Bridging the Gap: Tech to Non-Tech

By: Marvin Riego – Social Marketing Associate, Build Change-Philippines

‘Retrofitting’, ‘Gable Wall’, ‘Trusses’, and ‘Splicing’ are just some of the words that did not make sense to me before I joined Build Change. I wasn’t even aware that the Philippines ranked as the 3rd most disaster-prone country in the world! I just knew that we got geographically lucky, securing spots on both the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Pacific Typhoon Belt.

It was when I did my first community immersion that things started to get clearer. We advocate for safer houses and schools and to do that we have to RETROFIT. To retrofit means “to furnish with new or modified parts or equipment not available or considered necessary at the time of manufacture.” Taking this definition into a disaster resilience and preparedness context, it means adding different parts of the house which were not built during the original construction to strengthen it in preparation for natural and man-made disasters to reduce casualties. Of course, all this is a lot to take in, especially if you are talking to a non-technical person with little to no background in construction and engineering — like me.

In Build Change, we understand that MONEY, TECHNOLOGY, and PEOPLE need to work together in order for change to happen. There should be enough MONEY for people to build safer houses, TECHNOLOGY must be locally available and cost-competitive, and PEOPLE should want to live in a safe house. Which leads me to my question: How do we expect people to want to live in a safe house if they don’t understand the concept? ‘Retrofitting’ seems to be a very daunting word that not everyone can understand. Moreover, people sometimes argue that the house they currently live in has been standing there for decades, going through only minor repairs after every disaster. This reaction often happens if people are presented with jargon and technical terms which they have never heard of or used before.    

Getting people to understand is one thing, but teaching them practical applications is another. Both present a whole new level of difficulty in explaining technical concepts and terms to non-technical people like me. This is where we must make things simple, put ourselves in the homeowner’s shoes, and use our interpretation and translation skills.

Translating technical materials does not only mean expressing the sense of words in another language, in our case, from English to Tagalog. It encompasses simplification of technical concepts for various audiences —who may or may not be part of the program — adapting to their different backgrounds and levels of comprehension. We make sure we present a concept in its simplest form for better understanding to gain buy-in. Furthermore, we endeavor to represent not only the technical aspect but also the non-technical part of the program. As catalysts, we believe that with better understanding comes trust and confidence empowering individuals, families, communities and partner institutions to spread awareness about highly technical concepts to wider audiences.

However, the struggle is real. Simplification is far from simple and translation requires effort. The process includes engineers explaining technical concepts to non-tech team members, then the team collaborating on understanding complex concepts, simplifying terms, explanations and ensuring accuracy and consistency. Finally comes field testing where these simplified concepts are rolled out to the community. Each activity calls for different actions, each with different challenges, and it all requires a great deal of time and effort.

When making our work as simple as possible to understand, two major factors we’re conscious of are ACCURACY and CONSISTENCY. We make sure not to lose the essence of these concepts in between translations, sharing only what is correct in its simplest form, and can be verified by engineers, architects and other technical practitioners. We avoid sharing false information and wrong ideas which may lead to confusion. Coordination and open communication between technical and non-tech teams has always been the key. We strive to build credibility so that homeowners, builders, and partner institution staff are confident in sharing our resources with others.

When things are done right, it opens doors to a world of possibilities. In the end, we don’t want only engineers, architects, and other technical people to understand and implement the concept of retrofitting for disaster resilience. We want to empower everybody, especially people who are frequently struck by disasters, to improve their way of life through the help of these resources and materials. Ultimately, the goal is to reach more people, spread awareness, change behavior and build safer and disaster resilient communities, one at a time.

The Pacific Ring of Fire
The Pacific Typhoon Belt
Theory of Change
Field Testing of Simplified Tools and Materials in the Community
Tech and Non-Tech Teams Working Together