Monday, May 7, 2012

Morphing for Good

My initial reaction when I received the invitation to the Microsoft Innovate4Good conference was one of disbelief. I’m not someone who falls under the tech-savvy category and felt anxious about what I would contribute to the discussions. As what another participant pointed out, I didn’t even know what basic terms like cloud computing meant, much less how they worked.

As head of Mano Amiga Academy, a non-profit school for underprivileged children, I try not to pass on opportunities that would help generate awareness about the school. I knew I had much to learn when it comes to maximizing what technology could offer, especially when it comes to giving our cause a global reach. Since the event brief for Innovate4good promised that it’ll expose me to the “transformative power of technology”, I threw my apprehensions about ‘not being techie enough’ out the window, packed my bags and headed for Singapore.

In the conference, I found myself surrounded by bright young minds from diverse backgrounds: student leaders, software developers, game designers, NGO workers, entrepreneurs; each one brimming with ideas and ablaze with passion to help shape a better world. After words of welcome from the Microsoft team, they informed us that we had a day and a half to come up with a project. The proposed idea should 1) incorporate technology in solving a pressing problem, 2) feature a sustainable business model and 3) be ready for presentation to an esteemed set of judges by the end of the conference.

The facilitators encouraged us to “keep asking questions” because this would enable us to explore the same situations with a renewed perspective. Any other doubts we had about whether or not our assigned task was feasible simply became irrelevant when two guest speakers shared how they put up their own NGOs despite their economically disadvantaged backgrounds. One of the founders was a genocide survivor, while the other was an 11 year-old boy who used to scavenge for trash.
The conference showcased the latest Microsoft technologies, not only to show us what the available platforms are, but also to demonstrate just how liberating technology could be in crystallizing ideas we would have never thought possible. I lost count of how many times I had to stifle a gasp of amazement during my hands-on trial of Microsoft Surface as I saw images and simulations simultaneously being brought to life by 50 different inputs. I couldn’t stop wishing I had my students with me so that they too could have the exhilarating experience of creating something tactile at the touch of a finger.

Microsoft said it is in the business of enabling potential. I personally believe Innovate4Good is a testament to this. In spite of time constraints and some language barriers (something common, given that Asia Pacific is a melting pot of cultures), the combined skills and expertise of the participants led to the birth of simple yet innovative ideas that address real-life challenges. More than anything, the event served as a good reminder of the magic of collaboration. Young individuals are capable of amazing things, but by working together, particularly with people whose strengths and experience differ from us, we would be able to accomplish greater things.
Imagination paired with technology leads to endless possibilities. It was so inspiring to see young people take available technology, build upon it and choose to use it for social change. With technology as our paintbrush and the world is our canvas, there is nothing stopping us from painting a brighter future.

As for me, a.k.a. the ‘least techie participant’? Well, my team’s project won second place for an idea I had been assigned to present. I’ve also made a firm resolution that Mano Amiga Academy would be more aggressive in integrating technology in our education programs and in seeking out which products and services could drastically enhance the learning experience of our students.

Oh and I no longer have to Bing ‘Cloud Computing’ to be able to tell you what it means…Admittedly, I have a long way to go, but am making encouraging first steps toward embracing technology and the world of opportunities that it offers.

Eleanor Pinugu is the co-founder of Mano Amiga Academy, Inc. The World Economic Forum recently named her as a Global Shaper for her work in development and was one of the 70 Shapers chosen to participate in the 2012 WEF Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Her participation in Innovate4good@Microsoft has inspired her to work on her current relationship with technology—from being ‘one-sided’ and ‘transaction-based’ to a more fluid and mutually beneficial friendship. This blog entry is currently being featured in the Microsoft Citizenship Asia Pacific blog at: 
Morphing for Good Personal Highlights from Innovate4Good@Microsoft in Singapore