Ottawa’s pHacktory launches as ‘risk-as-a-service’ platform

University of Ottawa researcher known for growing ears on apples wants to hear 'audacious' ideas from community
pHacktory director Andrew Pelling. (Photo by Craig Lord)
pHacktory
pHacktory's Andrew Pelling (Photo by Craig Lord)

If you’ve ever been told your ideas were ridiculous, way off-base or just plain stupid, a new Ottawa organization wants to hear from you and make those strange dreams a reality.

Project submissions are now open for pHacktory, a volunteer-based organization aiming to change our risk-averse culture.

Could cars run on quinoa? Can we make solar panels into a fashion statement? Instead of asking why, pHacktory wants to ask why not.

“We’re looking for very high risk, probably never going to work, a little bit nuts ideas,” says pHacktory director Andrew Pelling. “We want to hear from the public about their most audacious ideas.”

The group held its “mission launch” at the Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards on Thursday night, inviting the community to submit their ideas and mingle with the pHacktory crew. The event was a science fair of sorts, with exhibitors showing off the sort of wacky projects pHacktory aims to create.

pHacktory

Ottawa band The PepTides displayed their creative use of augmented reality, bringing art installations to life on a phone screen. The Westboro Academy displayed a large tower collaboratively constructed by its students. Elsewhere, robots zoomed about the room or played a newly taught tune on a xylophone.

Pelling (who you probably know as the University of Ottawa researcher who grew human flesh from an apple) says the roots of pHacktory trace back to a talk he gave a while back at HUB Ottawa. True to the organization’s mandate, the idea sprung almost accidentally when he blurted out the idea onstage, only to find a line of people waiting for him offstage to ask him about operating hours and how to get involved.

“We expect failure. If we’re doing our job right, most of these projects should fail.”

Now, with support from schools, hospitals, museums and corporations such as accounting firm PwC and Shopify, what began as an offhand comment is quickly becoming reality thanks to the community’s enthusiasm. The organization doesn’t have its own facility, but has been offered nooks of offices and lab spaces from across the city.

“I didn’t even ask, really. It just resonated,” Pelling says, still seemingly awestruck that this is all really happening.

A maximum of three projects will be funded and executed in pHacktory’s first go, and Pelling admits that many, if not most of the organization’s projects will fail. But that’s the point.

“We expect failure. If we’re doing our job right, most of these projects should fail. But if you’re not failing, you’re not learning,” he says.

Pelling takes issue with grants and contracts that stick strictly to the safe option, the ones most likely to produce results. Some of the greatest and most important scientific discoveries were made accidentally because someone had an idea, he says. That’s the culture he’s trying to spread.

“Let’s have those accidents more often and see what happens,” he says.

But pHacktory isn’t just a feel-good project, Pelling says. There’s a business application as well. He calls it a “risk-as-a-service” platform, and says he’s been contacted by corporations who want to outsource some of their most outlandish project ideas to the organization just to see if it will work.

If it doesn’t pan out, no sweat, that’s on pHacktory. But it could be a chance to try rapid prototyping, to access an ambitious talent pool and create a new source of innovation.

He says he’s also heard from people across the world who want to franchise the pHacktory concept in their own cities and countries, even before the idea is tested in Ottawa.

In the end, pHacktory itself might not work. It might fail spectacularly and lose all funding. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Pelling is perfectly fine with that.

“It’s an experiment too. It may blow up! And that is totally okay. At least we tried.”

Submissions for pHacktory are open now until April 30.