WHAT WE LEARNED IN COLOMBIA
by Raúl Oliván
Over a hundred people participated and experienced together the Civic Innovation Lab (LABICCO) organized by SEGIB at the Summit of Heads of State at Cartagena de Indias (Colombia). The event offered a variety of lectures, discussion panels and workshops. More importantly, eleven social innovation projects were prototyped during two weeks, some even building a minimum viable product that contributes to its sustainability in the future. My experience as a mentor to several projects has been amazing. I was in Veracruz and Rio de Janeiro, but never before experienced the entire process.
As the end of the Lab looms, only two days prior to the presentation of the eleven projects, I hope to hold on to these feelings even when I return home, which, incidentally, I miss dearly. I would like to share my thoughts on what I consider the most relevant issue: ultimately, what did we learn in Colombia?
Given the dynamics of the laboratory, there is no simple answer to the question. The Laboratory is a community nursery, an accelerator of friendships, a factory of abundance, a game of trials and constructive differences. It is also a collaborative endeavor. Polyhedral. A round trip. A journey shaped by small, daily epic stories.
Such as the case of Gabriel from Santa Fe (Argentina), an engineer who traveled by plane for the first time at 35 years, pushed by his wife who had recently given birth, because the Lab was a vital opportunity that could they could not afford to miss. Together with the exceptional Ciudad Mía (My City) team, he has been prototyping an inclusive, urban signposting project that uses conductive cement and a new coding system to help people with sensory disabilities navigate through the maze of endless obstacles on the streets of Latin America.
Or Siro, an architect from Extremadura who left his village to participate in expanded architecture projects in Bogota’s more-densely populated neighborhoods, building a cinema for the community. However, this experience did not whet his appetite. Indeed, it drove him to join the Trópico project with Karen, Francesco, Nicole and Ana. Trópico promotes a collaborative manufacturing model based on circular economy and the principle of “learning by doing” that is the maxim of all laboratories. Instead of focusing on the theory, the Trópico team has taken a hands on approach to achieve results in the field, helping to rebuild a commune in the Olaya Herrera Sector of Playa Blanca neighborhood in Cartagena. Tomorrow, they will open the commune together. It will be an honor to be with them. When they leave, they will leave behind not only furniture made with pallets and open source drawings, but also a comprehensive roadmap to make the process circular and sustainable. Here and elsewhere in the world where there is waste and social energy that can be reused.
I am also thinking of Margarita and Johanna who are behind Museo Viajero (Traveling Museum), a project that seeks to take Colombia’s National Museum, one of the country’s most representative 19th century political and cultural institutions, beyond its thick walls. The inclusive didactics department, which is used to working within certain structural boundaries, is forced to think like hackers to subvert the barriers that disabled people face in the museum. They went far beyond their duties when they joined the Lab and began to co-design the project with 9 other people and their own stakeholders, even swimming against the tide. Sometimes a revolution can be summarized in a small gesture. Get out of the box and listen. For example.
Different people walk at different speeds. Everyone is needed. Like Adriano Belisario, a journalist from Rio de Janeiro who set up Agrega.la in Brazil, a communication and citizen journalism platform that provides an alternative channel for information in a country where big media, itself an oligopoly, holds great power. During the Lab, Adriano promoted Agrega.la in the Colombian Caribbean. Great people like Kuri, a Peruvian designer of Japanese origin, who ended up working with him and many other groups; or Sara, a Spanish journalist, who, fortunately, still believes in her profession, and, in her quest for a good story, interviewed a demobilized guerilla fighter.
It is impossible to mention them all; yet, it is impossible not to mention Luis Hernando and his dedicated team including Rosa Cristina, a Colombian digital activist; Naomi, or Linux girl as her friends call her; Carlos Felipe, the Open Street Map expert; or Alejandro, one of the best computer graphics specialist in Colombia who works for El Tiempo newspaper. They, and several others, designed Kitum (humanitarian KIT), a portal to channel volunteerism in disaster management. Luis Hernando was a man of action; a humanitarian parachutist who is an expert in seamless coordination of strategies in disaster areas. As a lone wolf, working with the team was a challenge for him. However, the kit looks set to become a very useful tool that will help thousands of people.
I cannot fail to mention Rafa Cortés, the small Cuartielles of Veracruz (named after my countryman David Cuartielles, co-inventor of Arduino), who at 21 years of age is already a veteran of laboratories, having participated in all of them. He was 19 when I first met him, but he already showed promise. He is a prodigy who has happily flipped burgers to travel to Silicon Valley or MIT. In the course of the years, he has set up Verse Technology, with 18 employees. The company has recently rolled out Goblin2, an open source motherboard for the industry. Rafa was also a member of Marimba Inclusiva, a project presented by Daniel from Cali. They created a marimba, the typical Colombian Pacific percussion instrument, adapted for the deaf and blind. A light and vibration system –similar to Guitar Hero (a Play Station game)- that also teaches you how to play the marimba. It was simply impossible not to partake in the joy and excitement of Luz Enit, the only deaf-blind person at the Lab, when she tried it.
The catch to sharing this two-week experience with people like those described here is that I cannot take them back home with me to Zaragoza. I would also love to take the Gente Fuente team back with me. The designers, sociologists and typographers who digitized and produced teaching materials for the Wounaan community of 7,000 people in Panama and Colombia, who, until now, lacked the means to express themselves in their mother tongue by e-mail or on Facebook. A beautiful project.
Or, Gabriel and Raissa, the promoters of the Co.Madre project, a visual Wikipedia on invisible women, who drove their Etinerancias project van to the Lab. Or, Sebastian, Roberto and Jorge, members of Ecuador Solidario, who are determined to build a Crowd Donation portal (donation of materials between individuals, including bricks, appliances, and furniture). An unprecedented model that would have greatly helped Pablo, a survivor of this year’s earthquake in Ecuador, who was miraculously rescued alive from the rubble.
It is impossible to mention everyone. Indeed, I barely had time to meet many of them. Nonetheless, this collaborative story, which is what the Civic Innovation Lab is at heart, was built by all of them. It may well be the best embodiment of the dream of humanism and emancipation that was the Free Educational Institution. A melting pot overflowing with talent and friendship, whose daily exceptional experiences one could find portrayed in any magical realism novel.
Though it is beyond me to sum up what I learned, I know that we learned together.
Photo: Andrés “Wao” Mosquera