Mixing up the Room: SwitchPoint 2013

Sarah V. Harlan

Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs (CCP) | Senior Program Officer/Learning Director, K4Health

Beat Making Micro-Lab at SwitchPoint 2013

While SwitchPoint mixed up the conversation, Steven Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) mixed beats as part of Beat Making Lab's Saturday micro-lab.

I had the pleasure of attending IntraHealth International’s SwitchPoint Conference in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, last Friday and Saturday. Not only was it one of the most unique and fun conferences I have ever been to (complete with music, dance performances, and an on-stage DJ), but it also really got me thinking about new technology and real collaboration.

The conference started off with presentations about exciting new technology: 3-D printing to regenerate organs, sustainable toilets, tech hubs in Africa, “hacking” every day materials (such as toys) to make medical devices, and using mobile phones to connect health workers. Then, the conference organizers talked about “SwitchPoints” that started at last year’s conference – partnerships that led to exciting work and brought about change. The point of these partnerships is to match the creators of the technology with those who can use this technology to get services to people who need them the most, to help people live better, healthier lives. But how do these partnerships really happen? How does a “SwitchPoint” happen?

Well, for starters, you have to mix up the room! I thought a lot about why I got so much out of this conference: While the dancing was fun and the DJing was entertaining (and I even contributed the bass line to the Beat Making Lab’s SwitchPoint soundtrack!), what really made this conference effective was the diversity of the participants. Talking to engineers, hackers, and IT experts is not something I usually do at conferences – and they may not usually talk to people like me, who work on implementing public health projects. Although I learn a lot at “regular” public health conferences, I often end up talking mostly to other people who work on family planning, reproductive health, or HIV/AIDS, and who have roughly the same job duties that I do. Getting out of my comfort zone, I could feel the ideas starting to flow; and it was obvious that this was the whole point of the conference.

This “mixing up” was obvious on stage as well. The presenters were a diverse crew: managers at NGOs, scientists (engineers, biomedical experts and others) from leading universities, health workers, filmmakers, technology moguls, donors, and a range of others. The whole idea behind the conference was to collaborate and develop new ways of partnering and innovating for real change.

But what does that really mean? Well for starters, presenters often mentioned thinking about the end user – that is, the people who are meant to benefit from an innovation. Many people also mentioned the importance of making a space at the table for all kinds of individuals – not just “experts” in a given field – but people at the grassroots and people who use creative solutions to get things done every day. While it may take more time and effort, in the long run, this will help design better technology and implement better programs that help bring this technology to those who need it most. (Technology on its own is not a solution unless it is used by someone who needs it.) This will ultimately bring about real change.

SwitchPoint was all about bringing people together from a variety of disciplines and not being scared to innovate. I know everyone who attended has lots of ideas mulling around in their heads this week. I look forward to seeing all the partnerships and collaborations that result from this dialogue… and I am looking forward to next year!

For more on the SwitchPoint Conference, check out the SwitchPoint Reader.


This is a great post, Sarah! Glad you got so much out of it, and I'm sorry I didn't spot you in person on Friday.