iLabs in Afghanistan
By: Said Marjan Zazai
The concept of technology innovation lab was first introduced in Afghanistan in 2012 by Internews. They held their first event in the month of January of that year in Kabul, and, it was followed through a similarly designed second event in the capital in 2013. Whereas the previous two events were funded and operated by Internews, the 2015 event, was operated and implemented by a private company based in Kabul by the name of Technation and funded by the same organization. The only vivid difference in the approach of executing the event this year was the expansion to Herat.
iLabs identify themselves as an innovation lab, which is a structured multi-day event that enables innovative, technology-based solutions to be conceptualized, prototyped and built, in order to address social challenges. The Labs also expose civil society organizations to the possibilities of information communications technologies (ICTs) and increase the awareness of the technical community about the social issues facing the country.
Technology innovation labs are needed for capacity development of the IT sector of Afghanistan and therefore the concept of iLabs is fruitful. However, what is concerning is that this initiative was not initiated by the Afghan government, the Afghan national civil societies or the academia in the country. This suggests the limitations of innovative capacity of our institutions or indicates a traditional approach by the international organizations where they (externally) not only fund such initiatives but also (externally) bring and introduce the idea in the country. This could be seen as one of the approaches of supporting the development of Information Technology sector in developing countries where projects that have worked well in other similar contexts (particularly post-conflict countries), are simply replicated. However, this also takes our attention to the sincerity of these organizations’ in promoting innovation and new ideas in the country, which is contradictory to the concept of this particular event.
Another important issue that the event organizers and donor agencies need to address, is the expansion of this event beyond Kabul. They have done that this year and it will be important to see these events in other major cities of Afghanistan. The event needs creativity in itself in order to make it different than the previous years’ events. The philosophy of identifying problems and developing prototypes could seem boring and repetitive in the upcoming year and as a result this approach has to be enhanced in a way where the problem organizations are notified, made partners with the idea group and help provide further support in implementing the technological solution to the problem organization.
The focus of this year’s lab was more on the problem identification part in the society rather than on how innovative, new and sophisticated the technological solution is. Other problems that were observable included the dominance of civil society participants and the sidelining of key players in the IT industry in the operations of this event. The effect of this negligence could be evaluated in the performance of the mentors who provided guidance and advice to each group participating in the contest. However, the students and young professionals participating in the event had a very strong understanding of the social problems and as well as providing technological solutions, which helped in the consistent relevant operational success of this event. Yet, the vast amount of investments that has gone into the organization and management of this event is beyond the scope of this article.
Finally, another concerning observation at this event was the diversion of problem identification towards public services. Pre-assigned domains were identified to the groups where they were allowed to identify a specific problem in an organization in the country so that a solution could then be generated for them. Some of the domains included education, health, good governance, security, agriculture and environment. However, the problems identified by the individuals in each group were associated with public services provided by the government in each of these domains. For example, the iNobat app targeted the passport department, e-Education app provided alternate methods of providing education to rural areas and the Farkhunda app provided solutions to enhance the existing incident reporting methods in the country. Although it is a good prospect that youth are not only identifying problems in public services but also suggesting solutions to these institutions, converting these ideas and prototypes into viable startups and businesses could be a challenge. The fact that a majority of the individuals in all of these groups focused on public services rather than private businesses demonstrate the dominance of Information Technology market which are primarily international organizations and government, followed by a few telecommunication providers who have a hard protected shell around them and their human resources haven not yet been integrated in to the IT industry within the country.
iLabs concluded their sessions on Thursday, March 26 2015. The events operations went well in encouraging individuals to identify social problems and to provide solutions to them. However the real success of this investment would be truly exemplified if the organizers and donor organizations take these apps and prototypes to the next level. Internews must ensure that these groups are rewarded for their work and that their Intellectual Property, that they create and contribute at the event. They should be further supported in either making it a viable business or partnering with the problem organizations that they have identified during the process and implement the prototype they developed. Only through such realizations, can iLabs ensure that it is able to overcome its challenges of discovering the best ideas and instead promote an environment where winning ideas and prototypes are taken to the actual problem area and actually apply it, keeping in mind the appropriate Intellectual Property rights of the initiators.
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