Tag Archives: conferences

Boston Report: designing for, and talking about, urban disasters.

by Anya Brickman Raredon

Last week there was talk about disasters and resilience up and down the MBTA Redline – from Harvard University’s Design for Urban Disaster Conference to UMass Boston’s Conference on Disaster Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Sustainable Reconstruction, and MIT’s Sustainability Summit in between. I, along with some of my colleagues here at AHI had the opportunity to attend and present at both the Harvard and UMass events.

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Announcement for AHI UMass Session


Posters at the Harvard GSD conference.

Our week of conferencing started at Harvard with three days of panels and discussion focused on how designers and humanitarians could work together in disaster response and better understand each other’s professional skill sets.  With over 140 attendees, there were a lot of perspectives and a lot of information to absorb over the course of three days, but several themes emerged and were highlighted in each day’s plenary sessions.  Some of these which I think bear further consideration include:

– How can humanitarians and architects better understand each other’s professional processes, and get away from seeing the other as being “too slow” (in the case of architects), and “too reactive” (in the case of humanitarians)?

– How come discussions of resilience don’t take power structures into account?  And what are the resulting implications of this?

– Has the well-developed humanitarian compliance system stopped organizations from being able to learn from feedback?

– Is humanitarian response (whether design based, or otherwise) evidence and context driven? How can we work towards this as a goal?

AHI also led one session at each conference focused on raising the question of whether we can continue to think of large-scale post-disaster resettlements as temporary (refugee or internally displaced persons camps) or whether it is time to acknowledge that many of these situations are in fact urban conditions that become permanent and should perhaps be thought of as ‘instant cities’.


Moderating a 45-minute discussion on “Shelter Camp or Instant City?”  at Harvard University

For the UMass session, AHI also invited Chris Ward (Deputy Director of USAID/Haiti’s Infrastructure Office) to speak on specific cases of camp-to-settlement transformations in post-earthquake Haiti, and David Sanderson (Oxford Brookes University, and one of the organizers of the Harvard conference) to offer his perspective on how this idea fit within current humanitarian practices.

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The panels inspired dynamic discussions, raising issues of: land tenure, politics, definitions of ‘urban’, and the different realities of protracted displacement situations based on their causes. We are looking forward to continuing this conversation at the InterAction Forum on June 12th in Washington, D.C.  We will also be writing more on the topic both here and in AHI Innovations over the coming months.

In the meantime, see David Smith’s presentation here, and share your thoughts in the comments below.


Ben Krause (J/P Haitian Relief Organization) offering commentary during the UMass session.


Chris Ward (USAID/Haiti), David Smith (AHI), and David Sanderson (Oxford Brookes University) discussing a question during the 2-hour UMass session.




‘Africa Incorporated’ – AHI at Harvard Business school

‘Africa Incorporated’: first thoughts on the HBS Africa Business Conference

Evans Essienyi, AHI West Africa Associate

Left: The auditorium starts to fill.
Right: Evans and David

This past weekend, March 2-4, it was exciting to be at the Spangler, Burden and Aldrich Halls of the Harvard Business School (HBS) for the 14th edition of the annual African Business conference. The theme was “Africa Incorporated”.

More than 1,300 participants came from countries across the globe. When I first met a student from Stanford, I was impressed they had come from such a distance. Then I met others from Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa and felt the true intensity and commitment of attendees. While some were Harvard students, many were Africans with actual businesses and initiatives in Africa.

The participants comprised students, industry practitioners, and academics from various fields including social entrepreneurship, banking, agribusiness, entertainment, real estate, mass media, health care, education and telecommunications.

I attended three panel discussions – ‘How I did it’, ‘Real estate investing’, for which AHI’s Founder David Smith was a panel leader and ‘Social Entrepreneurship.’ At these sessions, experts shared their insight into how social issues can be addressed with for-profit and non-profit business models, how Africans and non-Africans from the Diaspora have gone back to Africa, and have surmounted all the seemingly-insurmountable challenges the continent presents to building thriving businesses. Finally, real estate experts, including David, shared their thoughts on the metrics they use for evaluating deals of various kinds in Africa, and the pleasant surprise that await all who dare to invest in real estate in Africa.

To me, the conference was exciting, the learning and insights were helpful, but nothing compares with the warmth and thrill of meeting so many Africans, in one location – Boston. I couldn’t make it to the banquet and after party, but I am reliably informed that they were the real climax to all that had happened during the day. I cannot wait for the next HBS African Business Conference, and am sure there will be much to report.

Opening up spaces for negotiation: reflections on the 2012 Social Enterprise Conference

Josie McVitty – AHI’s North Africa Field Associate for the spring of 2012- is in Boston for three weeks before heading off to Algeria and Tunisia. To unwind after a packed workweek, Josie and AHI’s Berly Cordero attended Harvard’s recent Social Enterprise Conference, hosted by the Business and Kennedy Schools on February 25-26. Josie typed up her reflections and thoughts below.


The Social Enterprise Conference (SEC) was a dynamic space to throw around innovative ideas and speak about impact. At its core, though, the discussions served to simply illustrate the real-time growth in recognition of the benefits of exploring the porosity in established structures. Current consensus –at least at SEC- values that porosity while acknowledging it demands more input at the get-go to understand and moderate the terrain.

Unraveling closed systems and ‘tried and true’ ways of doing business creates new spaces. Negotiating these spaces requires new methods and innovative partnerships. This challenge was the rhetoric that resounded above and beyond the conference’s “Innovation, Inclusion, Impact” tagline. Kicking off the conference, Ashoka Founder Bill Drayton called to break down the rigid institutional structures. In education, for example, he argued that adaptive learning is the means to equip children with the human skills that will allow them to contribute to a rapidly changing world. Empathy placed highest in priority in this system of “adisciplinarity”, and is seen as a step beyond a simple intermixing of our typical branches of knowledge.

Perhaps more relevant to AHI’s work, the wall-breaking theme continued to an examination of the distinction between non-profit and for-profit. The difference becomes less significant once social enterprise enters the picture, and the focus for all types of impact-oriented organizations has shifted toward self-sufficiency and sustainability. Investing is no longer a term that pertains to greedy bankers, but to social impact, as the modern take on the profit maximization model.

Breaking down  barriers prompts new arrangements, where the role of individual entities requires redefinition, mediation and compromise with respect to one another. Bringing together networks of multiple stakeholders in hybrid value chains starts a process of negotiation in order to establish the equal partnerships and common purpose. This equality and purpose is required in a network to leverage the critical strengths of each actor for the benefit of the whole. This type of collaborative system can achieve what cannot be achieved by a single actor. It is precisely the process of dispute resolution, cooperation and agreement that gives it its strength.

The power and need for such a network is evident in any successful affordable housing program. Partnerships are a necessary precursor to success. Governments are not generally efficient housing developers. Yet the gap between what people can afford to pay and the cost of housing means that private sector must be convinced to build this type of housing. The government can reduce the cost of building affordable homes by offering land, low-cost financing and other subsidies, making it a more attractive option for the private sector specialized in the area.  In the United States, the benefits of this form of network are found in the LIHTC – Low Income Housing Tax Credits. LIHTC is one of the most robust examples of a  long-term system whereby the private sector is enticed by the public sector to provide a public good, affordable housing.

Technological space is a more recent phenomenon and tool to break through boundaries and negotiate new territory. The role of technology enables a repositioning of the relationship between government, private sector and society. Suddenly, representation takes on a new meaning once your populous have direct access to feedback loops that enables and encourages interaction with government and input into policy.

For example, a more developed model of participation through technology is promoted by Civic Commons, a non-profit described as a ‘dynamic community initiative’ and part of the open government technology movement. A good example can be found in the launch of real-time public transit information available to commuters in New York City.  That city’s Metropoliton Transportation Authority (MTA), has set up an open platform and allowed access to the realtime data so that any number of people or private enterprises can develop apps or services as a means of interface, providing a multitude of products that respond to different user needs. Navigating the organization of this open space where collaborative technology development can occur clearly has huge potential. It provides an efficient means to address public needs and services, along with high mutual benefit for government, technology-savvy intermediaries and society.

Negotiated space – whether it be social, physical, institutional or technological – gives room for interaction and opens the channels for communication, participation and cooperation. The outcome is always more powerful, we can achieve much more together than alone. Although a common phrase, realization of this recognition would lend itself well when reflecting on the future of the organization of our society, especially in a world of increasing multiplicity and pluralities: it’s all about the mixed-, multi-, inter-, and open- that creates these zones of intense activity where exchange and exciting new forms evolve.