Blog Post

Collaboration by Difference + Global Health = SwitchPoint 2012

I recently had the opportunity to represent HASTAC at SwitchPoint 2012, a new annual conference hosted by IntraHealth International--a global health non-profit dedicated to strengthening health workers and the systems that support them throughout the developing world. Conference organizers promised a “gathering of global thinkers and doers, merging ideas, sharing breakthroughs, and finding solutions to save lives in the developing world . . . and an [exploration of] how the latest inventions, innovations, entrepreneurial ideas, principles, and change levers can dramatically increase global health equity.”

And, wow, did they deliver. The energy, passion, and innovation were palpable, with over 400 attendees riveted to their seats as one impressive speaker after another--including six company founders and CEOs, two TED fellows, a Champion of Change awarded by President Obama, three under-40 top leaders selected by Forbes and Business Daily, and several regular contributors to leading news outlets including CNN, The Guardian, and NPR--took the stage for TED-esque presentations, panel discussions, and community conversations.

Impressive speaker list (did I mention President Clinton made a brief video-message appearance?) and organizational roll call aside (hello Google, GOOD, Cisco, Intel Social Business, Grameen, Medic Mobile, USAID, the World Bank, the UN Foundation, Development Seed, MapBox, New Kind, iHub, Ashoka, the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, Project Diaspora, Embrace, as well as Red Hat, and IntraHealth) what perhaps makes SwitchPoint most exciting is the conceptual framework used by conference organizers in conceiving the event. In the words of IntraHealth President and CEO Pape Gaye, SwitchPoint was created because

“. . . we need more intersectoral approaches to address development challenges and no longer have the luxury of focusing only on one aspect of our work. We need to mix perspectives, experiences, and interests and look at things in new ways. We need to instigate ‘aha’ moments, those moments when a light comes on and we can leap, rather than crawl, forward. SwitchPoint is an opportunity to mix voices and ideas from the global South and North, from rural and urban areas, from non-profits and the business sector, and from technology and the arts, to see what new approaches and solutions emerge.”

Sound familiar HASTAC readers? You’ve heard it here before: collaboration by difference! HASTAC has been championing the collaboration by difference model for years--it’s our very operating system. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, you can read some of Cathy Davidson’s blogs on the subject here. In shorthand, collaboration by difference simply means bringing together a group of people from different backgrounds/disciplines/interests/organizations to collaboratively address an issue. Leave your plans, preconceived agendas, and what you *think* is going to happen at the door--just see what happens (e.g. SwitchPoint!).

And, we’ve seen over and over again, when those that share different perspectives, different assumptions, different backgrounds and different critical lenses address a question from their unique positions, innovation is often close behind. Perhaps you understand a problem in an entirely different way than a colleague from a different field or industry--pushing those points of tension and difference, embracing them rather than brushing them under the table, examining where your relative understandings converge and diverge, can lead to a more nuanced, holistic, and productive approach to framing the problem. If you are lucky, new solutions or approaches to what might have seemed a particularly intractable problem emerge. Take two examples that Casey Caplowe of GOOD presented at Switchpoint: the ad executive that understood how product packaging and placement could help save lives (see the amazing “Help! I’ve Cut Myself” bone marrow registry bandaids  and the mom who knew how to comfort a kid with cancer better than the so-called “experts” (see the Bald Barbie project:  side note: Mattel originally turned this proposal down, but a Facebook campaign made them change their mind. Behold the power of social media.)

It is thrilling to see the collaboration by difference approach being applied to a conference format and to see organizations such as IntraHealth thinking across fields to “repurpose the potential of good ideas to solve the greatest health challenges of our time.” (SwitchPoint website). And, indeed, just as the ideas presented at SwitchPoint can be repurposed for global health needs, they too can be repurposed for any number of other issues. Whether that is Casey Caplowe, co-founder of GOOD, explaining the importance of failure (“Fail harder. Make better mistakes tomorrow.”) or examining how to shift the cultural conscious from DIY (Do It Yourself) to DIO (Do It Ourselves). Or Andrew Zolli, Executive Director of PopTech, on shifting focus towards a more nuanced view of project or institutional resilience--the ability to maintain core purpose and integrity while responding to pressing and unpredictable challenges. Or David McConville, President of the Buckminister Fuller Institute, on finding your institution’s equivalent to a boat’s trim tab--those points where the tiniest changes have the most impact, or reminding us of that wonderful Buckminster Fuller quote “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  These are takeaways that we can all appreciate and are of value to nearly all fields and endeavors and they resonate with many of us that are trying to make change (and often with little resources). For those that are interested in hearing these speakers, SwitchPoint was entirely webcast and archived recordings will be posted online in the coming weeks.

Let’s hope the collaboration by difference conference model  is one that is embraced on a broader scale, and particularly within the academy, where conferences still often remain firmly entrenched in their disciplinary silos. This approach provided one of the most lucrative and diverse networking experiences that I have ever experienced--with social entrepreneurs, K-12 teachers, business owners, technologists, philanthropists, government agencies, and academics all coming together to share experiences and knowledge. I have no doubt that there are some interesting collaborations in the works and that there will be groundbreaking work that will be announced as a result.

For full information about Switchpoint, see


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