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The Solar Suitcase: Sharing Big Ideas At SwitchPoint

SwitchPoint 2013

There's a fascinating conference happening Thursday and Friday at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. It's called SwitchPoint. This is the conference for you if you're interested in things like using technology for good, social entrepreneurship and creativity/design.

The attendees are the kind of people who are doing the most interesting things in our society: printing 3-D organs, crowdsourcing crisis response via text, building medical devices out of broken toys.

Ken Banks
Credit the author
Ken Banks

One of the keynote speakers this year is Ken Banks. He's developed a text messaging platform used in developing countries around the world. The platform can be used on a basic laptop or mobile phone and does not need the internet to work. (Only a sliver of the global population has the internet, but 60% have access to a phone.) All the user needs is one bar of power to send a text. Using the technology, a doctor in Brazzavile can now easily communicate with a healthcare field worker in rural Congo.

Ken has thought deeply about how a technology like his came about. "Despite the tens of billions spent each year in international aid, some of the most promising and exciting social innovations and businesses have come about by chance. Many of the people behind them didn't consciously set out to solve anything, but they did."

Solutions often come from people who see a need with their own eyes. "The easy thing to do is to turn your back and to carry on as you were and ignore the suffering, but if you see it firsthand ... and you feel the pain, then deep in your heart, as a caring and compassionate individual then it's much, much harder to not do anything about it."

As an example, Ken Banks tells a story of a nurse from the U.S., Laura Stachel, who was working in Nigeria. One evening, Stachel was in the hospital. It was 3 a.m. and a woman came in with a complicated pregnancy, but she couldn't be treated because there were no lights. "[Stachel] was absolutely staggered that in the 21st century women should be suffering, and in many cases dying along with these babies because there was no light in these wards," he says. And so Laura Stachel created a "solar suitcase." The device can be charged up outside during the day, and now the hospital staff has lights at night.

Ken's book details stories like Laura Stachel's. The book is called The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator, when problems find people, amazing things can happen.

Find out more about the conference here.

Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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