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Phacktory will be launching its first project on Oct. 1 in the Byward Market. Photo: Bonnie Findley.

Lab’s projects look beyond campus to embrace risk, creativity

University of Ottawa associate professor of physics Andrew Pelling does more than just teach. Outside of his day job, he also runs the Pelling Lab at the U of O, where he grows human ears using apples.

Pelling describes the operation as a “lab dedicated to creativity,” which “really thrives on working with a lot of different communities and types of people.”

However, Pelling acknowledged that being based at a university can be an issue for the lab.

“On a campus, we get this slim cross section of our community,” he said. “On a campus you find students and you find academics, and that’s great, but it’s limiting.”

In response to this issue, Pelling has created a company autonomous from the U of O called Phacktory. The goal of the new company is to create innovative projects that involve people from all over the city of Ottawa.

“It seems like the entire city has gone crazy over this idea,” Pelling said. “We’ve just been inundated with interest and demand for creating an independent, street-level lab.”

The lab itself will be curating research projects around Ottawa, which Pelling hopes will be unique—even risky.

“We’ll be really looking for people to propose audacious ideas, ideas that are really likely to fail, super risky, but have some sort of kernel of possibility in them,” he said.

Despite this possibility of failure, many organizations are already showing support for the project. Currently, Phacktory has partnered with the Canada Science and Technology Museum, along with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, with more partners to be announced in the coming weeks.

Many smaller businesses have also shown interest in the project.

“People across the city from law firms to different small business have been chipping in and donating goods and services just to see this type of thing happen,” Pelling said. “I think there’s a real need for a place like this to exist.”

Pelling said the idea originated when he was discussing his recent TED talk at Impact Hub, where talked about the possibility of a “creative coworking space” in Ottawa. From there, public interest in the project continued to grow.

To galvanize further support, the lab will launch its first project on Oct. 1.

This project, in partnership with Manuel Baez, a professor of architecture at Carleton University, will explore the mechanics of shape-shifting buildings that could adapt to the people inside them, external conditions, and other stimuli.

“We thought, OK, we don’t have the budget right now to go build one of these, but what can we do on a smaller scale to test that concept?” Pelling said.

That test, called Starling’s One, would have Pelling’s team deploy a structure—made mostly of balloons and string—in the Byward Market. The structure can be shaped and manipulated by people, and will be launched off the top of a building.

Pelling hopes that this will be the first of many innovative and risky ideas. In the meantime, he is looking for volunteers to help drive the project’s opening appearance.