2010 Reflections – collaborative learning spaces and emergence vs control

Collaborative learning spaces like the Phnom Penh Hackerspace, Kinyei, Barcamp Phnom Penh, and unconferences around the world are born of two common realizations. Firstly, people actually want to learn, share ideas and make things together. Secondly, a lot of traditional institutions just get in the way of this. While Hackerspaces generally run with this principle in a very technical direction, Kinyei was started to adapt the same principles to community development, as a response to a lot of the well meaning but suffocatingly top-down and community development initatives you get from large NGOs. Our belief is that groups can self-organize, and that self-organized groups can do more, or at least different, things for their communities than any outside help can hope to.

Kinyei started in 2010 as a facilitating outfit for projects that came to us looking for a sounding board. business coaching, and help connecting with global conversations on their specific issues through social media. We’d just connect them with the people and resources they were looking for. As of the last few months we’ve been setting up a physical space for all this to happen in, which will hopefully grow the community of people doing things here, and the help they can give each other. The only structured thing we run is our popular open classroom: high school kids teach each other email and facebook, something they’d normally have to shell out at phone shops to learn; Travelling volunteers share their passions and groups run sessions amongst themselves on topics from Khmer poetry to child protection.

Next year we’re going to launch a fuller schedule and a few unconferences—barcamp-style conferences where the schedule is made by the participants and anyone can present—to get people excited about using the space as a platform for collaboration and peer-learning. The obvious wins for us have been the sessions that have grown organically out of being available; the basic tech peer-learning sessions have added real value in areas that are clearly important to people, and have cost next to nothing, and there have been a few social projects that have come a long way because they had the space to use to meet and present in.

Our successes have been met with as many dilemmas and questions about how to proceed. One of the main, ongoing problems is balancing between being “open” in a supportive way and being “open” like the park down the road is open. If you offer too much support then you bleed out all the initiative from people that they require to make their projects work. If you don’t offer enough, then why are you even there?

That’s been an ongoing issue that I’m not sure we’ll ever really solve. Every time a scheme stalls here we wonder if we got it right. There have been enough successes though to make us believe we’re on the right track, and as we continue to tweak the process and add fantastic partners into the mix, we’re really excited to see what will emerge from Kinyei’s first year in full operation, 2011.

Justin Lorenzon
Kinyei co-founder