If you watch this clip, you might feel confused about the reality of Switchpoint Ideas.

On the surface Switchpoint is a two-day conference produced by one of the main US, global-health organizations—IntraHealth. Now in its 5th edition, it’s a networking event for leaders in the “industry” of global health and international development. It enables you to meet people from the UN, USAID, MIT, General Electric, Skype, IBM, Johnson&Johnson and on and on and on. All of these attendees are more or less operating in the humanitarian, philanthropic, social entrepreneurship sectors.

But another (Switch)point of the event—maybe the main one—is where and how these social-sector leaders have convened.

“Switchpoint Ideas” happens in a former mill turned independent republic (my spin) called Saxapahaw. It’s in North Carolina, 20 minutes from Chapel Hill and it feels like a retreat. Saxapahaw is a place where smart, educated, mostly former urbanites settle in to enjoy a rural landscape, while at the same time living in beautiful lofts, by a river, around a ballroom that is active most nights, two restaurants (one of them NYTimes-reviewed), a butcher shop, a café, a brewery, a co-working space a bookstore and a charter school. Oh, and the neighborhood gas station provides locally produced biofuel.

So why did a global health organization like IntraHealth decide to produce this annual celebration in a hipster, artsy place like Saxapahaw?

“Give yourself a hand for being in a pretty weird ballroom” shouted one of the guests at last year’s edition, Aaron Sherinian of the UN Foundation. “But the kind of ballroom that is gonna change the world!”

IntraHealth, an organization based in the ultra-liberal North Carolina Triangle, indeed wants to change the world, but it wants to do it while embracing the wacky, warm and relaxing touch of this kind of rural, humanitarian creativity. In this two-day gathering there is room for kayaking, rap music, inventors, designers, and advertisers (along with frontline health workers, doctors and leaders in humanitarian efforts). Even though IntraHealth’s core mission is global health and humanitarian innovation, the organization seems to be sending the message that there is no compartmentalized solution to world problems. “Our mission is changing: we not only want people healthy, but we want people who thrive”, said Pape Gaye, IntraHealth CEO.

And we thrived, indeed, in Saxapahaw.

This happened because the socially conscious, entrepreneurial IntraHealth met the creative and managerial inspiration of Saxapahaw’s indefatigable co-owner Heather LaGarde, and the so-called “Artsivism” of Mikhael Tara Garver. Creating “artful spaces” where activists can gather, connect and share their purposes is Garver’s specialty. Professional gatherings can choose to be very corporate, stiff, and formal. But when the participants share a higher purpose, as IntraHealth and its network do, one can’t help thinking there is almost a moral obligation to enjoy what you are doing. Art as a sort of natural lubricant for humanitarian thought is the great discovery of the Switchpoint “brand”.

It was a relief, to see how cool and engaging a networking event can be. And it was a relief exactly because this coolness wasn’t just a conscious marketing strategy, but rather a vision of the world the participants were sharing with mutual concurrence.

The Speakers

A most diverse mixture of cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and styles felt naturally reassembled at Switchpoint. On the stage was not only a succession of executives, academics and high-tech scientists. Global health heroes were equally celebrated.

UK-native Barbara Stillwell, “one of the most influential nurses of the past 40 years”, offered a tribute to Salome Karwah. Salome was a frontline hero in the fight against Ebola who escaped the disease, only to tragically die as a result of the stigmatization survivors still have to endure in Liberian society:

Barbara Stilwell was crucial in advancing the role of nurse practitioners in the UK. One category of health workers close to nurses, but with their own specificity are the Community Health Workers (CHW). CHWs serve as liaisons between patients and health operators (doctors, hospitals). Their role is crucial, especially when they operate in remote, underserved areas, and when they help uneducated patients keep track of their health. While international projects to expand the role of CHWs have been deployed, in the US it’s been difficult to appropriate resources for this kind of health-care workers (even though their presence translates into long-term savings for the health system). Shawn McKinney, a Community Health Worker in Minnesota, brought on the stage at Switchpoint the passion she feels for her patients. Her story focused on the moment she understood the importance of just being a servant for the people in her care.

Another compelling story from the frontline was that of John Kahler, a former pediatrician in Chicago, who retired to start providing humanitarian health care around the world. He and his team were the last Western doctors to leave Aleppo before the siege was completed. His, is a story of a man who “turned more human”.

Switchpoint is also a big meeting of tech innovators and social scientists. Technology lends Global Health a patina of hip. But none of these “tech for good” innovators forgot to remind the gathering that systems, tools and devices don’t mean anything if they don’t translate into real, measurable impact on people.

Take Samir Doshi, a USAID Senior Scientist. He spoke about mHero, a mobile-based communication system created for the Ebola crisis. mHero uses basic text messaging (not requiring smartphones). During the Ebola crisis the system allowed real-time data communications between the Ministry of Health and frontline health workers. Samir Doshi presented on “Real-time Data For Adaptive Management”, and certainly codified, technical lingo like this was in profusion at Switchpoint. Still, you could feel that even the most obscure jargon was fueled by sincere commitment and the soul.

Natalie Gyenes, a researcher at MIT Media Lab introduced the audience to the concept of “Digital Epidemiology”, something that sounds like It seems like the title for a video-game. To the contrary, at MediaCloud.org, Natalie’s team has created a tool allowing health organizations to detect warning signs of rising epidemics based on the incidence of specific words used on digital media platforms. She called these linguistic clouds “precursors to behavior”:

Behavioral Science was also represented at Switchpoint. Karina Lorenzana, vice president of Ideas42, focused on the economics of behavior change. Karina was notably effective in explaining the Intention/Action Gap, and how to nudge people to better care for their health:

As noted above, the lineup of “tech-for-good” inventors was a long one at Switchpoint.

Robert Furberg, a senior clinical informaticist at RTI International of Durham, NC, spoke about the expanding world of Consumer Wearable Devices for self-tracking different sort of body functions. Some of the research on this field can sometimes be pretty weird (like tracking the growth of the toenails, for example,) and 90 to 95% of the prototypes “are probably garbage”, Furberg said. And while elaborating–at lengths–on the multiple experiments he and his team are currently running, Switchpoint’s artistic direction unleashed two funny “schedule police”, who interrupted Furberg’s speech and kindly “pushed” him offstage:

Of course, the unavoidable elephant in the room of a “humanitarian innovation” convention is necessarily The Money. The “Big for Good” panel was composed of IntraHealth CEO Papa Gaye, Johnson&Johnson executive director for Global Community Impact Michael Bzdack; and Asha Varghese, Director of Global Health Portfolio at the GE Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the General Electric Company. They stressed that the era of blank checks for philanthropy has ended. Now it has come time for the social sector to not only measure the impact, but to directly collaborate and build partnerships with the core business of the big private companies, not just with their foundations:

Also around the topic of the balance between humanitarian innovation and money, Juan Carlos Negrette, Director of Global Health at the University of Utah declared loud and clear that “profit is not a bad word” for Utah’s innovation culture:

Speaking about elephants in the room, the real one was brought up by Lloyce Pace, in a speech titled “The New Normal”. Lloyce Pace is the new president and executive director of the Global Health Council, an organization that “interfaces” between all US Global Health actors and Washington. It was inevitable, in these political times, to talk about how the humanitarian agencies will move on in the face of the proposed cuts and general hostility towards foreign aid. Interestingly, Lloyce Pace’s answer was: lobbying.

“What’s in it for us?” was the projected question that the new administration will ask humanitarian organizations, according to Lloyce Pace.

An ideal answer was given by Deirdre White, CEO of Pixera Global: “Global Health can be an instrument for crossing boundaries”, therefore for peace. White’s prototypical example was the story of the 1960s smallpox epidemic in West Africa, which was eradicated in just ten years thanks to a partnership between the then bitter enemies USSR and USA:

That’s “what’s in it for us”. As GE’s Asha Verghera explicitly reminded the attendees (see “Big For Good clip above), with the new reality of “Sustainable Development Goals” established by the UN in 2015, aimed at ending poverty and inequalities in the world by 2030, “it’s not anymore about whether the private sector has a role to play in development. It is “how”—how we work together”.

Private companies driven by profits should now feel a “moral obligation” to work for the larger humanitarian effort and partner with States and non-governmental organizations to cross boundaries and build bridges. Because “what it means to us to be bridges?”—asked poet CJ Suitt from the Switchpoint stage. “Bridges can’t choose sides. We have to be grounded on both sides”, he concluded.

International development, Humanitarian Innovation, Global Health, Artsivism are all bridges. We can all thrive, in an artful way.

This was the big takeaway from the amazing Switchpoint 2016—An IntraHealth Production.

 

 

 

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