1. Aims to build a sustainable future by encouraging the public to experiment and create.
2. First venture into social entrepreneurship clinched the Daimler-Unesco Mondialogo Engineering Award.
3. Won last year’s President’s Challenge Youth Social Enterprise of the Year.
4. Partnered United World College of South East Asia to open the Community Lab three months ago.
[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]n one corner of this three-month-old space, two ladies are working feverishly as they drill into wood panels. Elsewhere in the 300 sq m Community Lab at United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA), projects in various stages of progress are strewn around cutting and etching machines, computer numerical controlled mills and computer-aided design machines.
By encouraging creative individuals to bring their ideas into fruition, it is Veerappan Swaminathan’s way of bringing different communities together to build a sustainable future through experimentation and invention without boundaries.
“We want to use our abilities to build, to resolve issues,” says Veerappan, 31, whose five-year-old social enterprise Sustainable Living Lab (SL2) operates and manages this space.
Building its business around cause-based initiatives, as opposed to the typical beneficiary-based social enterprise, SL2 pulls diverse groups of people together to fulfill this vision. Corporations have approached it to build recycling machines to address plastic waste management, such as by reusing shampoo bottles. SL2 organises hackathons on behalf of clients to solve their tech problems, since hackathons are known to be a hotbed for the development of innovative software solutions.
The a-ha moment came at the National University of Singapore – where Veerappan studied mechanical engineering – when he and classmate Muhammad Ibnur Rashad Zainal Abidin took part in engineering competitions to build an edge for themselves.
The first project they took on was aimed at solving economic woes in rural India. They devised a solar drying system that allowed food producers in northern Maharashtra to meet the quality and handling standards for export, thus raising incomes. It won them the Daimler-Unesco Mondialogo Engineering Award. More importantly, the experience made them think about how they could apply engineering solutions to critical issues.
“Sustainability from a social, economic and environmental point of view seemed interesting to us. No one was doing anything about it – and someone’s got to do something,” recalls Veerappan.
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“Life may not be fair but you make it fairer. Most people coast through life without thinking about this, and I understand that. But when you do realise it, you have to do something, because by not doing anything, you’re complicit.”
“Life may not be fair but you make it fairer… when you do realise (that), you have to do something, because by not doing anything, you’re complicit.”
This, he says, stems from his upbringing. “My dad once found a $50 note at the staircase landing of our HDB flat. But he said we couldn’t keep it. We waited a while to see if anybody would come to claim that note, but nobody showed up. So my dad donated it. There’s still something called the ultimate right thing to do, even if no one’s looking. We have to live a life of integrity.”
SL2 also produces handicraft kits that encourage upcycling at home through activities such as repurposing an old T-shirt to make a stuffed toy. It runs a Repair Kopitiam programme where people meet to learn how to repair simple items such as broken electrical appliances and wobbly chairs. Such initiatives are part of his goal to encourage waste reduction, as opposed to consumption. Youth and juvenile delinquents get to pick up practical skills through its apprenticeship programmes.
Three months ago, it opened the Community Lab in partnership with UWCSEA, which wants to encourage the school community and the rest of Singapore to work on projects that advance the cause of sustainability.
Ultimately, he believes that every business will eventually evolve into a social enterprise. “All else being equal, customers will prefer buying from a social enterprise. And now that we’re in an age of abundance – at least in Singapore – talent will come to you not just for a salary, but for a purpose as well. If you’re a social enterprise, you can offer pay with a purpose.”
In 60 Seconds
My lowest point was: When my co-founder left the business and (my current CEO and I) had to vacate our premises. It was a very discouraging period, but things were already so bad so we became bolder because the opportunity cost was a lot less. We took a huge risk and initiated our own social innovation project Repair Kopitiam without funding, which became a runaway hit.
My greatest weakness is: I love open-world computer games with a great story. I don’t have much time to play them anymore so I watch other people play them on Youtube. It’s my guilty pleasure and something that I do nearly every night, at the expense of sleep.
The historical period that interests me the most is: The 1930s and 1940s, because so much of what happened during that period shaped our world today, from industrial automation and globalisation to war and the redrawing of territorial boundaries.