J.J. Bardoel
Silhouette Intern

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From world poverty to a vertical garden in downtown Hamilton, the McMaster Social Innovation Lab looks to allow students a haven for solving problems and expanding on ideas that could potentially benefit others on campus. Michael Hewlett and Brianna Smrke, co-directors of MSIL, had the vision of creating a place where students could be given tools to become better problem solvers.

“The Social Innovation Lab is an inventor’s workshop for undergraduates” said Smrke. “It is a space where students can come and apply their knowledge from what their learning in class and what they already know to solve some kind of real problem, big or small.” The Lab has accumulated a group of 30 volunteers who will help students in having their vision come to life through planning and prototyping.

The pilot project is partially funded by the Forward with Integrity movement, and partially by the Student Life Enhancement Fund.

“We’ve had two rounds of Forward with Integrity funding. First, was with the workshop in the spring for different people in the University to see if they were interested in supporting this idea further,” explained Hewlett.

“What that really helped us do, was give us a little bit of support by people saying ‘We think you have a nugget of something good here, develop it a little bit further.’”

The second part of their FWI funding was used for development over the summer, and the Student Life Enhancement Fund money will be used for pilot projects in the fall and spring.

The team prepared for the launch over the summer, with Smrke being granted a travel scholarship from McMaster to travel to India in order to observe a social innovation lab there.

Their official website has a feature, dubbed the “problem bank”, which has a varying collection of potential problems for MSIL to work on. The co-directors emphasized that no one problem is of a higher priority than another.

“I would say that we do not really have a priority and that’s the point of the bank being so open,” said Smrke.

“We’re really trying to get different kinds of people in the space at the same time.”

The Social Innovation Lab is currently working on a wide spectrum of projects, some of which are focused on campus life, others on issues regarding life outside McMaster. One project had the team brainstorm ideas to reduce the waste of food on campus, which led them to set up Twitter and Facebook pages, and after events, can be contacted to take the food. Another has them preparing a fundraising campaign for a student who has ambitions to go to Africa.

MSIL, currently located in Thode B117/A, is still developing the workshop for students. The space has tools for members to learn how to create prototypes on budget, with light hardware, utensils to draw, as well as space for students to keep their ideas stored in the room.

Hewlett and Smrke, who hosted the soft launch of their space on Oct. 2, are optimistic for the project’s future.

“I’m really grateful to the McMaster community, we’ve received so much support so far and I really hope that we can provide a good return on the investment that has been put into us,” said Smrke.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what will come about in the space, how people are changed by it and how people change the space, how the people take ownership of it, so it becomes a McMaster thing, not just something we’re both involved but something the whole campus sees as a place to try out their ideas.”

 Photo credit: Brianna Smrke

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