not hired any Cambodians for android app development in over a year, and that this lack of local intellectual capital is a sore spot for them. It also happens that the DI Lab needs tech assistance; the lab is creating rolodex of tech professionals that would pair well with CSOs coming into the lab for innovation assistance. The complementary needs of Cambodian techies, a technology company, and the lab itself open different combinations for collaboration that would benefit each party. While thinking about sustainability I used Strategyzer, a dynamic online tool for business model canvassing that allows you to do preliminary calculations to evaluate potential value propositions and revenue streams. I appreciated a more complex take on the business model canvas, and would recommend this tool to others, though beware it can run quite slowly.
Of course, the conversations I had were just the beginning of the sustainability challenge. Thought I spent the bulk of my time thinking about this creation of shared value, I enjoyed taking part in a number of projects. I organized the first "Lab Rats" event to link the community of labs and hubs in Phnom Penh and throughout Cambodia. I was also able to participate in a staff retreat and help generate ideas for the year two workplan to send to USAID. As part of the "Junior Global Leaders" series I gave a short talk on how Social Network Analysis can be used for local organizations and businesses. By virtue of my creative colleagues, I also got involved in an event promoting design and modification of everyday objects, an event that coincided with the launch of the first 3D printer in Cambodia. The combination of work and related extracurricular events around the "design" and "innovation" themes drove me to dig deeper into the meanings behind these flat buzz words. This next academic year at Fletcher, I'll be continuing to seek stronger understandings of how these concepts can improve international development, specifically when it comes to entrepreneurial endeavors.
And the summer was not all work; on the contrary there were enough office parties, Mekong sunset cruises, and flash dances to keep us all busy. One of the strangest events I found myself participating in was a flash dance choreographed by my boss, a Fletcher graduate, to Pharrell's Happy, which was set to the beloved Madison dance (a favorite for Cambodians since the 1950s) amid the backdrop of the Soviet era Olympic Stadium in the center of bustling Phnom Penh. With so much packed in a tiny summer, I think I will be unpacking the experience in the semesters to come, and into my career ahead.