SI SA KET – Last Friday, a local community and participants from 15 countries celebrated the final day of a design and development summit in rural Si Sa Ket Province. The rare event, held in one of the country’s poorest areas, engaged community members in a co-creative process and challenged top-down approaches to rural development.

“The key thing,” says Areeya Tivasuradej, the summit’s Lead Researcher, “is to create a space for collaborating and bringing together the community to discuss how they would like to develop.”

For 16 days, 21 participants worked with community members on projects focused on agriculture, education, health, money management, silk marketing, and waste management. The themes  had earlier been identified by the community.

On the final day of the summit, participants showcased their projects during the Community and Innovation Festival.

The summit is a part of a series of events called International Development Design Summit (IDDS). Supported by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s D-Lab, these summits bring together participants and communities to develop innovative projects to support those living in poverty. IDDS Sisaket is the first held in Southeast Asia.

According to the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), Si Sa Ket was the 7th poorest province in Thailand in 2015.

At the closing event, community members, participants, and organizers welcomed about 30 visitors to Raitong Organics Farm in Ban Hang Wao Village. Raitong is a social enterprise that promotes organic farming and aims at connecting local organic producers with customers.

Though IDDS Sisaket was hosted by an organic farm, the summit was never about just agriculture, said Hermes Huang, the event’s Lead Organizer. “It’s about a place, a context, and a way of life in rural Thailand,” he added.

At the festival, participants emphasized the community’s role in the projects. The group focusing on education interviewed teachers in Ban Hang Wao and other local schools to identify issues with education in Isaan and Thailand. The goal identified by the principal and teachers in Ban Han Wao was to improve English teaching methods. Currently, there are two English teachers at the school in the village.

Students are taught only vocabulary and often cannot form sentences, said Jaruwan Supolrai, a participant and former NGO worker from Ubon Ratchathani.

Participants brainstormed with the principal and teachers to create activities to make learning English fun. They created a “Play & Learn” project for students to practice and improve their English. The project consists of activities using paper cards and cubes, and students attending the festival excitedly wrote and illustrated sentences.

The “Play & Learn” model designed at the summit will be used in Ban Hang Wao Village, and the principal wants to spread it to other local schools, said Jaruwan Supolrai, a participant and former NGO worker from Ubon Ratchathani.

The projects did not fall exclusively within each group’s theme. The waste management team worked closely with teachers in Ban Hang Wao. Through interviews with community members, the group charted the waste management system in the village. Of concern was the handling of non-compostable and non-recyclable items, which the community often disposes by burning.

But some community members already convert their waste into useful products. Building on this practice, participants focused on Tetra Paks, which are commonly used for milk cartons. The waste management group and the village teachers designed a project to turn Tetra Paks into educational materials.

Tetra Paks are a way for students to build skills, said Taunthan Fox, a participant from Bangkok.

Older students learn to reuse Tetra Paks to design and create games, puzzles, and other educational activities, and younger students learn from those materials. The group hopes the project teaches kids innovative thinking.

Tetra Paks contain layers of plastic, aluminum, and paper and must be recycled at special facilities. Ban Hang Wao teachers hope students learn to see Tetra Paks as more than trash, said Taunthan Fox, a participant from Bangkok.

While the festival was held to showcase the tangible products of the summit, community-driven collaboration was IDDS Sisaket’s key element.

“The community-driven approach was a great opportunity to bring new ideas into the community,” says Siripak Wongkaew, who lives in Ban Hang Wao and worked with participants on the health and silk projects. “People in the community can share their ideas with participants, and participants can share their ideas, too. We can mix ideas to create a project for the people in the community.”

Development in Thailand has generally followed a top-down approach, especially with infrastructure and the economy, said Ms. Areeya. Such policies often disregard local needs.

“People [in the community] are the owner of the problem and the solution,” says Ms. Jaruwan. Development in Thailand is about people sharing an issue and coming together to share a solution, she added.

IDDS Sisaket participants remind themselves that people in the community come first with the phrase “Pop Pop: People over process. Process over product.” The phrase prioritizes the order of principles and values, explained Mr. Huang. “It’s trusting that when you put people first, you get a better product,” he said.

With the end of IDDS Sisaket, Raitong Organics Farm will open an innovation hub in Ban Hang Wao for community members to continue developing innovative projects. The center will provide space, tools, and support for community members to collaborate on projects of their own design for development according to their needs.