Seeking the humanity in technology with Suranga Nanayakkara

Science, technology, innovation – these are some of the words that closely associate with INK Fellow Suranga Nanayakkara’s amazing work today; particularly with the lab he’s set up at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in 2011 called the Augmented Human Lab. In this interview with him, he tells us a bit about his experience as an INK Fellow, his efforts to expand the innovation ecosystem among youth of Sri Lanka and the inspiration which drives him.

Q.Tell us a bit about your experience as an INK Fellow at INK Conference 2016.

It was such an amazing experience, especially being part of the Fellows network was wonderful. You meet some amazing people and get inspired! This was one of the rare conferences where I didn’t want to miss a single talk, interaction & discussion. Really, INK 2016 was the starting point of so many amazing relationships.

Q. We see that you go to multiple conferences around the world to speak. We’d love to hear about an example of something you have been a part of, created led or joined that you consider unique.

I left Sri Lanka when I was 19 years and since then spent time in Singapore, UK, and USA, going through my undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral work. The more I got exposed to global trends in the innovation ecosystem, the more I realized that these need to be translated to the young community in Sri Lanka.

img_3936In June 2016, I conceptualised, planned and conducted a 3-day design thinking residential workshop to 40 selected participants from various educations and cultural backgrounds. It was a tiring process but it was worth the effort as many participants told me that they had an amazing experience. Most importantly they are going to share this with their friends and colleagues. My hope it to make this a regular event with the aim of creating an innovation ecosystem and expose more Sri Lankan youth to the global trends. (Watch a short video clip on Suranga’s workshop here).

Q. There is some amazing work happening at your Augmented Human Lab at SUTD. Enlighten us about some of the projects that the lab is working on and your thoughts on ‘humanity’ in technology.

I always believe that smart devices should be more inclusive, and assistive devices deserve more design and innovation. The low demand for assistive devices has led to high cost and little innovation. While mobile phones have gotten smarter with each passing day, assistive devices like the white cane for the blind, has pretty much remained the same all these years. Most of the projects in my lab takes a holistic design approach to increase efficiency, support independence and social acceptance to account for real-world applicability. (Read more on the projects going on at the AH Lab here).

Q. Congratulations on the funding you’ve received for your FingerReader device! Tell us your future plans with this innovation, along with others you see taking off soon.

It was really great news that FingerReader is now supported by Tote Board-Enabling Lives Initiative Grant. With this, my team and I aim to transform our proof of concept project into an affordable everyday product that will sustainably change how the visually impaired community can independently access information on the go. In this sense, 2017 is going to be very exciting!

Q. As a Professor at SUTD, tell us about an experience with a student that has inspired and/or impressed you.

I have met many really good students over the last few years. One of them, Benjamin Petry, my PhD student, really impressed me with his thoughtfulness, organised approach and willingness take the extra mile to produce work at highest quality. Coming from a computer science background, he self-taught himself with hardware development skills and developed a new tool to support music making activities by deaf people. (Read more here). You don’t meet these types of talent everyday.

_mg_9351You can follow Suranga’s work and projects at his Augmented Human Lab webpage here.

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