If you’d taken Dominic Co aside a year ago and told him that his life was about to be turned upside down by a revolutionary writer, a Windows tablet and a giant long-horned beetle grub from Ecuador, he’d probably have burst out laughing (not to your face, of course – he’s far too polite for that). After all, as a hardworking architecture undergrad at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), his life was all about the straight and narrow – lectures and the library pretty much summed up his routine.
Yet he hadn’t reckoned on the power of his own imagination, and the power of technology to harness that imagination and spark change for social good.
“It’s been the most amazing year,” Dominic, 19, told me during a Skype call from his family home in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. “I’ve been halfway across the world and back. I’ve met a bunch of people who’ve become like second siblings to me, and I’ve been given the tools and technology to make a dream of mine come true. My life has changed – completely.”
Making a difference
It all began with a desire to make a difference. Back in February 2014, Dominic spotted an advertisement on campus for Microsoft YouthSpark’s ‘Challenge for Change’ contest. This encourages young people around the world to develop a project using Microsoft technology, with the potential to spark change in their communities.
The contest is part of Microsoft YouthSpark, an initiative to create education, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for 300 million young people. Asia has large numbers of working poor, particularly in rural environments, and a lack of technical or vocational training to generate new opportunities. The initiative works with schools, students, startups and the developer community to drive skills and ICT integration. The aim is simple: to empower youth by giving them access to technology and a better education so they can harness their imagination and realize their full potential.
Dominic already had an idea for a project – one particularly close to his heart. He sent off an entry form and promptly forgot all about it. A few weeks later, he was astounded to learn that he had been named as one of 20 finalists, from an entry pool of hundreds of university students globally. In May, after a nail-biting period when the public got to vote online, he emerged as one of 2014’s five winners.
“I never had the confidence to enter an international competition before and so never thought I could win,” he confides. “But looking back now, I’m so glad I did enter, because if this year has taught me anything, it’s that the only person really stopping you from being the best person you can be is yourself.”
Literature as a spark for change
A true Millennial, Dominic wants to make a lasting impact on the world. “This is what motivates me – I want to be a part of something that matters and makes a difference, and that’s reflected in how I fundamentally approach every day,” he says.
So it comes as no surprise, then, that his winning proposal is for a Web site to help fellow Filipino youths develop a stronger sense of national identity, through gaining an appreciation of their country’s greatest literature.
Dominic’s idea stems from his sense of frustration and failure during high school in trying to understand two required 19th-century textbooks – Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by José Rizal. An engaging storyteller and brilliant social critic, Rizal is often described as the “First Filipino” and regarded as the country’s greatest national hero.
His novels, which dramatize social change, shook Spanish rule when they were first published, inspiring young Filipinos to rise up in rebellion against colonial tyranny. They also led to Rizal being labelled a dangerous seditionary by the authorities, and ultimately to his death by firing squad at the age of only 35.
But as Dominic explains, over time, Rizal’s work lost some of its relevance. “Back in high school, I had a really tough time with these books,” he confesses. “It wasn’t just a case of the language [they’re written in an old-fashioned version of Tagalog], or a lack of online study-aid material. I just couldn’t for the life of me understand their relevancy to me, here, now.
“It was only when I got to college and took a class about Filipino history that the penny dropped. Because Rizal’s works aren’t taught in the context of our history, students tend to treat the text as pure fiction and not as a reflection of the way things really were. But these stories have so much to tell us about our national identity.”
His vision is to use technology to bring these stories to life and to make them meaningful to a new generation through a web site he’s named Libroko.com. Once the site is launched, viewers will be able to access the full text of both books, including translations into English and other languages. There’ll be historical information as well, and analytical articles by preeminent Rizal scholars, along with a microsite where students can discuss the books. Libroko.com will also have student forums, quizzes, and an online essay contest.
“In the Philippines, where approximately 37 million people use social media every day, the Internet and the latest Microsoft technologies serve as a powerful device to communicate ideas,” he explains. “Libroko.com is my way to harness that, and to help my generation understand Filipino literature in the context of history – to remember where we came from and who we are.”
Bringing the project to life
As a Challenge for Change winner, Dominic received a US$2,500 award to help fund his project, as well as a Windows tablet and other Microsoft technology. He also won a two-week, all expenses paid volunteer trip to Ecuador to help him boost his leadership skills and give him a taste of creating change through community work.
The cash has enabled him to rent cloud space and buy developer software, along with other technical infrastructure to bring the project to life. Recently, a second student joined his project. The two spent the summer of 2014 researching how to design and build the Web site and flesh out their concept and goals for the technology.
“I didn’t have any tools before and mostly used my phone for everything,” he says. “But the bundle of Microsoft technology I received as part of my win has really helped drive the project forward. Now, when I get an idea, I jot it down in OneNote. When I get home, that idea automatically uploads to OneDrive in the cloud, so I don’t lose the data. At the same time, using Windows 8 on my new tablet helps me integrate all my work for the Web site in a more organized manner.”
The challenge of building a real-world product has also helped Dominic to understand how technology overlaps with other fields in a human-centered approach. “At first, I thought building a Web site was just a matter of coding, but there’s so much more to it than that,” he tells. “A major challenge is finding the experts who can help create a regular pipeline of content for the site, and also how to make that content interactive.”
Potential collaborators include noted Filipino film historian and UPD professor Nick Deocampo, to whom Dominic turned to for advice on creating a video game for the site on Filipino literature and history.
“I’m learning about the need to build partnerships, and also trying to understand the behavior of the audience we’re trying to reach,” he says. “One of the biggest things I’ve learnt so far is that it’s okay to fail and try again.”
A common approach
Getting Libroko.com off the ground has so far been demanding, complex, fascinating and time-consuming, Dominic says. But what really helps is that the other four winners are there for him.
“We keep in touch and support each other through the challenges of developing our projects,” he explains.
Dominic first became close to his fellow winners and future innovators on their two-week trip to Ecuador. There, he met Sara Stifler, 21, and Laura Fulton, 18, both from the US; Sathya Narayanan Subramanian, 23, from India; and Juan Carlos Murillo, 22, from Mexico. From their base at Minga Lodge deep in the Amazon rainforest, the group of teenagers and young adults volunteered in nearby communities and explored the rainforest.
Dominic admits that the trip to the Amazon was an eye-opening experience for him. “The opportunity of wearing a hard hat and getting my hands dirty in building a community kitchen from ground up without any form of assistive machinery is totally different from the safe, isolated and technology-laden environment I am used to,” he said.
During the stay, he and his fellow travellers also learned the true meaning of the word minga – a local term used to say that “many hands make light work”. In the Amazon, whenever there is a problem, whether it is finding clean drinking water, or building a new school, each household sends a volunteer to help.
“I was really trying to push myself when we were out there, trying to experience everything I could to the best of my abilities,” Dominic recounts, including trying local delicacies such as a giant orange long-horned beetle grub. “It was almost as big as a Chihuahua. Live and squirming. Didn’t taste too bad, though.”
After those bonding experiences, the group got pretty close. “All of us are social entrepreneurs, and we’re all passionate about using technology as a tool to promote our causes,” Dominic tells me. “So that’s kind of a common thread. Now, we have a Facebook group and every month we update each other on what’s going on with our lives and our projects.”
Fit for the future
So what’s next for Dominic? Before his Amazon trip, he was considering a specialty in green factory architecture. But now, he’s become critical of his chosen field’s “ivory towers”.
“Working and interacting with the communities in the rainforest made me realize I want to get out of the design studio when I graduate and interact more with the people I’m designing for,” he says. “I’m now exploring a specialization in low-cost housing.”
For now though, his main focus going forward is getting Libroko.com finished in time for a launch in late 2015.
“This project is my passion,” he says. “I think about it even when I sleep. In fact, I sometimes have to stop myself thinking about it too much, because otherwise it gets in the way of my studies. Luckily, my family are all very supportive.”
Did his parents foster his deep sense of community involvement and social entrepreneurship?
“For sure,” he laughs. “My mom’s a great businesswoman who runs a chain of ice cream parlors. My dad’s a consultant who used to run the Ford Motor Company here in the Philippines. He put in place a range of social entrepreneurship programs to promote the use of renewable energy and solar-powered cars. I learnt a lot from both of them.”
Dominic says he lets off steam with laser tag, long walks through the city at night, or playing the piano (mastering Debussy’s Hungarian Dance No. 5 is a current obsession).
It’s not long before talk turns back to his project, and what he still needs to do to accomplish it.
“I’ve always had strong opinions on what could be done to make the world a better place, and now, for the first time, I have all of the resources that I need to follow through with my vision,” he says. “As demanding as it is to get this Web site set up while still balancing classes and research, with every day that goes by I am so thankful for this incredible opportunity to pursue my passion.”