Veerappan Swaminathan – Sustainable Living Lab

Veerappan Swaminathan – Sustainable Living Lab

“An artist touches his “work” when he is stricken by inspiration, when the “muse” alights upon his shoulder, when the stars are aligned. Like the artist, a craftsman has knowledge and passion and skill and experience, but he also picks up his tools every day and gets busy. Semantics, yes, but we believe that they are important to how we approach our work. Every day, we strive to be the best craftsmen we can be.” – Flint Dille & John Zuur Platten

Veerappan Swaminathan
Co-Founder, Sustainable Living Labs(SL2)

Age: 26

Veerappan Swaminathan is the co-founder of Sustainable Living Lab (SL2), a semi-outdoor community lab and prototyping facility that enables local innovators, students and companies to serve their communities and the bottom-of-the-pyramid better. SL2 is integrated with the Ground-Up Initiative community.

SL2 runs apprenticeship programs for youth and juvenile delinquents to nurture the spirit of ground-up innovation. They also conduct humanitarian simulation and teach prototyping (mechanical & electrical) as well as innovation techniques (futures, systems, gamification and design thinking) to schools and companies. The lab uses discarded or sustainable materials such as waste wood, bamboo, fire hoses and cardboard to conceptualize, design and manufacture products locally.

How did SL2 come about?

I joined GUI in February 2010 but the idea for sustainable living lab began sometime when I was year 2[in NUS]. We wanted to do our own projects, but it was difficult to get lab access; and there was a lot of inter-department rivalry so the resources one could get was quite limited. That was frustrating to us because at that time, we were trying to do a project for a competition organised by UNESCO. We were trying to develop a solar fruit drying system to dry the fruits. We were collaborating with Mumbai University in India. It was a pretty long project; taking a grand total of one and a half years. And in the course of the project, we had difficulties when we were trying to run experiments. That was when the problem surfaced- there was a lack of space for such experimentation and tinkering. This was also the point in time when we were doing a lot of projects outside our curriculum. The reason was because I did not do so well in my first semester. So, getting a first class honours was mathematically out of the question. I had to look at other things; and it became a period of reflection – was it just about getting first class honours? Was it just about getting a job?  And I realized, that kind of life did not appeal to me. So I decided that I should do things that interested me. Ibnur and Huei Ming were my classmates then and became one of my earliest collaborators. Together with a bunch of other friends, we started working together. We had and continue to have a great team and this will be our sixth year together!

We were basically trying to gain some hands-on experience in “real engineering” and we designed and built a lot of stuff. Halfway through that, we realized that we needed a space for us and others to do these sorts of things more consistently. In my third year [as an undergraduate], I went over to Silicon Valley and we carried on participating in many projects. I was there for a year and Ibnur was my roommate there. I worked for a biomedical company and helped in their intellectual property department filing patents and also spent time building advanced medical devices in the engineering department.  When I came back, we wanted to start a club- then called a “prototyping club”, where it would be a space for people to come and build things. In the US they had Techshops­, which were public access workshops that anyone could enter to build whatever they wanted. This was especially important when individual innovators didn’t have the specific equipment or garage space to do their projects.

There is an established “garage culture” in the US, which we do not have in Singapore. The prototyping lab was supposed to bring over some of that culture – we call it the “kampung culture”. As for SL2 that you see over here, it is the third iteration of the “prototyping club”. Ibnur, Huei Ming and I tried it once, but it didn’t work out so well. We got all the people together and then decided what to do and some of them didn’t quite like the projects we had planned. The second time we tried it, we moved a bit too slowly, and didn’t give people enough things to do, and failed as well.

We realized that we needed a space. The two times that didn’t work out was due to various reasons, including the student environment, when everyone had other priorities. There was a lack of a supportive community. Furthermore, we were just making stuff, and we didn’t have a purpose. And I think people value purpose, and when they couldn’t see it, their motivations also suffered.

Why did you decide to be part of GUI?

Ibnur and I came to GUI as volunteers, with the intention of setting up SL2 in GUI after a chance meeting with Xu Hong who shared about the space and its spirit. Initially, we wanted one lab in NUS, and another over here [at GUI], but eventually settled for a lab at GUI only.

The reason we stayed was because of the purpose. GUI as a community has a very strong purpose. And also, over here at GUI, we have a very supportive community. GUI is able to attract a very diverse audience, united by a culture of grounded-ness and being hands-on. It defined the community, and this resonated with what Ibnur and I wanted for SL2. And it also gave SL2 a purpose, something which we previously didn’t have. Over at GUI, we have artists, engineers, architects and other professionals working together in a very nice environment. Furthermore, GUI was looking into building up their craftsmanship component, in addition to farming and cooking. A lot of things matched right away, and we had a good feeling about it.

We started a lab here formally in July 2011 and we decided that we wanted it to nurture the spirit of Ground-Up Innovation. Just as The Valley has its garage culture, we want to build a kampung culture. I think this is necessary in many places.

Is it because of the lack of innovation in this region?

You may have heard the phrase, “necessity is the mother of invention”. But when we started working with different communities some with very dire needs in Indonesia, India, Cambodia and Vietnam, we started questioning, why aren’t the communities with the most pressing needs developing their own solutions?

Could it be because these countries have a lack of resources?

Evidently there are a number of reasons, including lack of resources, lack of exposure to new ideas, and even a lack of opportunities, et cetera. We have since decided to make nurturing the spirit of ground up innovation our goal, as we hope to let innovation flourish and for communities to become more self reliant and resilient. We feel that the main reason why ground-up innovation is not flourishing in Singapore is due to the lack of opportunity. There is rarely opportunity. The way innovation is usually done in companies or universities here is characterized by a great deal of silo’ing, red tape, resource hoarding, and people seldom havethe opportunity to see through the entire project cycle – one person will design and another will do the physical or engineering aspects. It is very much segmented. We need the ground-up innovator, to be whatever the situation needs him/her to be and understand both the problem and the solution as a whole.

A ground-up innovator?

An example would be the solar fruit drying project that we did, which won us a UNESCO award in 2006. They supposedly awarded us for our technical solution to a common issue. But when the judges explained to us on why we won, it wasn’t the technical aspect that they focused on, but the total system approach that they were impressed with. Most of the other participants approached the solution as a technical project, but we approached the issue with the mindset that we needed to set up a system. This meant that we had to be sociologists, economists and tough negotiators; we had to know how to fight corruption as well as build stuff. The Indian government gives a guaranteed 70% loan for projects that use renewable or sustainable energy. However, when the farmers [the beneficiaries] went to the office to ask for a loan, they were told that such a scheme did not exist! So we had to sort that out. Members of our team arranged for legal representation to ensure that the paperwork was done properly. Also we realized that no one bought the dried fruit products. So we had to help the farmers find buyers. The farmers also found out that it was more profitable to dry fish than to dry fruit. So we had to help them to modify the system to dry fish. In such situations, you cannot say “I am only trained as a mechanical engineer and cannot do anything else!” That would be ridiculous. We need to be whatever the situation demands us to be. And this seems to be a very alien concept to many people, many Singaporean engineers especially.

Is this because knowledge is very specialized?

Some knowledge is quite specialized but most of it isn’t, especially in a low-tech setting. People tend to think that knowledge, especially technical knowledge, is very specialized but it’s not true. If you think about it, before we became engineers, what were we? Those four years of engineering or other specialized education should not define who we are. We can always learn and pick up new stuff.

I think one of the things that made us [SL2] who we are today is that we did not let the things we did not know stop us.

Could you share more about the apprenticeship programs you have?

The apprenticeship programs are for probationers from MCYS, who serve their community service hours with GUI and by extension SL2. We bring these apprentices through the whole product development process – getting them to design and build things that we use regularly around the kampung or for our key events. Examples include benches, several carnival games, fruit peel drying racks and even wooden signages. I guess we will never really know if these programs have changed them, but we find that some still come back even after the end of their probation. I believe the apprenticeship is useful, and people tend to know what is useful for them.Which is why we have some of the boys coming back and telling us that they would like to learn more from us. We now teach some of them how to tinker with open source electronic kits and even write small bits of code.

So you think that it empowers them?

I don’t think “empower” is the right word. But I think we managed to engage their interest. For most of these youths, they lack a sense of agency, a sense of control over their lives. A lot of what we do, especially with those boys, strives to give them the sense of agency, that the choices they make matter. Back in the pre-industrial era, young people apprenticed to learn a new trade – in this present age, our young charges apprentice with us to learn positive attitudes and develop a sense of agency.

For those who have completed their probation course, we get them to lead the new batch. In fact one of them has gone on to join our team full time.

How do you intend to promote the concept of sustainable living in Singapore through SL2?

I would think the first condition to sustainability is self-sufficiency, and knowing how to build things is a fundamental part of it. Without any kind of Ground-up Innovation spirit or hands on culture, it will be quite hard to get there. Much of the talk about sustainability these days tends to be just that – talk. Over here, we focus a lot on doing/building/making things, and I think this is the first step to promoting sustainability.

It is the sense of agency, once again. Not just in the boys, but everyone else, knowing what you can do and having the ability to create things; to shape your own future. Suddenly, there are no more limits. It’s the sense of empowerment that comes with the knowledge that you too can pick up new things, you too can try out new stuff. That’s quite radical, because while it may be difficult to see this tangibly, your horizon gets that much wider.

Where do you see SL2 in five years’ time?

We hope to be in a few countries, ASEAN countries.

There is a reason behind “ASEAN countries”. Our first project was in India, and we realized that whenever you do projects in other countries, you must be ready to firefight them. So, we didn’t want to be anywhere more than a three hour flight from the country.

Also, we felt that there was a lot of “ASEAN neglect”, and this is the region we are in. So instead of going around, going to places far away, we felt that we should start things closer to home, in our region, with people that we knew. There are lots of issues in this part of the world, systemic issues. So we try and see what we can do for them to help nurture the latent spirit of ground-up innovation within these communities. We may not have the panacea to every single problem out there, but it will go a long way in helping people in this region, so people won’t feel they are powerless. The sense of powerlessness is quite tragic, in my opinion.

We want to come up with an alternative model for innovation. We want the products that come out of the lab to be something that is adoptable and functional – not an invention but an innovation. Every new technology created must add a new function, as my co-founder Ibnur insists. It cannot just be a rehash of existing products, that’s not true innovation.

We feel that people know the problems they face and are in the best position to solve them. At some point in time, they will need some technical knowledge, and in those cases, they will get that, they will learn those things [technical knowledge]. We don’t want people to keep on relying on experts. Experts have their place, but they are not the answer.

What advice would you give to the other innovators out there?

One of the thing you won’t see coming out of SL2 is a consumer product that functions mostly as a status symbol. What you will see is something more socially focused, people focused or nature focused. And quite frankly, I think these are the only things worth making, and everything else is just an add-on to the already pervasive consumerist mentality. So I urge innovators out there to do things with a sense of purpose. It is a lot  more interesting to do innovation with a larger purpose in mind.

Also, innovators need to learn whatever they don’t know, and not let that stop them. You must somehow convince yourself that every problem can be solved. The solution may not be something that requires innovation, but something that requires a system. Just like the solution we had in India. It would have completely failed unless we addressed the issue of corruption; and adapted to the economic context. So innovators should not be too fixated on their domain of expertise, and should instead be whatever the situation demands them to be.

– Profiled by Lim Zi Song