Student-run lab empowering innovation

Michael Hewlett pores over a thick stack of student applications. Each page represents a different idea, a new possibility to pursue and develop.

Hewlett is the co-founder and outgoing director of the McMaster Social Innovation Lab (MSIL), a student-run ‘idea incubator’ located on campus. He is reviewing dozens of potential projects from students in a number of disciplines, each one focused on finding solutions that contribute to the social good.

Michael Hewlett (pictured) and Brianna Smrke are the co-founders of the McMaster Social Innovation Lab.

Michael Hewlett (pictured) and Brianna Smrke are the co-founders of the McMaster Social Innovation Lab.

The ideas are diverse and range from health care system innovation to refugee displacement to various start-up proposals. One idea even involves opening a community bakery.

“The space gives students a tangible place to start working on their ideas,” says Hewlett, a fourth year student in the Arts and Science program.  “Some people have very specific things they want to work on; others are interested in contributing to the process and using their skills and expertise to help others with their ideas.”

The space is designed to inspire. The walls are made up almost entirely of white boards which students have covered in intellectual graffiti: philosophical theories, drawings, equations and everything in between. Posters quoting famous visionaries like Steve Jobs can be found on the walls.  There’s even a box of lego and two 3D printers for anyone who wants to try their hand at design or prototyping.

The space has a steady flow of activity, occupied by students working on their projects, or just engaging each other in free-flowing theoretical conversations, something Hewlett encourages.

“I like to see people having abstract discussions that seem to have no point at all, just questioning for the sake of questioning. These kinds of conversations are what university is all about; that’s how great ideas are born.”

Laying the Groundwork

MSIL officially launched last October, but the project was over two years in the making.

Hewlett developed MSIL along with Brianna Smrke, also an Arts and Science student. They were inspired to develop a creative, interdisciplinary space for students after reading, Getting to Maybe, a book about social innovation.

Hewlett describes social innovation as, “any kind of change in an existing system that has social benefits.” This could mean developing a product that helps people in some way, or coming up with a system change that improves social, cultural, economic, or environmental policies or processes.

Hewlett and Smrke present their ideas for the creation of MSIL to McMaster faculty, staff and students.

Hewlett and Smrke present their ideas for the creation of MSIL to McMaster faculty, staff and students.

Smrke and Hewlett began by taking independent study courses offered through McMaster’s Arts and Science program to cultivate their skills in leadership and creativity. They also connected with the Change Lab at the University of Waterloo where they explored practical ways to take concepts and move them into a real world setting.

About a year ago, they applied for and received a Forward with Integrity grant to host a workshop inviting faculty, staff and students to discuss what they thought of the concept and whether it could work at McMaster.

Hewlett says they received valuable feedback and advice, and says it was this kind of grassroots dialogue that helped crystallize their thinking and allowed MSIL to take shape.

“We thought all along, ‘we don’t know if this is going to work, we just think this is a really interesting experiment,’” says Hewlett. “We wanted to hear what people thought about the idea, we thought if it works, it will be because people have told us this is something they want and need.”

With a framework in place, Smrke and Hewlett received another FWI grant, as well as funding from the Student Life Enhancement Fund, to make MSIL a reality.

Teaching students to innovate

Hewlett says MSIL not only provides students with a space to cultivate their ideas, it also acts as a forum to bring together students with different skills and perspectives, encouraging them to work in multi-disciplinary teams.

Students from all Faculties discuss their projects in McMaster's Social Innovation Lab.

Students from all Faculties discuss their projects in McMaster's Social Innovation Lab located in Thode Library B117/A

When students become members, they are asked to identify expertise or skills that could help others move forward with their projects, for example writing, coding, design or prototyping. This information is added to a binder and is used to help students form interdisciplinary collaborations.

“There are a lot of different kinds of smart,” says Hewlett. “MSIL allows us to bring together people with different abilities in the room. It helps to break down boundaries. No one ever says ‘I don’t want to work with someone outside my discipline.’ Just the opposite, it’s something that makes people want to join.”

Ultimately Hewlett hopes that MSIL will help students cultivate skills and be exposed to perspectives that will inspire and empower them to move forward on their own projects.

“To make what we’re learning more useful, it has to be applied and to make it more impactful and meaningful; students need to have to find a way to do that themselves,” says Hewlett” “We want to provide students with tools so they’ll be able to say, ‘I have an idea and I might not know how to do it right now, but this is the process of problem solving, this is how we figure it out. MSIL is a place where students can do that."

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