The second-annual IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (GHTC) attracted more than 250 attendees and presenters, from technologists to business leaders, who gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle, Washington, on Oct. 21-24, 2012.
The GHTC opened with a vibrant keynote plenary featuring Dr. Gordon Day, IEEE president; Dr. Gretchen Kalonji, a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) assistant director; and Knut Aanstad, UN advisor for Sustainable Energy for All (SELF), who set an optimistic and realistic tone for the conference.
ÛÏWhile it was acknowledged that technological innovation can accelerate and promote progress in human welfare and social reform, the need to balance social progress, environmental protection, and economic growth in a sustainable manner was also highlighted,Û said Dr. Nancy Searby, program manager for NASA’s Applied Sciences Capacity Building Program, referring to Day’s address.
Opportunities to exchange ideas and build synergies among ongoing projects were deliberate focus of this year’s conference, according to Paul Kostek, the GHTC chair. ÛÏWe wanted people talking to each other and not at each other,Û Kostek said, and more panels were planned to foster more dialogue.
Dr. Mike North of ReAllocate.org, who presented during a ÛÏRobotics and Automation for Humanitarian ActivitiesÛ session on ÛÏAutonomous DeliveryÛ noted that ÛÏThis [meeting] has the most open and helpful group of any conferenceÛ and that he really enjoyed ÛÏmeeting all the amazing people.Û
This sentiment was echoed by numerous participants, including Ph.D. student at MIT Danielle Zurovcik, who won GHTC’s Best Student Poster. Not only did she impress conference attendees with her project: the Wound Pump, a simplified wound therapy device, Zurovcik took advantage of engaging a wide variety of people from different backgrounds, including engineering, medical, philanthropic, and policy.
ÛÏIt was great to have such a diverse audienceÛ said Zurovcik, adding that the feedback she received from others was ÛÏthought-provoking.Û
Robert Morikawa, technical director for Plant with Purpose, a U.S. nonprofit working with small-scale farmers in developing countries, said the Water and Agriculture Panels were of particular interest and relevance, providing a space to exchange ideas, which helped him ÛÏthink about ways to make our program better, especially in terms of monitoring evaluation.Û
The active blending of the values of engineering and innovation with realism resonated well with Kostek. Namely, he said, the participants of the conference were not only ready to share their technology and research, but were open and enthusiastic about gleaning the lessons learned from development veterans.
In line with this spirit, IEEE and GHTC celebrated N. R. Narayana Murthy, who was honored with the 2012 Hoover Medal ÛÏfor establishing a foundation that forges outstanding improvements in healthcare, social rehabilitation, rural uplift and education following his formation of Infosys, an innovative company that provides business consulting, technology and engineering services in more than 30 countries.Û
The Oct.24 morning keynote was a presentation-panel, led by Krista Bauer of GE Foundation. Her talk, ÛÏTechnology Application in the Developing World: Think LocalÛ highlighted a three-pronged approach of engaging local stakeholders, understanding local context and matching technologies, and building in sustainability into the plan from the start.
The next panel, which detailed numerous case projects, ÛÏRising to the Challenge in Resource-Poor Settings,Û included panelists sharing experiences, both the successful and the less successful approaches, to working in the field. They noted that they faced diverse and unexpected challenges, and emphasized the importance of cultivating strong partnerships and bonds of trust within the communities they worked.
Overall, GHTC had an energy that was energizing and illuminating. By providing a space for expertise and on-the-ground experiences to connect, GHTC offers an opportunity for engineers and technologists to share their innovations and advance humanitarian and development efforts, while, just as importantly, gain a better understanding of implementation challenges.
GHTC is an annual conference and will take place in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013. For more updates and details, see ieeeghtc.org.
Christine Lee is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at NASA Headquarters in the Applied Science Program, Earth Science Division. She finds research and policy fascinating and hopes to facilitate the intersection of these two fields throughout her professional career. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.