“Figure out why they are there in the first place” (Day 0 of Brianna at OASiS in Bhopal)

CN Tower - Brianna Smrke

Brianna Smrke is winging her way to India to spend time visiting the OaSiS Social Innovations Laboratory.

Gist: A few fun facts about my international air travel experience and why I am going to India to the first place.

Today I’ve watched a Bollywood movie while cruising thousands of feet above the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve seen the C.N. tower from above, with clouds swirling by. I’ve looked out the window at a blanket of clouds in a patchwork of patterns and textures – some like a windswept beach, others in squarish spirals. I’ve been charmed by murals depicting different aspects of Belgian life. The “Leadership Style” quiz I took on the plane told me that I need to be more assertive. I’ve marveled at the ability of light to reset our internal clocks. Moving between time zones, I don’t know how to feel, except that nothing is certain. It’s always morning somewhere. It’s always time to eat somewhere (this last one might prove a bit dangerous, given the supply of homemade scones I have stashed in my bag).

It’s been a travel day in the most genuine sense of the word. And I’m not done yet. I am sitting, typing this in the Brussels airport. In my direct eyeline is an ugly (but I can only hope functional) air traffic control tower, flanked by a much smaller but much more beautiful church tower. My flight to Delhi leaves in a little more than two hours. My flight to Bhopal (my final stop) is still about a day away.

“Okay great, Brianna, thanks for ‘taking off’ right into your travelogue.”

Was that a pun?

“Yes it was. Anyways, I like what you’re doing and all with the sharing all the exciting things that have happened to you today and all-”

Oh, thanks! I’m trying to make it interesting – I don’t want to be “boarding” you. You sure are nice to be reading this-

“-you’re welcome, but I have a question.”

Let’r fly!

“That wasn’t a very good pun, Brianna. Anyways, why are you going to India in the first place?”

Good question – one I’m still asking myself, to be honest. I do have reasons, though. The first is that I am really interested in complex systems-

“Oh god, not that again-”

Okay, hear me out. I am interested in how communities can be changed for the better. How does that happen? How do you address problems that part of “the system” itself? And by system I mean all the people and groups in a community and the ways that they interact. The system is partly created by the rules we lay out for ourselves as communities and societies (formal laws = rules, informal = values), partly by some things we can’t always control or change (geographic factors like how far away houses are, or biological factors like aging) and partly created by how we interact with these rules and with each other. It sounds messy, right? Let me take another pass: when we talk about a “community”, it’s tempting to want to picture only the people. That’s a community, right? If you want to fix a problem, you can just help individual people – give them a leg up or something like that.

I think that if you only look at people, and if you look at them all separately, you end up trying to plug holes in a leaky tub but never turning off the water.

Someone explained it to me like this: There are two people, and a river, and there are bodies floating in the river. One person immediately starts fishing bodies out, and another walks away. “Where are you going? How can you leave me when there are so many bodies to be pulled out?” says the first one. “I need to go figure out why they are there in the first place,” the other calls back as she keeps walking.

“I need to go figure out why they are there in the first place.”

And we need both kinds of people (we need all kinds of people!), but I strongly identify with the second kind of person, the one who pulls back and tries to see the entire landscape.

“Get back to funny travel stories. Give the people what they want!”

I will. I will. But first I need to pull this all together. It’s great to see the entire landscape –to get a sense of how the different parts of a system are connected, but what do you do once you have that understanding? How can you use what you know to do some good? How do you keep the bodies out of the river?

This is a skill I want to build. It’s something I want to know how to do. And how I’ve decided to learn this skill is by creating (with a great co-founder and an excellent team) a centre at McMaster that will teach other students how to do it too. The McMaster Social Innovation Lab (we’re looking for a snappier name, let me know if something comes up) will give students a chance to hone their systemic problem solving skills and make cool things. My friend (the great co-founder) Michael and I want it to be a mashup of a low-tech workshop space and a think tank. We want students to come in with vague ideas and leave with something they are proud of (be it a model, proposal, prototype), something that has opened their eyes to their potential as doers of good (manufacturers of awesome?) in the world.

And how are we going to do this? How can we help students “see the system” and do something with this understanding? We’re cobbling together ideas from a bunch of sources – our friends and collaborators at Social Innovation Generation Waterloo (the Change Lab research team!), our independent coursework on complex systems – but we’re not quite there yet.

That’s why I am going to India. To Bhopal, Mayar Pradesh, India, to be precise: home of the OaSiS Social Innovations Laboratory. Pradeep Ghosh and his team of dedicated people (many ex-Corporate) have been addressing social issues in a system-based way for the better part of a decade. They have developed five social innovations, some of which have been implemented in provinces across India. The lab is now focused on mentoring young social entrepreneurs – giving them the skills they will need to take a vague idea to a firm, tested project. Sound familiar?

I am going to Bhopal to be one of these social entrepreneur mentees. My project is the McMaster Social Innovation Lab. I will be honing my skills in system-based problem solving and at the same time devising a guide or “theory” of problem solving that will underpin the Lab’s activities.

“Okay, cool. But why are you going all the way to India? I sincerely doubt that this was the only option you had. There have to be local people you could have contacted instead.”

You’re right, there definitely are local people and I will be contacting them – there are some I have talked to already. Beyond the appeal of an entirely new land to explore (and don’t discount that), I wanted to go to India to test out for myself one of the ideas that draws me to complex systems-

“Oh god, are you still going on about that?”

-the idea that there are core, shared properties of systems: an underlying similarity that means something you learn from studying neurons in the brain can help you understand a forest better. In this case, it’s that learning something about how to approach an issue in Bhopal could be useful and relevant for Hamilton. If that sounds vague to you, you have good ears. But this is something I really want to be true, because it means that I could dabble in a whole bunch of different areas but still be building expertise.

An interesting offshoot of this could be global collaboration on issues that affect multiple places. Maybe Bhopal and Hamilton have much to share with and learn from each other.

So I guess this trip is all about me, in a way. But I really hope that it is “all about me” in a way that makes it all about others. I want to learn intensely and build relationships so that I can make more of the opportunities I have.

And if you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this, thank you. People like you, who take the time to listen to me, ask me questions, give me money to travel (thanks McMaster!) wish me well, challenge me, let me use their room so I could Skype call India (thanks Jen!), bake me scones (thanks Mom!), make sure I take my malaria pills (thanks Mom!), test my spice tolerance and give me tips about safety (thanks Maliks!), give me stink-proof shirts (thanks Alannah!), ask where I am going again on the day I am leaving (sorry, Aaron, I couldn’t resist!) and surprise me at the airport (thanks dude!) are the reason I am sitting here, in Brussells, feeling grateful for the chance to have this adventure. I could list you all but I am not sure how comfortable you would all be with that, which is my way of saying I’d forget important people. When I was learning Hindi on the plane (there’s an app for that!) I was informed that Namaste means, among other things, thanks. So NAMASTE one and all. I promise to share as much as I can, so that you can follow along if you’d like.

You can follow along with Brianna Smrke’s adventures in Social Innovation in India on her blog, downwithvowels, or here at socialinnovationsimulation.


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