MANILA, PHILIPPINES — There are over a hundred student-initiated thesis projects presented and defended each year from universities all over the Philippines, and hardly any actually come to life. Students pour hours and months into researching and producing original ideas on how to make the world a better place, and most of which just end up in the archives. After years of the same cycle, the realization of this reality hit the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB) leaders like a ton of bricks — bricks that were later used for the foundation that led to the establishment of the Hub of Innovation for Inclusion (HiFi).
Standing tall in the middle of the bustling streets of Malate is an institution built in bright orange and dark blacks, hard to miss yet naturally standing out amid concrete and steel is DLS-CSB’s Hub of Innovation for Inclusion Peter D. Garrucho Jr. Innovation Institute (PDGii). Designed by the Javier Design Studios Manila, the four-story building aims to give creators, innovators, and problem solvers a safe space to create for a more inclusive society. HiFi opens its doors to everyone, without preference to the academic community of DLS-CSB and DLSU, as most of its patrons are non-academic organizations like UNDP, Eskwelabs, AI Revolution, and more.
Inclusion, being the main focus of the entire building and organization, is palpable as soon as you enter its open structure as the entrance itself does not have doors, as its diagonal walls act as open arms welcoming guests to enter its community. This theme of inclusion and innovation naturally flows from one level to another as its very architectural design revolves around this promise. From the ground floor lobby, to the mezzanine above it, up to the roof deck that opens to a panoramic view of its surrounding cities, each level is a spatial representation and illustration of a specific step in the design thinking process.
Speaking with HiFi Director Abigail Mapua-Cabanilla, it was clear to us that HiFi is community of practice built to gather people, foster rich conversations, and generate action, “The innovation focus of the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde is really towards inclusion. We want to be very clear about the intention and purpose of our innovation and that is to make sure we do create further marginalisation in the Philippines and the world, instead bridge this widening gap. The innovation brand of Benilde HIFI is to include the last, the lost, and the least amongst us. We exist to look into complex social and environmental problems, create innovative solutions that hopes to catalyze systems change, while making sure that the ones left out by technology and platforms are made part of the whole process. HIFI fosters the creation of change that will achieve the triple bottom line of equity amongst people, enrichment of the environment, and prosperity shared by all. Human-Centered Design (HCD) and creative problem solving forms the framework for the design of the HIFI Campus”
Step 1. Problem (M/F)
As soon as you enter the building, “The Empathy Hall” is in full display. The large open space is designed for people to gather, commune, and converse in groups, in order to uncover the community’s real concerns, which, in turn, will be attempted to be solved in the higher levels of the building. Everyone in the vicinity is welcome to participate in any program held in the hall as the team expressed that they wanted people to feel like they could freely come inside, and have a conversation. Plans are also being made to open a coffeeshop by the entrance to make people feel more comfortable, inspired and energized.
Step 2. Ideation (2/F)
Aptly called “Bright Space”, the second floor is where the problems discovered in the lobby is explored and dissected further to find a suitable solution that would benefit the whole community. The space itself could be divided into five areas: the desks you see as soon as you enter the large room where guests could discuss amongst themselves, the open plan office space behind a half wall in the middle of the room which the HiFi team occupy, the fully operational pantry in the back of the room, the private rooms of glass for more intimate discussions (which students and startups can rent), and the cubicle-styled desks that are a bit more hidden from view when you first enter the room.
Step 3. Prototype (3/F)
The third floor is dedicated to workshops and more hands-on activities. Once ideas and plans have been laid out, guests are given free rein to actually test out their concepts in what HiFi refers to as “The Maker Space”. Here are machines for 3D printing, special tabletops for carpentry, and anything one may need to create a prototype of their product. Moreover, the space can also be transformed for workshops on both soft and hard skills (i.e. software development, 3D rendering, design, machine operation, etc.) with whiteboards, projectors and microphones at the ready.
Step 4. The Pitch (4/F)
Our tour through the HiFi building appropriately concludes in “The Evergreen” where the final stage of the design thinking process takes place. Once the ideas have been fully developed in the lower levels, they are pitched, shared and celebrated on the roof deck. There’s grass on the ground, cool seating surfaces all around, and hidden inspirational statements on the walls to create an atmosphere of hope and ambition. It’s a large open space with a second loft-style area up a ramp in case events need catering, or one wishes to look over the city for an extra level of inspiration.
Everybody In, Ideas Out
Its theme of inclusion also trickles down to the very programs it upholds. As Mapua-Cabanilla put it, HiFi intends to create socially impactful and inclusive solutions by connecting with other sectors of society to join in on the conversation to produce more well-rounded insights.
“We really want to bring a “cross-pollination” of different sectors of society. We know that a lot of times, we build silos right? So academe works with academe, industries they work with industries, and same thing with government. Because the work of building a just and humane society is a work that could not be done by just one sector, it’s something that we acknowledge that academic institutions cannot do alone. So what we want to do is to we make sure that we connect and we work, we collaborate, we partner with private institutions, with government, with NGOs to make sure we can do things together.
“We wanted to create a space to give students a chance to, on a daily basis, connect with mentors from the industry, mentors from government.. That this is a space where they have resources — people resources — who they could tap and be inspired from”, she shared.
TQ Antiqueno, HiFi Community Management Head, also shared with us that in building this community, they follow the “Fourth Sector Ecosystem Framework” which talks about the different sector entities in society. These are social businesses or enterprises that aim to help communities, ecosystem developers who help build up the community through media, venture capitalism, etc., stakeholders such as the government, that govern the market, and the fourth sector which aims to bring these three together. In this case, that’s the Hub of Innovation for Inclusion.
“If we want to change the status quo, we have to target everyone. However, the approach is strategic, we don’t just “lahat lahat” na iyan (we don’t just generalize and talk to everyone in one effort). The goal is for it to become the new normal. But for it to become the new normal, the plan is to go through social businesses or social enterprises first, and then that’s why we essentially build strategic partnerships with these stakeholders, and these ecosystem developers, and then the wider, the bigger organizations that govern us, like the banks, the government, etc.”, Antiqueno explained.
Sure enough, HiFi has rolled out several programs in line with this mission such as The Homebrewed Startup Incubation Program, and the Future Shapers Program. Twice every year, the team plans to roll out a call for applications exclusively for Benildean students, faculty, and associates, in search for ideas that HiFi, in turn, can help support for 6-8 months. These ideas will be incubated and developed, and be part of the Homebrewed Program.
The Future Shapers Program, however, is a nationwide call for individuals ages 18-35 years old who are working on a social impact project for the past 6 months who need support in order to further grow and execute their idea for a business or an organization. Mapua-Cabanilla explained it as such:
“You would have a lot of startup school and it’s usually focused on having a singular product or service and how you can build your business according to that. A lot of times, these products and services, they do not really address a systemic problem in the society. So what we wanted to make sure is that we raise systems change leaders, or founders — business founders — that will really catalyze solutions that will have a tangible and systemic impact, meaning it will solve sticky problems.
“If you look at the sustainable development goals, these are all systemic challenges so it cannot just be a one product service kind of solution. We want to make sure that we are able to raise this generation of systems change leaders [through the program].”
Take a tour of the HiFi Innovation Hub with us:
In order to raise this “generation of systems change leaders”, it is also worth looking into the mindset HiFi is creating, not just for its students, but for everyone who steps into its open doors. Essentially, the Hub of Innovation for Inclusion is a playground for innovators and creators to explore the many possibilities we can take in order to solve a problem each and every one of us face at a day to day.
It hasn’t been a year since the HiFi’s PDGii officially opened its doors to the public with the promise of producing solutions to problems various communities face everyday (i.e. poverty, waste management, etc), and — impressive building or not — it is clear that its core team is equipped with as much passion and wisdom required to do just that.
Br. Mike Valenzuela FSC, DLS-CSB Board Member and a highly respected HiFi consultant who is at the forefront of ensuring its mission is upheld, wrapped up the essence of the Hub perfectly well in the brief conversation we had:
“I think what we’re really trying to do is to not just to have a startup incubation program, but change the way people look at business models. I think that’s the bigger picture in our work here. It’s not just about getting our students to get in touch with professionals, it’s to make them problem solvers, and to make them say, when they see something happening in society, ‘hmm what can I do about that?’”
For more information on Hifi, visit hifi.benilde.edu.ph