A reflection on global health conference SwitchPoint 2017 by correspondents Nupoor Kulkarni and McCall Wells
Innovation, progress, ideation—buzzwords that start to lose their meaning the more you hear them. In an era of apps, tweets, LinkedIn networking connections, and various other unique technological innovations, the goal of tech is to cross boundaries, and more than providing a service, to do “good” for society.
Cruising along two-lane NC-54, after passing Chapel Hill and Carrboro, you start to wonder if you’re going the wrong way. A smattering of old, stand-alone houses dispersed among rolling hills of bright green grass swaying in the breeze define the road for miles. Turning onto a narrow road populated by tall trees and tiny wildflowers (a splash of yellow blooming through the green), Saxapahaw, North Carolina, awaits tech professionals and social scientists alike.
The Haw River Ballroom, once the dye house of Saxapahaw’s cotton mill, is historic, artistic, and the perfect place for innovation. The buzzwords are put to work at the Switchpoint conference as over 400 “doing-good” enthusiasts share progress and provide hope. Change is tangible in this space as lecturer after lecturer brings solutions to the table. You can see cogs turning as audience members jot down tools, tips, and ideas. Loyce Pace, President and Executive Director of Global Health Council, says of Saxapahaw, “you’re completely outside your ‘comfort zone,’ so I think that alone forces one to think differently because you’re in a completely different environment.”
Along with the idyllic setting, the intersectionality of attendees, diversity of topics, and hands-on events evoking childlike wonder provide an environment where thinking is the task of the day. Engaging in this two-day experience is like a collective exhaling of breath as the community tackles global crises pertaining to food shortage, healthcare access, failing education systems, and everything in between.
It might come as no surprise that the guest list for SwitchPoint proves just as astounding, and not simply because of the impressive titles that accompany many names. Sure, there are CEOs, founders, activists, and musicians, but each is so much more than that. When host Brian Southwell asks David Moinina Sengeh of IBM Research for his public identification, his answer intrigues, “I am a computer scientist, I’m a musician, I’m a fashion designer…” Mikhael Garver, a self-identified “artivist” who intertwines creative expression and activism, answers the question similarly, providing an array of positions and experiences, none of which seem more important than the other.
Though the guests and themes that comprise SwitchPoint, like those featured on The Measure of Everyday Life, may seem disparate at first blush, they are woven together by equal parts passion and curiosity. Throughout the conference, we hear time and again that the points of intersection amongst different disciplines are often where the best conversations – and innovations – can occur. The Measure of Everyday Life, which itself is product of colliding interests, strives to bring research to life each week by tackling it from multiple vantage points. This sort of pleasantly surprising collaboration comes easily at the Haw River Ballroom. While attendees’ personal backgrounds may not align, their missions to strive for social good certainly do.
At RTI’s Virtual Reality microlab, one of the numerous hands-on events at the conference, there is no question about technology’s capacity for good. From Attaway, a food safety training platform, drone technology to provide a bird’s eye view to assist those with disabilities to an Oculus Rift-based virtual environment to understand parental decision-making about genetic testing for their child, the capacity to approach, teach and research with hard-to-reach audiences and provide life-like experiences knows no bounds. The microlab attendees are proof as they gesticulate wildly while using the Microsoft Hololens to interact with a virtual human heart, and ask insightful questions about the possibility of mindfulness through virtual reality for people in war zones, incorporation of biofeedback into VR environments, and Google Cardboard apps for workforce mini de-stressing sessions.
In a time where productivity is king, the Haw River Ballroom is a rural escape that enchants in its ability to cultivate creativity and harbor serenity. During the closing ceremony, the audience is told a blindfolded woman will walk off the stage and they must keep her from falling. Without pause, the woman, arms outstretched, takes a step off the stage and immediately there are hands providing her with balance, and a chair for her feet. She keeps walking, and methodically the audience ensures her safety with a path of chairs.
Exposed brickwork provides foundation for the ballroom, and like this building and these artful technological creations, the woman could not walk blindfolded without support. The Switchpoint conference was not merely a medium to share technology, but also a place to engage in the present and be surrounded by people who believe in global good. And so, the conference ends with a single, unified clap.
In the top lefthand corner, RTI contractor Nupoor Kulkarni shows a SwitchPoint attendee how to use the Oculus Rift headset during a microlab on virtual reality technology. Pictured on the bottom, to the left of host Brian Southwell and intern McCall Wells, stand interviewees David Moinina Sengeh of IBM Research – Africa and Vania Soares of HealthRise – Brazil.