From left to right: Michael Hewlett, David Robinson, Mark Tovey, and Erica Robinson
Brianna Smrke has been working with the simulation team at SiG@Waterloo. She blogged about our Sudbury simulation intensive at downwithvowels. We’ll be reposting her first-person accounts of those sessions, plus impressions of her current trip to India to visit the OaSiS Social Innovations Laboratory in Bhopal.
Sudbury. December 8th, 2012.
“What’s all this then,” you say [British accent optional], “Brianna’s blogging again? What’s she going on about now?”
Complexity, minerals and blimps, perhaps.
I’m heading up to Sudbury for a weekend to assist/be a fly on the wall of a workshop that the Social Innovation Lab research team from Waterloo is running in collaboration with members of the community and academics from Laurentian.
Well, that was a mouthful. Or a brainful, I guess, if you’re just reading it to yourself.
“What’s a Social Innovation Lab?” you might also be asking.
You’re in luck, I (along with my classmate Michael) just finished a whole course on that question. Social Innovation Labs, in (really) short, are a different way to approach messy, seemingly ‘unsolvable’ problems that involve a lot of factors.
Understanding a messy problem often involves making a map or model of the system
A Social Innovation Lab process brings together people from as many different sides of the issue as possible. They talk and form a common understanding of the problem. This ‘understanding’ usually takes the form of a map or model of the system. Using this map, they design and prototype ways to address the problem. Then they try these potential solutions and see what happens – changing their map if they need to and changing the solution if it doesn’t work. The process is very flexible, loops around quite a bit, and there’s some evidence that it produces better solutions in the long run.
We’re going to Sudbury to try out the social innovation lab process on an issue relating to the “Ring of Fire”—a whole whack of mineral deposits that have been found in the North. Assuming these resources can be extracted by mining companies, they have to get to other industries somehow—so a transportation infrastructure is needed. But right now the Ring of Fire area isn’t too developed. So the question becomes–how best can we develop a transportation infrastructure that’s sustainable, cost-effective and fast to implement—among other factors? [Update: this is a guiding idea for the weekend, but not quite its purpose… see later]
After finishing my last exam (Programming) this morning, I had a quick lunch and met Michael at the GO bus station. We travelled to Toronto and hung around at the Starbucks while we waited for the minivan from Waterloo to come and pick us up. I know, Mom, that you told me never to get into a car with strangers, but I think this is an exception. We’ve been teleconferencing these people (as part of our course on Social Innovation Labs) for the past few months.
And, as it turns out, they’re awesome. They were delayed about an hour because their GPS was directing them to the wrong Starbucks, but then they all piled out of the car. Mark, the co-leader of the research team (more on him later), Terry, a philosophy postdoc in a computational neuroscience lab, and Benjamin, another undergrad at Waterloo (in the Knowledge Integration Program) interested in Social Innovation Labs.
As we started our slow exit out of Toronto (unfortunately the hour delay meant that we ran right into rush hour), we started talking and began what would be a long, meandering series of conversations that were fascinating and hilarious. We learned that Benjamin was doing an independent study course on meditation, and that Terry loves ‘hard science fiction.’ (A few examples of hard science fiction include a tale where a sign on the Theory of Relativity equation is flipped and the author works through the consequences, a story where anarchosyndicalism is the new socio-economic system and another where Santa is a pig). We learned that Michael is pretty good at reading Robert Service poems, that I laugh at everything (and make really bad puns), and that Mark is a bit of a ham. Green Eggs & Ham, that is. He holds not only a PhD in cognitive science, but also a love of theatre and self-referential humour (actually, everyone loves self-referential humour). He’s written a series of plays–parts of which he acted out for us. The Green Eggs & Ham comment comes from a skit he wrote about Green Eggs & Hamlet (“I could not could not kill my Uncle Claude … I could not kill him in a house … ”, etc. Hilarious).
We talked about communal playlists, playgrounds for ‘big kids’ (apparently there’s a great museum in Barcelona that I should check—the Interaction Lab), the role of grad pubs in an education, consciousness, provability and more. Such kind, interesting people. They make me excited about the future.
We also ate more junk food in that car than I’ve eaten for months. Chips, bagels, cookies. “Cookies are reliable temporary happiness.” – Mark
Over the next two days we’ll be working in a very self-organized fashion to create these tools and gather the necessary data, and then we’ll be working through it and presenting it on Monday to two very different crowds: academics and the public.
We got to Sudbury very late, but my first impression of it came from the excellent Christmas light display in front of Science North (they had meteor Christmas lights! and other ones too). We quickly found the house we’ll be staying in for the next few days. At the door to meet us was Kirsten (the other co-leader of the weekend; she’s from around the area), her father David Robinson (a professor of economics at Laurentian University), her friend Suzanne (who’s very involved in social innovation and with the First Nations communities in the North) and Kirsten’s sister Erica, who’ll be filming the weekend to hopefully make a short documentary about the social innovation lab process.
After the Thai food came, we settled into the living room and listened as Dr. Robinson gave us his perspective –a “survey” of the situation in the North.
David Robinson speaking to the simulation team
The North, he said, is poised to drastically change:
- the Far North is the size of a decent-sized country but only 23 000 people live there
- 95% of the population is First Nations—with isolated settlements scattered about the territory
- there really are no roads, communities are isolated, and people fly in
- the area is swampy and boggy–very hard to construct roads in it
- the Ring of Fire will drastically change the area–the deposits might be harder to get at, but because prices keep rising they’re viable to exploit (or will be soon)
- climate change means Hudson’s Bay will be accessible for 8 months of the year in 25 years.
- whatever happens with mining development will radically change the North (whether it’s an influx of people in the area, or the building of other kinds of transportation infrastructure)
Then we talked about transportation options: roads, winter roads, hovercraft and pipelines—and blimps (which, at least how they were described last night, don’t actually sound to be as crazy of an idea as you might think).
Suzanne also proved to be such a valuable person to have in the room because she could bring her first-hand experience of some of the things we talked about (negotiations between mining companies and First Nations groups, tensions between First Nations groups, etc.)
Now, that was a lot of information (and I’ve left a lot out, believe me), but I think it really gave me a sense of how complex the problem is; how many angles, how many scenarios could play out—and also, how important what happens could be to Canada (in the words of David Robinson “Now, we have the last real chance here in Canada for something different to happen with the development of these natural resources, or we can have the same old mess. The North is really the final Frontier for Canada but it’s not going to stay like that for long.”)
I rolled into bed, exhausted, but my mind was spinning. What kind of questions should we be asking about this whole interconnected set of issues? How can we understand it?