UNDP / ICT TF Inclusive Living Workshop, Alexandria, 13th – 15th October, 2015
We arrived in Cairo late in the evening on Saturday, 10th October, and, after too short a night’s sleep at the Flamenco Hotel on the Nile, took the train north early next morning, following the river, to Alexandria.
And here’s a tip for travellers to Alexandria: don’t stay at the San Giovanni hotel. It might seem an attractive option – right on the beach by the magnificent Stanley bridge – but it’s probably the noisiest hotel in the world (traffic), and it is literally impossible to cross the road outside. (The Alexandria traffic even makes Cairo look like an exemplary bastion of the Highway Code.) We sensibly opted for the faded British Colonial glory of the Windsor Hotel for the remaining stay.
The Orientation Day was held on Monday, 12th October on the premises of the ICT Trust Fund in the centre of Alexandria. The hall was full, evidently with a mixture of the ICT graduates who were to take part in the ensuing workshop, and other university students who had decided to listen in. We were first in the agenda, with an introduction to Design Thinking. We were followed by other lectures. A more interactive format would have been preferable.
Day 1: Tuesday, 13th October
The workshop itself started the next morning in the famous Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The present building is new, but indeed impressive. Amid slightly chaotic organisation, we had some 130 participants, instead of the planned ca. 40 – 50. I estimate that ca. 20-30 of these participants were People with Disabilities (PwDs), mostly visually impaired. The rest were highly talented IT graduates from the Alexandria area. It’s interesting to note that the majority of these top IT specialists were women. It’s worthwhile researching whether young, educated women are taking the lead in certain areas of Egyptian society (the same discussion as regards India).
The unexpected crowd meant that en masse communication and plenary sessions were not easy, as we were spread over two large rooms. (Always try to ensure direct access and eye contact with all the participants in a workshop for plenary sessions or announcements.)
The passion and commitment of the participants, whether IT specialists or PwDs, were remarkable, and remained so throughout the workshop. There were a total of 17 teams, each with at least one PwD, for the duration of the workshop.
The first day included short talks for Unilever (some moving initiatives for the visually impaired in Egypt) and HP, together with an ice-breaker (Fabulous Beasts), definitions of group values and definitions of personae for the ensuing narratives.
A few lasting impressions and memories of the first day:
- As noted earlier, the passion and commitment of the Alexandria participants were remarkable. We thought at first that the participant number would be practically unmanageable – we had never done a workshop for anything like this number of participants before with limited available resources, and spread over two physical spaces. However, it would have been unthinkable to turn people away. It was exactly the passion, commitment and enthusiasm of the participants, which made everything work, and eventually produced excellent results.
- The participants “got” what we were trying to do with the design exercises with very little explanation needed, despite the obvious communication and translation challenges. I’m not sure why this went so well; either because of the initial introduction, or because of the tremendous will and enthusiasm.
Day 2: Wednesday, 14th October
The second day of the workshop included narratives of the present “day in the life” of a PwD, and future scenarios, depicting the solutions of the various teams with regard to the narrated challenges.
After arriving particularly early in the morning, many of the teams worked until late in the evening on their solutions.
We focused also on reminding the teams that all participants are involved in creating a solution for the identified challenge, not merely the technical experts, although grasping this approach was not generally a problem in this workshop.
In the evening, we visited a concert given by a choir comprising visually impaired singers, several of whom were participating in the workshop.
Day 3: Thursday, 15th October
The final day of the workshop focused on final brainstorming, development of the solutions on a conceptual and technical level, and preparation of the preparation of the prototypes and presentations.
All seventeen projects were presented in the auditorium of the Bibliotheca in the afternoon. The general standing of the presented solutions was remarkable, given the high number of participants and limited time, and the overall innovative quality was excellent.
The judges selected three projects to be sponsored for further incubation and development by the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC). Given the high quality of the proposals, consideration is also being given to the inclusion of a further to projects for further support.
General comments on the Alexandria UNDP / ICT TF Inclusive Living Workshop
We believe that the success of the Inclusive Living workshop in Alexandria in bringing forward a large number of conceptually and technically strong collaborative solutions showed that Design Thinking methodology and practice, in close collaboration with a high level of Information Technology mentoring and support, have great potential in creating social innovation with technical feasibility and sustainable impact. The expertise and engagement of the ICT TF technical specialists played a highly significant role in achieving this innovative success.
From our own reflections, and those of our ICT TF colleagues, we would make the following proposals for future such events:
- For such workshops with a high number of visually impaired participants, we provide prepare more non-visual material, such as braille-based icons.
- Consideration should be given to extending the length of the workshop to four (or even five) days. This would allow the participants to develop “real” products and services in greater detail.
- If the workshop time is extended, more focus can also be given to the development of IT skills and capacity building for the Persons with Disabilities (PwDs).
- Sufficient time should be planned in advance of the next workshop to select and filter participants (also with virtual “skype” meetings). A differentiation in the selection of PwDs will ensure different kinds of solutions.
- On this basis, the Orientation Day generally held before the actual workshop can be used to bring the teams together so that they have time to get to know each other before the workshop begins.
- The workshop should be held in English. The ICT TF colleagues believe that it is preferable not to use a translator, as this breaks the “flow” of the workshop. It is considered that the participants have sufficient mastery of English, and that is very useful for them to have the opportunity to explain and “pitch” their products in English. Strong English speakers in the teams can also help other team members with the language. A preparatory English session can also be held during the Orientation day.
- It was proposed to hold an exhibition in Cairo of solutions from all the different governates. It is noticeable that workshops in non-central regions such as Alexandria, which are “starved” of such events in comparison with Cairo, often produce more passion, enthusiasm and imagination.