To Infinity And Beyond

The Sustainable Living Lab has its sights on the grand challenges of creating a better world from the ground up.

By Kim Lee

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Founders of the Sustainable Living Lab (SL2): L-R Ibnur Rashad, Tan Huei Ming and Veerapan Swaminathan

Most people who drop by the Sustainable Living Lab’s workshop assume it’s a rustic hangout for Do-It-Yourself types. It is a rare, if unassuming, ground-level space in otherwise high-rise Singapore where people can hammer a few things together and repair stuff, so this impression isn’t entirely wrong — but it’s only a glimpse of a larger ambition. The enterprise has its roots in old-school DIY, and its eye on the frontiers of space.

DIY may not be a big deal in a nation where buying  new things or service solutions is the norm, but the three founders behind SL2 (pronounced “S-L-square”) think differently. The workshop is really a prototyping laboratory nurturing talent for sustainable solutions for developing countries, such as solar powered drying machines for fish and fruit. The lab is a model for setting up workshops to enable people in less developed  countries to create solutions and products for use in their rural communities. The approach goes far beyond buying or making a solution and leaving it with the community. It also involves social understanding of what a community needs and how it will take to the innovations being introduced. The DIY approach is pivotal to solving problems.

 The Ecology of Innovation

When people habitually buy manufactured solutions like a new chair to replace a wobbly one, or call a plumber in to tighten a tap rather than figure out how to fix it themselves, they lose touch with the nature of things and eventually forget how to innovate. “When you lose innovation, you lose social resilience because you no longer have the skills, the ability and the tools,” says Veerapan Swaminathan, 26, an engineering graduate and co-founder of SL2.

It was an insight gained and shared by then-fellow student and co-founder Mohd Ibnur Rashad when the two wound up in California’s Silicon Valley, where they met and spent an overlapping year at Stanford University under the NUS (National University of Singapore) Engineering Science Programme. “We saw how investors, entrepreneurs, educators, innovators, inventors, programmers worked,” says Rashad. “It opened our eyes to an ecosystem — and I realised that Singapore did not have this.” Innovation, they notice, comes largely from the top-down here with big money going to universities for PhD students to work on corporate-driven projects. Nothing wrong with that, but unlike the Valley, there is a dearth of entrepreneurial self initiated projects here.

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Cardboard sculptures created at SL2 always get attention from visitors.

SL2’s third co-founder, engineer Tan Huei Ming, 25, observes, “We have engineering students who end up not doing engineering because they choose professions by following the money and not their passion or even purpose. Yet engineering has a few grand challenges that a basic engineer should look up to — the challenge of exploration, of improving the standard of life, and not just for comfort.”

As for how far such exploration can go, Tan, a teaching assistant for the Engineering Science Programme at the National University of Singapore, is looking to the stars. He is a member of an international team of hackerspace members behind SpaceGAMBIT, set up to nurture international  collaboration between local maker communities to advance an audacious vision presented in the 100-Year Starship Study (100YSS) initiated by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to make human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next century. Hackerspaces are part of life in the Valley. These are community innovation hubs where people with common interests in computers, technology, programming and more can meet to share ideas, network and collaborate in resources and knowledge to build things.

 A Powerful Thing to Have

Tan believes that high-level US agencies like NASA and DARPA are supportive of 100YSS because they see such innovative communities as a national asset. He says, “It contributes towards the self-sufficiency of a community — and that is a very powerful thing to have. And if they see value in community spaces such as this, then clearly they are seeing something Singapore should be seeing as well.”

Adds Swaminathan, “We live in a time in which rejection of mass consumerism, a growing awareness of sustainable lifestyles, increased accessibility to tools that aid personal creativity, and massive growth in Internet access have resulted in a quiet but growing ‘maker culture’ around the world.”

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Supporting the Ground-Up Initiative’s events brings the Sustainable Living Lab into contact with many different communities, such as the Civil Defence Force, corporations and students, and these interactions bring invaluable lessons in understanding people.

This is a burgeoning phenomenon that has already earned a definition in Wikipedia as a “contemporary subculture, representing a technology-based extension of DIY culture.” SL2 manifests this new maker culture here. Formally set up in June 2011 as a space for engineering innovation for rural solutions in the region, it has shaped up as a semi-outdoor workshop of the non-profit Ground-Up Initiative (GUI), which shares SL2’s outlook on serving community and sustainability. This has proved a rewarding symbiotic partnership. GUI’s connections put SL2 in touch with the then-MCYS (Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, now restructured with the Ministry of Communications and Information into three ministries), where it got involved keeping youths on probation busy during their community service hours. The boys apprenticed in the lab, organising, fixing and creating things like event signs, kampung games such as table-sized labyrinths, and DIY craft kits for public workshops that SL2 and GUI needed.

As time passed, older and more experienced boys oversaw newer probationers who came into the workshop. In the process, the probationers’ attitudes improved and some even cheerfully returned to volunteer after their enforced stint. “We didn’t expect that.” said Rashad. “We realised then that SL2 had the potential to rehabilitate people and give them a sense of confidence and self-esteem.”

 Mixed Bag

The SL2 founders draw on a mixed bag of experiences: degrees in  mechanical engineering, nanotechnology, experience in mobile payments and bio-mechanical device production; creating rural solutions (India); relationships with humanitarian agencies in Indonesia; a list of international engineering competition kudos including two UNESCO-Daimler Mondialogo Engineering awards; and internships in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Home Affairs. It’s given them a multi-faceted window on the world through which they can see how things can be done better.

Out of this crucible of experiences came the Humanitarian Engineering Practicum. It thrust tertiary engineering students into a rustic environment to design, prototype and build technological innovations from scratch for bottom-of-thepyramid challenges faced in rural Asia. Organised by the Institution of Engineers Singapore’s (IES) Humanitarian Engineering Alliance (HEAL) technical committee, the  practicum is one of several courses designed by SL2 for educational and corporate institutions.

The first HEAL practicum last May coincided with a visit by K Shanmugam, Singapore’s Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs, to GUI. The minister’s favourite question for the young engineers appeared to be: “Why are you here?” To which they replied that the rural environment and supportive community allowed and inspired practical experimentation not possible in their schools. The Minister must have found things interesting, for he overstayed his scheduled time to learn more.

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The SL2 designs and makes kampung games such as this fishing challenge to create awareness of the consequences of a disposable culture.

A month before that, SL2’s participation in a Challenge Future competition led to Rashad presenting GUI and SL2 to the world at a TEDx event in Slovenia. He was one of two speakers out of 12 to receive a standing ovation.

“The idea of creating a lab in a community with technologies to solve its own problems like poverty was fresh to the audience,” he recalls. “Several of them approached me to create SL2s in their own countries. I said, ‘The only one who can make an SL2 in your country is you, because the idea is about the community building their own labs knowing what they need, getting equipped accordingly, and building their own community of innovators.’”

This focus on community is a lesson from Stanford, where Rashad and Swaminathan attended lectures by Steve Blank, a respected military veteran and serial entrepreneur. “A lot of the culture we practice in SL2 comes from Steve’s ‘get out of the building’ philosophy,” says Rashad. “It means get out and get your idea into the community, to your potential customers, and test whether it works. He spoke about developing customers and community more than developing your own product. He reminded us that 90% of start-ups fail because they have not understood the market properly. So I am very grateful we are here at SL2 in the GUI community, where there are activities almost every weekend involving interaction with the community.”

And the community is responding. “We are getting a lot more innovators coming in, like people who want to design their own furniture,” says Swaminathan. “They’re just out of school and this is the place where they are living their dream.”


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