Research builds our communities

 Dr. Andrew Pelling (left), who pioneered the process for turning an apple into a human ear, advocates the importance of taking creative and wild ideas towards intangible outcomes; the research at Calgary’s Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets facility (right) has a direct impact on the city’s water quality. left, Peter Thornton; right, supplied

Dr. Andrew Pelling (left), who pioneered the process for turning an apple into a human ear, advocates the importance of taking creative and wild ideas towards intangible outcomes; the research at Calgary’s Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets facility (right) has a direct impact on the city’s water quality. left, Peter Thornton; right, supplied

If you listen to Andrew Pelling, you’ll believe your most creative and wild ideas are worth paying attention to. You may even feel compelled to submit them for further investigation in his lab, where biohacking and DIY science are par for the course.  Dr. Pelling leads the Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa, described on its home page as “an openly curious and exploratory space where scientists, engineers and artists work in close quarters.”

“My lab is about ideas,” says Dr. Pelling, who is also Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics. “The best way to come up with really unconventional ideas is by getting a whole bunch of different perspectives in the same room and saying ‘Ask questions! Be creative!’”

That kind of open-minded approach to research, especially when contrasted with a more conservative approach to research and innovation – where a problem is identified and research is done to find a solution – is a unique example of how intrinsically research and communities are linked. This might just be a missing piece of the research and innovation puzzle in Canada.
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t’s also what led Dr. Pelling to launch pHacktory, a small company that collects proposals from people with out-of-the-box ideas they want to test through “experiments in distributed and community-driven street-level research.”

Only the most audacious ideas will be considered, says Dr. Pelling. “We want ideas that are 99 per cent certain to fail. We want to try them anyway, because failure can lead to some of the most profound discoveries. And if they were to work, they could be transformative.”

The notion of making research a grassroots effort – and inviting everyone to participate – has earned Dr. Pelling a large fan base. His TED talk, where he explains the process of creating a human ear from an apple, has garnered well over a million views.

It’s also a novel approach to feeding the innovation pipeline.  “There seems to be this caveat that knowledge is only valuable if it leads to a billion-dollar enterprise,” says Dr. Pelling. “But if we forget to generate new ideas and new knowledge, then eventually the pipeline runs dry.”

With unapologetic curiosity as a guidepost, Dr. Pelling says his lab “generates ideas that just don’t exist at the moment, but that may have a really disruptive effect down the road.” He cites his ears-from-apples experiment as an example. Inspired by Little Shop of Horrors, the lab set out to create a man-eating plant, a “miserable failure” in Dr. Pelling’s words. “But during that process we discovered we could use plants as a biomaterial, and all of a sudden we’ve got this biotechnology that’s insanely cheap and solves many of the problems that come along with current biomaterial strategies.”

Dr. Pelling’s approach to discovering game-changing new technologies is more than great science-fiction-turned-fact. That’s because finding mechanisms for boosting innovation is a pressing question to growing our economy, according to Christopher Ragan. He is a McGill University macro economist and a member of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which has been charged with pointing leaders and policy-makers to growth policies and actions that can address the slowing of Canada’s economy.

Innovation is widely recognized as a key driver of productivity growth, which, in turn, is responsible for improving living standards over the long term, he explains. “If you want to know why we are better off on average than our great grandparents, productivity growth and innovation are at the heart of it,” says Dr. Ragan.

Yet Canada’s productivity growth is less than what it used to be, and less than that of our competitors, says Dr. Ragan. He adds that it’s no secret that while Canadians excel in basic research and are good at inventing things, they often come up short in the next step: turning the idea or invention into a successful business – and scaling that business up. “Innovation is still a very tough nut to crack,” says Dr. Ragan.

Even as economists and policy-makers work to answer the difficult questions around how to improve innovation, the impact that research and innovation have on Canadians’ quality of life will be the ultimate measure of their success. In the broadest sense, innovation is the desire to make things better and to build our communities.

That’s a tenet that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has embraced. He sees research and innovation as essential tools for serving the community and points to the Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) facility, which is a research partnership between the city and the University of Calgary, as an example. ACWA includes 3.8 kilometres of naturalized, experimental streams that replicate real-life water situations and enable one-of-a-kind research into finding better ways to treat municipal wastewater for the benefit of human health and the environment.

“Every community along the Bow River is responsible for keeping [the water] healthy. That means being a good neighbour to everyone living downstream,” Mr. Nenshi explains. Beyond their commercialization potential, the technologies developed at ACWA could have implications that go far beyond water quality in Calgary – they can potentially help to address the pressing global issue of access to clean drinking water, he says.

While the ACWA research partnership may appear radically different from Dr. Pelling’s approach, the outcomes are strikingly similar: both are giving rise to valuable new technologies, and both are having an immediate impact on their communities. The only difference is the starting point. “What we’re doing at pHacktory is creating the right conditions to bubble up innovators en masse, rather than waiting for them to randomly appear,” says Dr. Pelling.

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