By Rex Lor, Head of Solutions Mapping for UNDP Philippines Accelerator Lab
The SalikLakbay Series is a collection of stories about Inclusive Innovation in the Philippines and will feature the “diskarte” of innovators, ecosystem enablers, and policy makers. The goal of the series is to bring to light the different ways on how innovators address their challenges with a combination of creativity and resourcefulness, how ecosystem enablers provide an empowering environment for innovators to flourish, and how policy makers are rethinking the future of inclusive governance in innovation in the Philippines. For context, this series is anchored on a broader global conversation on Inclusive Innovation.
In this blog, a brave set of UNDP Philippines staff explored a frugal shopper’s paradise and one of the oldest commercial centers in the Philippines — Quiapo, Manila. In their SalikLakbay urban adventure, they discovered that:
“When we look closely enough and allow ourselves to embrace the possibilities, we realize that innovation, like magic, is everywhere.”
The cupboard under the stairs
Meet Roland (not his real name), a local technician in Quiapo, Manila, who fixes gadgets for a living. His workshop is inconveniently located in a tiny cupboard under the stairs inside a decrepit old building along Raon Street. He is, as many locators in the building would claim, the go-to-person when it involves hard-to-fix technical problems. He is at the top of his game and the apex of an army of informal technicians in the area.
Like a wizard, he can do all sorts of magic with his modified soldering iron (which can pass as a wand), vintage oscilloscope, and decades-long experience of taking gadgets apart. With his unassuming voice and awkward smile, he’d tell you precisely the problem of your electronic gadget and unselfishly refer you to his peers. Perhaps, he has more challenging work to be done like taking apart whole motherboards, cannibalizing for parts and putting these together to form a new board.
Roland is one of many informal hackers in Quiapo who quietly works at the side streets behind large shops or in the grimy side streets. They seem to live in a different world with a different set of rules in a place where culture, language, and religion diverge in a cacophony of interesting sights, sounds, and smells.
Journey through Diagon Alley
Quiapo, Manila, when you look closely enough, resembles that of Diagon Alley. Minus the cobblestoned streets and the visual magic of Harry Potter’s world, it is a place where people from all walks of life converge together to replenish business supplies, scour for cheap finds, or simply shop for home use. Like the famous magical alley, Quiapo is a weird ironic mixture of almost everything you may want to buy: branded or fake electronic gadgets, machine-made or manually-made eyeglasses, brand new or used clothing, original or modified hardware equipment, top-of-the-line or Frankenstein computers, mirrorless or vintage film cameras, and the like.
Quiapo was also the location for the SalikLakbay Solutions Mapping adventure of the United Nations Development Programme Philippines in 2019. We were there for twofold reasons: to immerse ourselves with the experiences of informal hackers in Quiapo, and to test run the prototype SalikLakbay Solutions Mapping Adventure, a core UNDP Accelerator Labs methodology.
SalikLakbay is a combination of two (2) Filipino words: Saliksik, to explore or research; and, Lakbay, to journey or go on an adventure. The idea is for a group of curious individuals embarking on an epic journey of identifying creative solutions to answer a pressing need in the communities. These solutions are referred to as “diskarte” — a Filipino way of creatively solving problems in response to practical problems within one’s social sphere.
After a quick orientation on the SalikLakbay Field Guide at the country office, the group began the urban adventure at Raon Street, the electronics capital of the Philippines. From there, the Lakbayers wormed their way through the bustling streets and found gems along the way.
Cleverly Odd Artifacts
Of the many artifacts we have discovered in our SalikLakbay, the Piso-gadgets were the ones that piqued our interest the most. Piso-gadgets are one-peso coin-operated vending machines made from hacked electronic gadget or appliance and encased in wooden boxes that resemble an eighties-era arcade game.
They were not only ubiquitous, but they also represent an underlying culture that is prevalent in the area. Francis Capistrano, the Head of Experimentation of the UNDP PH Accelerator Lab, described this phenomenon succinctly: “Piso-gadgets are expressions of a deep problem. And, the problem is still the liquidity of the people. We see a lot of these piso-gadgets because it’s the only thing they can afford: five minutes of Facebook. The issue is deeply rooted in poverty!” He added: “This is like putting your WiFi in a sachet.”
- Pisonet — Pisonets are standalone internet kiosks that operate by inserting Php1.00 coins in exchange for 5 minutes of internet use. We observed that most users access their Facebook accounts and watch YouTube videos. Pisonets are made by assembling old cannibalized computer parts, CRT / LCD monitor, a digital coin slot & timer.
- Piso-PS4 / XBOX — Piso-PS4 / Xbox machines are game consoles wired to a digital coin slot & timer mechanism and encased in a wooden box. 32” LCD TVs are usually included in the package for the best arcade gaming experience. Users also watch preloaded movies and karaoke videos from hacked gaming consoles.
- Pisotubig — This is a coin-operated water vending machine that integrates digital coin slot & timer with an analog water pump. This is a mainstay and is found littered all over the place. Users either purchase paper cups or come with their tumblers.
- PisoWiFi — This WiFi hotspot vending machine allows one to connect to the internet for five minutes for as low as Php1.00 only. Filipino hackers managed to flash and reinstall a new firmware from old routers and designed a landing page for ease-of-use.
Aside from these four, word on the street points us to other applications of the piso-gadgets that include piso-aircon, piso-laundry and many more. The possibilities are endless.
After hours of immersive adventure, we finally reached our ultimate destination,Escolta Street, to regroup, refresh and reflect. After all, SalikLakbay is supposed to be both a collaborative journey to empathize with the grassroots communities and an inward journey of self-reflection, thus the need to articulate personal reflections on the adventure. The following are the key insights that came out from the collective reflections:
Rootedness in empathy. We know and learn that innovation should be rooted in empathy. But an innovation that comes from “lived empathy” raises that to the next level. Acknowledging the innovativeness of grassroots innovators shifts the dynamics between traditional producers and consumers of innovation. Anil Gupta, the founder of the Honey Bee Network in India, explains this well: Rather than looking at inhabitants of poor regions collectively as a sink for aid and advice, we need to recognize their contributions formally as a source of inventions and innovations.
Resilient creativity. Former ALabPH Comms Consultant, AC Dimatatac, is not new to the Quiapo experience, she explained. She has visited the place countless times when she was honing her skills as a photography student. But she was always amazed at finding new things every time she visited. Describing her experience in a nutshell, “What struck me most is that Filipinos are very resourceful. I think it’s an innate ability to be creative and resilient by maximizing what we have and create something that everyone can use.”
Informal Ecosystem. Francis Capistrano first noticed the informal ecosystem in Quiapo when he asked technicians how they learned: “They would always say I’d learn on my own or someone taught me through apprenticeship. There also exists a form of hierarchy and a loose network of hackers where they know who’s good at what.” Francis also recounts that there is no notion of competition but more of cooperation — Or, as he says: “Coopetition.”
Collaborative Building. The idea of collaboration where one person builds on the improvements of another is something that Irina Velasco, the Head of Exploration of the UNDP PH Accelerator Lab, observed in Quiapo. She realized that “Not everyone sells everything, and each shop tends to specialize in specific parts to not directly compete with each other. There is also a sharing of knowledge and information and they readily share when they discover something new.”
Sharing Economy. Yi Wu and Lin Liu, both UNDP Philippines interns, compared the ecosystem in Quiapo as having elements of an informal sharing economy. Lin finds the piso-gadget as a creative way to make money while allowing other people to play the expensive gadget. This ecosystem, however, has a dark side to it as Yi observes: “This ecosystem seems to make people be stuck by making them get used to it.” She added that “They should be exposed to the external community and be connected with other parts of Manila to learn new skill sets and help them grow in the process.”
Ready for more
ALabPH Intern Marky Torres finds the SalikLakbay to be too short and was hoping to have immersed himself longer to see more different aspects of grassroots innovation: “For two hours, we only saw snippets of how these innovations were being used. I’d love to be able to immerse myself fully in the experience to understand deeply the context and culture behind each innovation.”
Our sentiments exactly, Marky, and we are indeed planning more SalikLakbay with our UNDP Philippines Accelerator Lab partners.
Do you want to learn more about the SalikLakbay Solutions Mapping methodology? Please click on this LINK to read more and download the accompanying Field Guide.
Special thanks to the following teams from the UNDP Philippines Country Office for supporting some of your teammates to join in the SalikLakbay: Accelerator Lab, Impact Advisory Team, Results & Quality Team, Institutions & Partnerships Team.