Talking innovation

December 1, 2013

Talking innovation

What are the components of a successful social evolution in a nation like Pakistan? According to panelists and presenters at the Irtiqa Conference 2013 - Leadership for Social Change, it takes individuals with fresh ideas and the courage to experiment to come together and pool their resources for a successful resolution of socio-economic problems. These new ideas can then be successfully scaled up and implemented by the public sector. Due to the structure and limitations of governments, they are not the ideal breeding grounds for innovation in the social sector. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the youth of Pakistan to take on the country’s myriad problems with a positive outlook and a will to be the change that they wish to see.

The Irtiqa Conference 2013 was held at Ali Institute and was organised by the Acumen Pakistan Fellows Class of 2013 as part of their leadership training programme. The Acumen Pakistan Fellows are a group of Pakistani leaders and social entrepreneurs brought together by the Acumen Fund, a global non-profit started in 2001 to tackle poverty by investing in new leaders and ideas. 

Novelist Mohsin Hamid shared stories of how his readers’ feedback had blown all his misconceptions of how people would relate to his stories.

The Conference consisted of four panel discussions about developmental challenges of Pakistan and the methods by which driven individuals are dealing with them in different parts of the country. The panel discussions were interspersed with presentations by social entrepreneurs talking about their respective programmes and the challenges and the successes they had come across in their work.

The first panel was themed around infrastructure development. The panelists and presenters spoke on how infrastructure can be built with local resources and with the least amount of cost to the environment and the rest of society. Safdar Hussain gave a presentation of how an education organisation like the Institute of Development Studies and Practices (IDSP) in Balochistan was helping young people to understand the problems faced by their communities in a wholesome manner to allow them to find the best possible solutions.

According to him, the IDSP supports its students in developing socially driven businesses that make use of environmentally friendly practices.

Tariq Mian of Karachi Relief Trust gave a presentation on his experience of carrying out rehabilitation efforts in disaster hit areas. He explained how the Trust had built homes for the flood affected families using local resources and volunteers.

Darcey Donovan, the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building (PAKSAB), shared her experience in building low cost earthquake resistant houses in the northern areas of Pakistan. According to her, PAKSAB uses locally available natural building materials and builds houses that reduce energy and construction costs.

Rafay Alam, an independent board member of the Lahore Waste Management Company, commented on how we have moved away from indigenous urban development models that were based on local needs to sprawling housing schemes inspired by the colonial tastes of British subjects. "The architects behind the Walled City understood the weather conditions of Lahore and minimized energy consumption and promoted communitarian living. Starting from the Model Town housing project we adopted British methods of construction that consume more energy and require a lot more land while housing less people."

The second presentation was by Sumaira Gul, an Acumen Fellow and the programme manager of the E-Guard project at the Dr Akhter Hameed Khan Memorial Trust. She explained how the project had successfully established a trash collection and processing network across various communities in six cities of Pakistan where the government was not providing these services. Residents were paying large sums every month for treatment of diseases caused by pollution and realised that it was in their interest to pay Rs. 100 a month to E-guard to have their trash collected.

The second panel was on the topic of promoting human growth. Raziq Fahim shared his work with IDSP and College for Youth Activism and Development, where young people exposed to militancy are trained in ways to promote peace-building initiatives in their communities. Kamran Shams shared the success of Akhuwwat, a large micro-finance institution that has enabled some 400,000 individuals to start their own small businesses. He said that many of the beneficiaries were now a major part of Akhuwwat’s funding.

According to Shams, micro-finance works when loans are interest-free.

Sohail Naqvi, Vice Chancellor, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), was of the opinion that the educational institutes need to focus on producing entrepreneurs who solve problems rather than simply training good employees for blue chip companies.

An inspiring presentation came from Ali Akbar who demonstrated how an institution like IDSP had allowed him to find solutions to problems in his remote village in Thar by employing local resources. This had allowed him to start projects to provide purified water and renewable energy for the people of his village.

After a networking panel, the third session focused on the power of art to allow societies to progress. Zebunnisa Bangash, of the female pop duo Zeb and Haniya, spoke of how her music had allowed her to discover the diverse influences that have shaped the identity of modern day Pakistanis. She was of the opinion that unlike the mainstream narrative where "Pakistan is the land of the pure, the people of this country draw influences from diverse sources, each of which should be celebrated."

Building on this theme, novelist Mohsin Hamid shared stories of how his readers’ feedback had blown all his misconceptions of how people would relate to his stories. Western readers were as likely to identify with the protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist as young Pakistanis while some Pakistanis may not identify with it at all. What was important was to understand that there was no specific kind of Pakistani. Anyone who lives within these boundaries can be considered a Pakistani.

Another theme in the discussion was art’s function to question established norms. According to Rashid Rana, a prominent artist and art professor at Beaconhouse National University (BNU), it is necessary to struggle against censorship since censorship defends failed ideologies and art leads the way in allowing citizens to rebel against the language of the powerful and shows the path towards alternatives.

The final session saw journalist and "revolutionary" Rashed Rehman and educationist Baela Jamil reflecting on the big picture.

Rehman lamented the fact that the struggle for democracy still had a long way to go despite the fact that some facets of democracy had returned to Pakistan.

Baela Jamil emphasised the need to invest in he future generations by providing good education to all.

Despite the fact that Irtiqa was the first ever conference, organised by Acumen Pakistan Fellows, it was refreshingly filled with concrete ideas. This was product of prudent moderation and planning by the Fellows.

What was missing from the conference was the voices from the policy-makers in bureaucracy, the much maligned institution that is responsible for implementing ideas on a national scale. Maybe it was deliberately done to avoid paying simple lip-service but what was also lacking was an account of how to reform the bureaucracy to improve service delivery to Pakistani citizens. One hopes that driven individuals like the Acumen Fellows set up civil society organisations that lobby ruling parties to reform the civil service so that it attracts the best minds from among the Pakistani youth.