Lessons From Repurposed Labs

Repurposed Labs was an initiative I started with my friends Flavio Ishii and Krystian Olszanski back in the spring of 2011. Our goal was to increase public internet access in lower income areas of our community.

The idea was simple; collect used computers from local companies willing to donate, repurpose them as public internet terminals, and setup the computers as labs at nonprofit organizations.

Since launching we have deployed two labs in Saskatoon, one at White Buffalo Youth Coop and another a Core Neighborhood Youth Coop, thanks to the computers generously donated from MLT law firm.

These first two labs served as pilot projects, helping us determine what kind of software would work best for internet-only terminals. Our plan was to expand our collection process, and roll out more labs in the city and eventually across the province.

Unfortunately, we have yet to expand beyond those two initial labs. While reading the book Getting To Maybe, I stopped to ask myself the question:

Why haven’t we added more labs like originally planned? What is preventing us from doing so?

The short answer is we just haven’t had time. The longer answer however is more complex. A quote from Getting To Maybe, “it takes courage to look at whether you are on the right path, and even more to face whether you are.”

Limited Resources
Repurposed Labs is entirely volunteer run where Flavio, Krystian and myself setup and install the computers in our spare time. The problem like most volunteer initiatives is finding dedicated time with limited resources.

Volunteer Burnout
Balancing full time jobs with personal lives leaves little room on the side. Volunteering evenings and weekend is fine for a short period, however becomes very difficult to continue for an ongoing basis.

The solution, I believe must come from a change in strategy towards a more sustainable approach.

Setting Goals
It’s hard to hit a target that doesn’t exist. One thing that may help is clearly defining a specific goal with associated milestones. That could be one new lab every quarter, or perhaps only one new lab per year. Without having this kind of target, it has been hard to plan ahead to allocate time to the cause.

Building Capacity
The best teachers are the ones that teach themselves out of a job, by teaching others to teach. This principle could also apply to us by incorporating a training component to involve members of the community in the setup. This would have multiple benefits, creating local ownership for the labs and building capacity to solve their own problems when they arise.

The way forward for Repurposed Labs is not entirely clear, however it is valuable to stop and ask whether we are on the right path. A quote from Getting To Maybe, “the only lasting failure is the failure to learn—and failure to apply that learning going forward.”