Wege Prize, an initiative of Kendall College of Art and Design
with financial support from The Wege Foundation, aims to inspire students to tackle a wicked problem and design a product, service or business model that can function within and contribute to a circular economy
A circular economy provides a tightly looped, restorative economic cycle where resources can be reused or recycled and re-adapted with social responsibility and revenue in mind.
In essence, the yearly design competition challenges teams of five students to use interdisciplinary collaborations, critical thinking skills and creative design and business principles to tackle problems that seem unsolvable.
Another goal of the competition is to bring students together from different backgrounds, disciplines and schools to understand the complexities involved in addressing such lofty issues, said Gayle DeBruyn, assistant professor and chief sustainability officer at Kendall. It’s important for colleges and universities to bring awareness to big design problems, but also provide a platform for students to find workable and innovative solutions, she said.
FusionGRow is still just an idea, but the bright minds behind the decorative hydroponic system hope to develop a prototype and turn it into a viable product.
This year’s winner of Wege Prize, team FusionGRow
designed an indoor planter using hydroponic technology to grow fresh produce in an affordable, efficient and environmentally friendly way from the comforts of home. Hydroponics supply water and nutrients to plants without soil and give the plant exactly what it needs, when it needs it – taking the guesswork out of growing.
Students on the FusionGRow team came together through a Wege Prize networking event. The competition rules forced them to step out of their comfort zone, realize the difficulties and value in diversity and teamwork, and rise above a variety of challenges to arrive at the winning submission, they said.
“They certainly deserved every bit of the award,” said Michael Werner, lead judge. “Their collaboration, the way they sort of went from random to relevant. They took very different ideas and connected them in an elegant solution to a common problem.”
Grand Valley students Yulia Conley, applied economics and urban planning, and Aziza Ahmadi, public administration and sustainability, had a vision for an indoor growing system for busy people in urban environments that would bring beauty and fun – and a technology component – to the indoor food growing process, Conley said.
The other team members include Philip Han, collaborative design, and Eric Choike, industrial design, both Kendall students, and Jacob Czarniecki, a business major at Grand Valley.
The guys suggested hydroponics, and they started the creative process with three main goals in mind: aesthetically pleasing design, easy to use and affordability. They wanted to take the healthy food growing practices from the hobbyist stage and make it accessible and relatable to the masses by developing a decorative indoor garden, supported by a phone app and online community.
“To make all these components ‘fuse’ together was a wicked problem in itself,” Conley said. “It required the deliberate choice of materials, novel business model strategies and a unique app-based component that would differ us from all the existing hydroponics systems on the market today.”
They also stayed focused on Wege Prize’s larger goal of supporting a circular economy and social equity.
Throughout the process we had to modify and, sometimes, completely alter our original ideas,” Conley said. “We didn't want just an idea, we wanted a truly viable solution; a product that could be produced and marketed, a product that could benefit our society.”
Conley said participating in Wege Prize was a “rich and though provoking learning experience,” changing her view of collaborations with people in other fields. Despite differing schedules, backgrounds and even creative disagreements, each team member contributed to the vision and development of the idea, she said.
“Because you never know the ‘truth’ unless you’ve considered other opinions and visions,” she said. “They might be completely different. They might not make any sense at first. But it’s those clashing opinions and ideas that, I believe, would give birth to the most revolutionary solutions that would truly benefit our future communities.”
Ahmadi said the importance of teamwork made Wege Prize different from other competitions. Teams were not only graded on their idea, but the process it took to reach it.
“We all discovered that solutions to ‘wicked’ sustainability problems are complex and therefore calls for people from diverse backgrounds to work together to address them from every angle,” Ahmadi said.
FusionGRow is working on a business plan to turn the idea into a viable product. The next step will be the development and testing of a prototype and the iPhone app.
Czarniecki, a senior, got involved after taking an entrepreneurship class at Grand Valley and doing a class project on aquaponics, which morphed into hydroponics. He met Conley and Ahmadi and brought a business mindset to the team.
“It was very rewarding,” he said. “We definitely put a lot of work into it in addition to our normal school work and working lives. It was nice to see it pay off. The whole experience was better than actually winning. We got to meet a lot of different.”
Despite his studies, he also said he had never heard anything about a circular economy before the competition.
“It’s a different way of looking at things from the very beginning,” he said. “It’s the way it should be. It’s actually profitable. It’s a way to recycle and reuse materials instead of continuously using new materials.”