Thursday, December 4, 2014

Quick Thoughts from the 6th ICAT in Nairobi

I just returned from the 6th International Conference on Appropriate Technology in Nairobi, Kenya and have so many thoughts to share. I want to get some of them down before they evaporate.

The Conference

This is my 3rd ICAT. I had the pleasure of attending in Accra, Ghana in 2010 and Pretoria, South Africa in 2012.

We had a number of great, hands-on and discussion-based workshops at this conference. I was able to attend two. The first, a workshop on assembling 3D printers, spanned several days and was an incredible challenge. The design for the printers we built came from Michigan Tech’s MOST Lab. The idea for the printer is that almost all of the parts for the printer can either be easily sourced from a decently large hardware store wherever you are in the world, or printed from another 3D printer. So, as long as you have one working 3D printer you should be able to obtain the parts for another. The only exceptional part is the controller board (

The other workshop I attended was on building a low-cost radio station, presented by RootIO. Here, Jude Mukandane walked us through the internals of a RootIO radio station (which just consist of a few simple electronic components, a radio transmitter, and a cell phone), as well as the software that powers the stations (an Android app and a Web app). My thanks go to Jude and Chris from RootIO for planning the workshop.

We had several inspiring and polarizing keynote speakers, but my favorite was activist and scholar Patricia McFadden, who among other things spoke about:
  • the notion that appropriate technology alone is insufficient without other elements of social transformation
  • the historical relationship between women and technology that has been undermined by patriarchal systems
  • the necessity to transform technology markets to being focussed on human sufficiency

On Friday morning, I had the pleasure of planning a trip to visit iHub with a few of the conference participants. About 10 conference participants piled in a van to get a tour of the space and the way that all its parts work together. As the theme this year was “Technological Innovation to Empower Africa”, it would have been a shame to miss a relevant case study institution like iHub while in town, so I’m glad that the trip worked out at the last minute. A huge thanks to everyone at iHub who helped it work.

On Friday through Saturday we had the 2nd ICAT hackathon. Several things went better in this event than in the first hackathon in 2012. For starters, the 2012 hackathon had very little participation from conference-goers. There are a number of factors that could have contributed to the low participation rate:
  • the hackathon was held at a venue away from the conference, and most conference-goers didn’t have their own transportation
  • the hackathon was scheduled to run simultaneously against several workshops, a keynote speaker, and a trip to Soweto/Jo’burg/the Apartheid Museum
Some of these factors were repeated this year (like scheduling the hackathon to be run against a Saturday off-site trip), but others were mitigated. Before this year’s hackathon really kicked off we had a round of Ignite talks where several conference and hackathon participants presented. I gave an Ignite about what a hackathon is and why people should participate (not my best Ignite performance, unfortunately, but a passable introduction hopefully). There was no conflicting programming scheduled for the first night of the hackathon, and it was held on the conference premises. As a result, participation from conference participants, at least in the initial stages of the hackathon, was relatively high.

I think the sequence of events this year was good, but there are definitely improvements that can be made for next time (like setting an earlier deadline for Ignite slides, asking for more help with the planning and execution of the talks/hackathon, and ensuring that there are more conference participants around for the presentations and judging portion of the hackathon). Stay tuned for a brief rundown of the Ignite talks and hackathon projects.

As a member of the conference organizing committee I can say that we have a number of improvements to make in the planning of the 2016 conference, and that we should start by ensuring that the next time people hear from us about appropriate technology is well before the 2016 conference. I mentioned in my Ignite presentation that a hackathon is primarily a community building activity, and that notion should be extended to this conference as a whole. To really be successful, INAT needs projects, collaborations, and engagements that sustain beyond the biennial conference.

Some other major themes for next time that I heard or noticed:
  • We should continue to incorporate visible hands-on activities as part of future conferences. These were very engaging both for people participating in the activities as well as those watching. There were so many questions about the progress of the 3D printers and a couple of the more visible hackathon projects.
  • Increasing the meaningful participation of women in the conference is very important.


I also have some quick impressions about the ICAT’s host city this year. Nairobi is very much a city’s city. I only spent a few days there, and covered very little of the city’s area outside of a car, so I can only say so much about it. Some things that struck me:
  • Speed bumps everywhere. As I understand it, this infrastructure came out of an abundance of automobiles crashing into pedestrians. However, I don’t get a sense that’s they’re meant as a temporary solution to the problem. It seems to me that Nairobi is in dire need of some more deliberate holistic transportation planning, taking into account walking, biking, matatus, and private vehicles.
  • Matatus! Such an interesting industry. There are of course informational improvements that could be made (and I see that there is some excellent work that has been and is being done in this area, like It would be interesting to see the city further embrace these vehicles as part of their transportation network, perhaps by having matatu-only lanes along some of the bigger roads at rush hour, or giving subsidies for more environmentally friendly matatu vehicles.
  • Security guards and metal detectors at every door. Based on a handful of conversation, Nairobi seems very much like a city in transition. Population has nearly doubled over the last 20 years and crime rates have steadily increased with it. It’s worth noting, anecdotally, that I spent a bit of time walking around certain areas of the city during the day and never felt particularly unsafe. If you keep your wits about you as you would in any large urban area, chances are that nothing will happen to you. However, it is also true that Nairobi is, statistically, a relatively high-crime city.
Ultimately, it’s a city that I wouldn’t mind immersing myself in for a bit more time, especially to learn more about and participate in the burgeoning tech scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment