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GVSU's Applied Global Innovation Initiative visits Nicaragua

The Central American country of Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Luxury accommodations are extremely rare and, wherever you stay, the water and electricity may get shut off randomly throughout your visit.  

Then why does the Applied Global Innovation Initiative (AGII) take groups of people there a few times a year?

The vision behind this Grand Valley State University (GVSU) initiative is to empower people in Nicaragua to improve their lives using their own resources. Through education and hands-on assistance, teams led by AGII encourage Nicaraguans to think about innovative ways to solve environmental, economic, and social issues, as well as help them design products that can be made locally.

What began in 1998 as GVSU’s disaster relief response to Hurricane Mitch has evolved to an innovation initiative with teams of faculty, staff, students, and community members from around the country traveling to Nicaragua to collaborate with local individuals and universities.

AGII is co-directed by Drs. Paul Lane and John Farris. Teams traveling from West Michigan have included designers from Tiger Studio, Kendall College of Art & Design, Herman Miller, and other local companies. Annually, two main innovation trips occur in May and August, with smaller trips throughout the year.

Dr. Lane says that because staff from AGII visits Nicaragua all the time, they’ve developed a strong relationship with the people there. He adds that it’s “not about writing a check” and leaving, but rather “working shoulder to shoulder.” The AGII team doesn’t tell the locals what to do; instead, they ask how they can help.

“It’s not about bringing the ‘great white hope’ to them,” says Gareth Hickson, assistant to AGII’s co-directors.

On Nov. 1, AGII and a team of six individuals from the Spring Lake-based furniture company, izzy+, will be traveling to Estelí, Nicaragua to design preschool education kits.
Market Development Strategist at izzy+, Brandon Reame, says the idea to sponsor this trip came about after the organization spent a few years giving away free vacations as part of one of its annual events. This year, he says they decided to do something different and “rally around a cause.”

With almost 1,700 people around the country interested in the design trip to Nicaragua, staff from izzy+ narrowed the selection to six interior designers to travel with the team.

Once in Estelí, teams containing two designers each will work with local preschool teachers to develop prototypes of four education kits that will travel between the schools. The design and collaboration will happen in a fast-paced, 48-hour time period.  

The four kits to be developed from unfinished wood boxes will consist of a performing arts kit, a visual arts kit, a sensory kit, and a scientific kit.

Since the teachers earn little money and the schools are very poor with dirt floors and not much furniture, these kits will be designed to be exciting, colorful, and fun, yet tough and functional enough to travel by bus and be handled by preschoolers. The goal is to encourage interaction and learning that’s interesting to the children.

Lane says the kits have to be “very exciting so when they arrive in an impoverished environment, they say, ‘Take me; try me.’”

The izzy+ designers will also spend time in Estelí partnering with the Vinculos cooperative of preschool teachers and design a portion of their new facility.

“What izzy+ is donating is amazing,” Lane says regarding the sponsor covering costs to send the designers to Nicaragua.

Reame hopes this will be the first of many trips they will partner with AGII on -- “it’s only the beginning.”
The Nicaragua innovation travel program is just one of four components of AGII. The other three projects they focus on include Water for the World, a program using smart phones empowering people to get simple solutions to water problems; Community Synergy, an online resource where people collaborate to solve global issues; and researching the countries they work with.

Funding for AGII comes from different sources. Initially, Drs. Lane and Farris put in their own money to start the program. GVSU and the universities in Nicaragua have provided some funding, and individuals and organizations contribute as well. The individuals traveling to Nicaragua pay a fee to go, plus their own airfare, as a way to cover some of the costs of the program. They receive lodging, food, and ground transportation with their fee, which averages around $1,200 per person with a GVSU-affiliated discount.

AGII is currently seeking people who want to participate in next year’s May 5-11 Nicaragua trip. For every program, they need people from a variety of backgrounds: web technicians, business people, engineers, designers, artists, and marketing people, who Lane says must be “willing to go with people to the street corner and get feedback to find out if an idea is good or not.”

Lane describes the innovation program as “industrial tourism” and says you don’t have to know Spanish, though it is helpful. Before every trip, they determine how your skills can be put to the best use so that you contribute positively to the organization and also have a good experience.

Most importantly, they’re looking for “people with a smile in their hearts and an adventurous spirit,” Lane says.

While the accommodations may not be luxury, he adds that the AGII trips are rewarding to everyone who goes and “life changing.”

If you’d like to get involved with GVSU’s Applied Global Innovation Initiative, here are a few ways you can:

- Visit GVSU’s Applied Global Innovation Initiative online to find out more.
- Contact Dr. Lane if you’re interested in getting involved with the organization, whether on a future trip or on the planning team here in West Michigan.  
- Make a donation to GVSU and specify that your donation is for the Applied Global Innovation Initiative.

Sources: Dr. Paul Lane, Co-Director at the Applied Global Innovation Initiative, Gareth Hickson, Assistant to the Co-Directors, Brandon Reame, Market Development Strategist at izzy+
Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Images provided by GVSU’s Applied Global Innovation Initiative.  
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