By Kay Rodgers
Several underclassmen at Southern Methodist University believe innovation begins at home. An idea that started with a text has blossomed into a formal proposal that has engaged important figures across campus, as well as garnered the interest of the Dallas community.
These 11 students from diverse backgrounds have come together to present an idea that will change the way we think about on-campus housing. The idea? To create an Innovation House on campus where every resident would be required to be working on a project to live in the house.
“No one sits down and says ‘I’m going to innovate today,’” Momin Irfan, sophomore finance, computer science, and mathematics major, said. “Innovation happens through trial and error.”
According to Irfan, a member of the Innovation House group, the idea came about at the beginning of the spring 2016 semester when sophomore computer science major Ian Johnson had a random thought: what if there was a place students could live together on campus while collaborating on projects?
“It was just a little idea he sent in a text,” Irfan said.
From there, a group message was created that included 10 other students who thought Johnson was on to something and wanted to see the idea through, Irfan said. The students reached out to SMU Computer Science professor Mark Fontenot; he adored the idea and was more than happy to serve as an adviser for the project.
Approaching the idea very strategically and professionally, the students drafted a formal proposal for the Innovation House, or “iHouse”. Detailed in the proposal, published online, are plans for the location, direction, application, and benefits of the house, as well as a proposed two-year trial period for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years. According to Irfan, the students identified the former Lambda Chi Alpha house, which was vacant after the national fraternity suspended the SMU chapter in March, as the perfect location for the future iHouse, citing its “proximity to campus, tight-knit communal feel, and small size” as pros.
The innovation students feel there is value in having a collaborative community of creative students working together in one space. According to Irfan, the Innovation House would allow students to benefit from a creative community where everyone is working toward similar goals. The house would take a mentoring approach to housing and residents would be encouraged to take risks, learn from each other, and collaborate on ideas.
“When you get a bunch of these people who have this drive, this passion to build stuff in one location, you have a higher propensity of making something that’s cool and really noteworthy,” Irfan said.
According to Irfan, most people plan to start a business at some point in their lives but never do. He believes the iHouse could demystify the entrepreneurial process and motivate students to take risks.
“Most people just haven’t ever been in a space where they are encouraged to start a business,” Irfan said. “A beautiful thing about college right now is that we can try as much as we want, we can mess up as much as we want…we would be around mentors, people who have been around and have done these projects.”
For Irfan, just the idea of the Innovation House was enough to jump start his plans for his own tutoring business, Fenprep.
“I was like ‘Hey, Innovation House or not, I’m going to work on these projects.’” Irfan said. Since its creation in May, Irfan’s tutoring service has expanded to serve five cities across Texas and Harvard University and has served over 100 students in the past four months.
Irfan says the Innovation House would not just be for engineers or business majors.
“Innovation has been a pretty big buzzword lately. When you hear ‘innovation’, you kind of think tech.” Irfan said. “But innovation could easily be just started a new art movement, it could be singing a new way, or writing books in a different genre.”
According to the proposal published on their website, the Innovation House would operate in a way very similar to the current SMU Service House, which houses students who complete at least 30 hours of community service each semester. Similar to the service house, the Innovation House would foster a community through in-house events like house dinners, “Genius Hour”, “Hack the House”, and “iHouse on the Road”.
The innovation students feel that the house will align with the residential commons system SMU has already set in place.
“The core values of the Innovation House would be innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship,” Irfan said.
Responses to the Innovation House proposal have been extremely positive, according to Irfan.
“We got support from hundreds of students here on campus, we got support from alumni, we got support from employees from companies in Dallas, we had investment groups reach out to us,” Irfan said. “The biggest game changer that we had was the very fact that SMU students wanted it.”
The innovation students, encouraged by the overwhelming amount of support they received, proposed their idea to several prominent faculty members across campus.
“All of the academics on campus were definitely interested,” Irfan said. “We got one signed sheet with every single dean of every college here on it saying they support the Innovation House idea. Every single dean loved it.”
Adam Lishman, senior finance major and Armstrong Commons Residential Assistant, said he sees the value of the Innovation House.
“I think it would be encouraging to know that other people are working on something. You feel like you are a part of something that is going to succeed,” Lishman said. “And I think it’s cool to try it during college. I think the moral support and think-tank mentality is really important.”
Plans for the iHouse hit a setback at the end of the spring semester, according to Irfan. Representatives of the Innovation House, including Irfan and Johnson, met with three vice presidents of the university, including Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Pamela Anthony, in late April. They were told that while they had a great idea, SMU administration was not interested in carrying out the project for the time being. Irfan said that according to SMU administration, the Innovation House would not fit in too well with SMU’s master plan.
According to Irfan, the group will not give up trying to get the iHouse on campus. Planning has currently been put on hold because the former Lambda house, a key factor for the iHouse plans, has been reoccupied. But one Service House resident says the iHouse may have another avenue for success.
“Since both the Innovation House and the Service House share similar founding principles, it may be a good idea for proponents of the Innovation House to use the already existing Service House as an avenue to make their goals a reality,” the resident said.
The students plan to regroup next semester to brainstorm future plans.
“We’re kind of just vetting all the options right now,” Irfan said. “We do see the benefit it would bring to the community. It’s definitely worth our time and SMU’s time to figure out ways to bring at least a prototype of this idea into existence, even without the house.”