Collaborating on ideas

The participants and organisers behind the Suas Ideas Collective speak about their projects, and hopes for social justice and environmental change.

FEATURES“We found ourselves doing a lot of things outside our comfort zone – in fact the whole thing was entirely out of our comfort zone!” Eoghan Martin grins, slightly sheepishly, across the table. He is speaking about his experience this summer with the Suas Ideas Collective, during which he and a fellow computer engineering student, Alan Donoghue, developed and brought to fruition one of several innovative new projects aiming to address global issues to generate social and environmental change.

Their project is called Dev, Meet Tech, and is one of three projects linked by their emphasis on the promotion of social engagement and the creation of platforms for further ideas. K.E.Y., involving four students at NUI Galway, is a project which aims to use social media as a way to get young people more active in making change in Ireland, while Vocalism uses voice workshops to spread confidence in different groups, and, in the words of its founder Donal Kearney: “to provide a platform for ideas to be shared – whether radical or conservative.”

Deirdre Kelly, who, with Grainne Carley piloted the Ideas Collective from its inception, tells me that she has noticed throughout her work with Suas the difficulty people often have in taking action for change – it is not a lack of interest, she says, but rather “not having the support necessary to take the first steps.” This observation led to herself and Carley starting the programme because it “seemed like a natural next step.”

Last month the members of the first ever Ideas Collective presented their ideas at the 2015 Showcase – an event which, according to Martin, was an opportunity for them not only to present their projects to a more general audience, but to each see how far they had come in the process.

“On the first day,” he recollects, “I remember all the ideas were just concepts in our head – and blurry ideas at that. Some of us didn’t even have a really clear idea of what we wanted to do, but at the showcase we could see how they had all developed into absolutely fully-fledged, working things.”

Promising beginnings

The programme as a whole appears to be an overwhelmingly positive experience for those who have gone through it. “The best thing was that it created a space in which we were free to carry out our project,” says Kearney of Vocalism. You don’t have to be an experienced entrepreneur to get something out of it, he maintains: “I’d recommend the process for anyone with even an inkling of an idea for social or environmental change.”

Martin appears amazed even now by his own enjoyment of the programme: “I’d do it again in a second,” he says. “In a lot of ways it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I learnt more from this than from anything else – the difference is that you’re doing something yourself, so you’re fully immersed in the whole process.”

Ideas for projects have stemmed from a range of different places. Chris Noone, Owen Harney, Gary O’ Donoghue and Laura Finnegan were all struck by the level of engagement young people had with the marriage equality referendum.

“The catalyst was the Yes Equality Campaign,” Chris Noone tells me. “It showed that when presented with an issue that means a lot to them most young people are motivated to make their voices heard and to act.” This led to them looking for a way to harness this level of interest and energy and to carry it forward.

“It was striking,” notes Noone, “that in the media and political world there was a lot of talk about young people and not much by young people. So, it occurred to me that we need ways of bringing young people to collectively decide the issues that are important to them away from party politics.”

Both Noone and Harney are working in the area of psychology, O’Donoghue in software engineering and Finnegan in medicine and youth work, so together they aimed to bring these disparate approaches together into a collective project. It involves, in Noone’s words, “an online education and discussion platform and offline workshops aimed at facilitating action planning.”

Martin and Donoghue’s project, Dev, Meet Tech, is also based around the idea of bringing different approaches together to create interesting ideas and projects. It is the pair’s first real foray into the area of social change. Martin describes how they began to lean towards the idea of using technology to make real impacts: “We were tech students, wanting to learn, testing things out, we’d gone through Trinity’s Launchbox programme, tried to build the next-big-app, you know, the next game or the next little trick that’s going to make our lives five seconds easier. We started to think that there’s a lot more that technology can do – for example, it has huge potential in the developing world – mobiles in Africa are huge now, and that’s something that can be used to do amazing things, literally saving lives.”

Innovation through diversity

Their thinking, Martin explains to me, is that to get technology to fulfill its real potential, it’s better to bring in people whose interest lies elsewhere than in technology: “If you get a bunch of computer scientists together, and ask them to come up with an idea to use technology to solve a global issue, they might come up with an idea, but it probably won’t be such an innovative, a creative, an interesting idea as one that you’d get if you bring, say, people from politics, law, business, arts, people from a range of different backgrounds. With different ways of thinking, different approaches, you’re much more likely to get something really interesting.”

This is precisely what they did. On 22 August, Martin and Donoghue ran their first Dev, Meet Tech, pilot event (hosted at the offices of Zentech, of whose generosity Martin waxes lyrical). They brought together eighteen students from a range of disciplines, including one third technology students. “It went even better than we expected,” says Martin. “We hadn’t planned, for example, on the teams making pitches, because we both really don’t like pitches ourselves. And it was slow to start, people found it hard to get a focus, but as the day went on we could see people getting so passionate about their ideas, so we asked them if they wanted to pitch their idea to the rest of us and they were all up for it. The pitches when they came then were amazing, because it had all happened completely organically, and everyone was so passionate.”

Passion is something that informs Vocalism, Donal Kearney’s project, which grew out of his own experience as a musician and a teacher. “Right now,” he tells me, “it basically entails me giving workshops on the use of the voice.” Although he stresses that his idea has continued to grow. It’s more than just straightforward speaking training: “The idea behind the project is that participants get an opportunity to use their voices in front of a group, by incorporating vocal techniques, singing exercises and performance skills. Understanding breath control can release the power of the voice – whether speaking, acting or singing.”

Kearney has already worked a great deal with activists and human rights groups, and plans to work with others in the future, including the staff of Front Line Defenders. Vocalism is not just for professionals, however, he stresses: “It provides personal benefits too. The workshops can work for schoolchildren, teachers, civil society professionals, students, human rights defenders and activists, community groups.”

Some of Kearney’s first workshops were held among the members of the Ideas Collective itself, including Eoghan Martin. Indeed, Martin is keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the programme: “We all participated in each other’s projects, gave each other ideas, all tried to help out with one another’s projects. The ideas would pivot at least ninety-degrees every time we went into the workshops. You have to be very open, because everyone works on everyone else’s ideas. I would have to, for example, tell a couple of other people my idea, and then I’d have to sit down and listen to them discuss it and I wasn’t allowed to say anything – it was really interesting to see where it went when you did that.” Kearney is similarly complementary when speaking of the organization of the programme, calling the facilitators and mentors “inspirational.”

This appreciation is reciprocated by the organisers; Kelly informs me that she was “really impressed with the quality of both the participants and their project ideas.” This year’s summer programme has, for her, set a standard for future Collectives: “The bar has been set pretty high on this pilot programme, we hope future programmes can keep it at that level. We’d like to see more projects being developed that will bring about real change for disadvantaged communities in Ireland and internationally.”

The Future

Vocalism, Dev, Meet Tech, and K.E.Y are all projects whose success has spurred their founders to keep them moving, further into the future. Noone and his colleagues are currently building their new website and are planning future workshops where young people can come together and plan their activism. “Our hope is that we can facilitate informed and constructive discussion and action by young people on issues of social importance to them.”

Vocalism is in particular a project that seems to be growing legs at a great rate. “Since the summer programme I’ve continued to develop my project further,” Kearney tells me, describing his work with a great variety of groups, including the High Hopes Choir. “My research over the summer led me to get in touch with them, a Dublin-based group made up of singers affected by homelessness. I’m now assisting at rehearsals and thoroughly enjoy working with these exceptional people.”

In the future, Kearney imagines a range of directions for his project, including a songbook based around his hometown in south County Down. He also plans on developing the workshop idea: “My vision is to increase the number of workshop participants by working with as many new groups as possible. I also hope to set the ball rolling on events like film-screenings, concerts and more informal music sessions. The emphasis is on everyone becoming a more vocal member of their community.”

A similar ambition is shared by Donoghue and Martin. Their first pilot project succeeded in generating ideas including an app to redistribute used computers to people in need, and a website to facilitate interaction between community members and those new to the community such as refugees. They now plan on creating a new website which will allow people from anywhere to set up similar events and thus keep sprouting new ideas. “The idea is that people should be able to duplicate it. Whether they have tech experience or not, anyone in UCC, say, or further afield, could set up their own event and find ways of using technology to make change.”

They are also teaming up with Trinity’s entrepreneurship event Launchbox, and will be holding a new Dev, Meet Tech event as part of the Launchbox programme. Whatever the successes of Dev, Meet Tech, however, Martin insists that his main gains with the Ideas Collective have been personal ones. “Out of the ideas collective we have Dev, Meet Tech, but we have all these friends who all think the same way – everybody is a change-maker, so in a way it was the conversation that was the most fantastic!” Kearney agrees, adding: “I’ve a feeling it’s going to turn into something quite special before long.”

This may have something to do with the fact that according to those who participate, the programme is person-focused, rather than idea-focused, making it more engaging and in the end more impactful. “It’s about becoming global citizens,” Martin sums it up. “Seeing ourselves as global citizens. What do we have to do to be global citizens?”