Pacific Connect

In July I took on a new consulting role with the Pacific Connect program which is an Australian DFAT-funded program being delivered by the International Centre for Democratic Partnerships (ICDP).

What attracted me to this program was this new way that Australia was engaging the Pacific, trying to build stronger strategic relationships through personal relationships, and especially around digital/ICT initiatives and innovations.

This was another way for me to serve the Pacific by leveraging my network in Pacific Island countries and to use my regional ICT experience to assist various projects under the program.  It was also a great opportunity as an entrepreneur to grow my network.

One of my first assignments was to blog about my involvement with the ADB’s Smart City Challenge in Suva.  Below is the full post which was originally published on Open Forum


Innovations for Pacific cities of the future

Photo-from-Smart-City-Challenge-Suva-July-18-2-610x320

The inaugural Smart City Challenge – Suva was held on Saturday, 28 July 2018, at the Holiday Inn in Fiji’s capital city, Suva. This innovation challenge, or hackathon, was organised by the ADB in partnership with the Fijian Government, KPMG, and included private sector sponsors.

It brought together about 60 university students from the Fiji National University (FNU) and the University of the South Pacific (USP) to compete in the hackathon where the winning team would get access to funding and training to develop their solution through the Fiji Government’s Young Entrepreneur Scheme (YES). This event is associated with the ADB’s Future Cities Program where Suva is one of 5 selected cities in the Asia and Pacific Region.

Fiji’s Minister for Industry, Trade, Tourism, Lands and Mineral Resources Hon. Faiyaz Koya noted in his opening address that Fiji’s population, with a median age of 27.5 years, was very young and “given the right resources and support will be able to achieve great feats.”

He spoke on the Fijian Government’s vision to “establish and develop a talented and competitive workforce” and to “make Fiji a hub of innovation for the Pacific”. He further elaborated on his Ministry’s YES programme which provides “grant funding for innovative, unique and commercially viable projects.”

These ambitions around entrepreneurship, innovation, and digitalisation in the Pacific at the national and regional levels have been growing in recent years and have also found a voice in forums this year, notably the ICDP/Pacific Connect forums in Port Moresby, PNG and in Apia, Samoa.

With the various national initiatives geared towards forming innovation “hubs”, the challenge at a regional level would be to ensure that there is coordination and sharing of limited resources to align these hubs with the development goals and priorities of the Pacific region in mind.

The Hack

Hackathons in the Pacific Island countries are rare occurrences with Fiji playing host to only one hackathon every year since 2016.

The Smart City hackathon focused on 3 challenge areas: Climate ChangeMunicipal Markets, and Urban Mobility. Students were divided up into 11 teams consisting of colleagues from their university and each team typically had students from different disciplines where the most common ones were Engineering and Software Engineering.

Each team had 6 hours on the day to finalise their concepts and designs, develop prototypes, and prepare their pitches, although it appeared that the teams were given some information several days before the hackathon and had time to work on their solutions.

Pitches

At the end of the hackathon each team pitched their solution to a panel of judges and the audience. Each pitch lasted a total of 10 minutes including questions from the judging panel. Expectedly, some of the teams were quite nervous and found it difficult to elaborate on their solutions. Many teams offered concepts of solutions, i.e. no prototype, while others managed to implement some functionality through mobile apps, websites, and other types of hardware.

Considering that none of the students would have participated in a hackathon before there were low expectations for prototypes to be shown during the pitches. An interesting array of solutions were pitched ranging from car parking apps, a blockchain token ecosystem, safety devices for market vendors, and water capture devices.

An impressive panel of 8 judges from Government agencies, private sector technology companies, and an international treaty-based organization oversaw the judging of the solutions utilising a scoring system. At the conclusion of the pitches the judges took quite a while to deliberate on the 3 winners noting the difficult challenge in determining which solutions were innovative, feasible, and commercially viable.

Winning Teams

The winning team, ChangeMakers, from USP offered an integrated solution that tackled all three challenge areas through the use of an Ethereum blockchain-backed token, the VTCoin, that incentivised good behaviour through a bounties decentralised app (dApp) Eco VTCoin, a citizen safety app called SafeCT, and a smart parking app named ParkEasy.

Second place went to an FNU team who pitched a solution for Fiji’s traffic problems through utilising existing road-side digital signage to provide real-time traffic analytics combined with a mobile app while the third place went to, Bula Water, from USP who created a simple below-ground device to capture water from condensation.

Need for More Hackathons

Organising hackathons of this scale in the Pacific is a challenging task but the organisers did well to put on a successful event with the most important outcome being that the students were exposed to real-world challenges facing cities and they had the opportunity to ideate, design, and build innovative solutions that addressed those challenges. It was pleasantly surprising to see 2 teams, including the winners, which were brave enough to use blockchain technology in their solutions.

There is an obvious need in the Pacific to host more events of this nature, even at a smaller scale, that bring people together to find solutions to the biggest problems that face the Pacific. This will help build a future generation of creative and innovative problem-solvers who, with support and resources, can develop their ideas into commercially viable solutions that make an impact.

Looking ahead to future hackathons in the Pacific, some suggestions include:

  • Opening up the hackathon and mixing the teams to get more practical experience and wider views into the solution designs.
  • Exposing the teams prior to the hackathon to the challenges areas by immersing them in the actual difficulties faced and giving them access to people working on the frontline of those challenges so that they understand the problems they are trying to solve.
  • Having resource people available at the hackathon who are intimately familiar with the specific challenges and also having a number of experienced ICT/Engineering specialists to advise teams on appropriate technology and solutions.
  • Allocating at least 8 hours for the hackathon and allowing participants to use their own laptops so that they are more productive.