Time to learn new tools

I’m a technological dolt. An absolute dud. I can’t keep a phone. Apple products are too complicated for me. I don’t have WhatsApp. Twitter is … well, what is Twitter?  

My excuse for being technologically useless is that I’m doing humanitarian work. I’ve spent years in countries that most people consider scary. Somalia and Afghanistan, for example. Most people can’t read or write – 63% of Somalia’s population, and 69% of Afghanistan’s population are illiterate. Unsurprisingly, internet penetration is low (1.7% in Somalia, 6.8% in Afghanistan).

In humanitarian contexts, my job is to help people find solutions to their problems. Sometimes the problems are basic – how do I get enough food? Water? Shelter? Sometimes they are extremely complicated – what do I do when I bring a grievance to my community elder, my religious leader and my government, and I get three different answers to the same problem? But no matter the nature of the problem, it very rarely involves the internet or technology.  

So I could afford to be technologically illiterate. I could use Word, Excel, Google – what else did I need? I was fine … or so I thought.

But then the people I work with changed the game. In particular, the youth.

There are 1.8 billion youth in the world today, concentrated in fragile states. Children or adolescents make up a majority of the population in the world’s 48 least developed countries. They are exposed to conflict, displacement and deprivation. To deal with these situations, youth often either accept or voluntarily seek out risks. These risks range from working in dangerous conditions, such as gold mines, to early marriage, to moving to a different country, and facing risks including rape and physical assault along the route.

If I, as a humanitarian, am trying to help these young people, my first question is – where do people get their information from? Do they know that working in a gold mine can damage their health permanently? Do they know the risks on migration routes? My second question is – can I offer them alternatives? Are there other options that would keep these teenagers safe?

And this is where I entered the world of CNC mills, raspberry pis (no, not the sweet pastry kind) and Arduinos.

Young people use technology. They have smartphones (unlike me). Most youth on the move depend on social media for information (approximately 70% of migrants rely on social media for information). They use Vibr, WhatsApp, Twitter, SnapChat and all these other things (apps?) that I don’t understand. If I want to inform them about risks, I need to learn about these tools.

And if I want to provide people with safer, less risky alternatives, I need to take advantage of their interest in 3d printers, laser cutters, and electronics. FabLabs offer youth, not only the possibility of making things – anything they could need – with digital tools, they also offer access to a global network of people who are interested in technology, electronics, how to make things, how to come together to learn, to produce, to share.

And this is the task – the challenge – that Jean Michel and I are taking up. We are trying to ask ourselves – and you! – how digital fabrication tools can be used for young people facing deprivation and violence. What do we need to change about FabLabs? What needs to stay the same? Where should we try Humanitarian FabLabs? Why? What should our first step be?

Please help us answer these questions!

One thought on “Time to learn new tools”

  1. I have spent a whole lot of happy time working with arduinos and raspberry pi boards to make gizmos. I have not done 3D printing or other fabrication.
    My first reaction is that to a very poor society, this kind of lab/education is really only relevant in one way (not counting simple fun/enjoyment): as a boost to skills that can make the participants more employable. I think that if you have a mental image that a participant might create an IOT based water quality meter to address a specific hardship in their community, that would happen less. When you make things with arduino and similar, it is really more for experiment and prototyping. (1) the thing you make yourself is often not quite robust enough to last in real use reliably… in real use it’s often better to purchase a purpose-built unit. (2) these self made things will not scale. If you want to spread your meter’s use across 100 locations in 10 districts… you are not going to sit down and assemble 100 of your intricate arduino invention. For that, it is better to buy than to build. But the skills education and employment and STEM aspect — that is more likely.

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