Inside Songshan: the American Innovation Center

Interview and photography by Ying-Che Chen

Technological innovation does not depend entirely on technology itself; imagination is more important. This is what American Innovation Center director Yipei Wu believes innovation should be.

This year marks the third anniversary of the American Innovation Center (AIC), which was launched in January 2014. The center took root in an American Corner that has been run by the United States Department of State in Taipei for years. As the digital era unfolds, the U.S. Department of State, in cooperation with local partners in Europe, has started to establish digital innovation centers to provide an array of the latest digital equipment.

“Innovation” is one of the concepts that President Obama advocated since his presidential campaign. In his 2011 State of the Union address, he explicitly referred to “an America where we out-innovate, we out-educate, we out-build the rest of the world; where we take responsibility for our deficits; where we reform our government to meet the demands of a new age.” Obama also pushed the “Strategy for American Innovation” in 2009, later updating the policy to meet different needs in 2011 and 2015. At the opening of the American Innovation Center on 16 January 2014, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan Christopher Marut quoted Einstein: “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” Marut also expressed his hope that the American Innovation Center would one day become an information station full of energy and open to imagination and creativity.

Three key employees at the American Innovation Center: (left to right) Yixiu Wu (吳宜修) of the American Corner in Taiwan, Director Yipei Wu (吳宜珮) and Project Manager Shigang Qiu (丘世剛).

Once an American Corner, now a base for innovation

In the past, resources in the American Corner in Taiwan were mostly books and journals. It is not hard to imagine the transformation that had to take place since the world entered a digital era where information can be obtained instantly. Current director of the American Innovation Center, Yipei Wu, is also in charge of the International Exchange Section at the Taiwan Design Center. Wu is more excited and hopeful than anyone about the collaboration between the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taiwan Design Center.

Unlike American digital innovation centers in other countries, the four main focal points of the American Innovation Center in Taiwan are innovation, entrepreneurship, digital technology, and culture and design. The main reason for this is that during the center’s conceptual planning phase, the American Institute in Taiwan decided to partner with the Taiwan Design Center to take advantage of their expertise in innovation in Taiwan, and the four focal points were then formulated through discussion between the Taiwan Design Center and AIT.

Yipei Wu and many other people who contribute to innovation in Taiwan believe that the current education system and social structure in Taiwan are probably not going to last much longer, so everyone should learn to be an innovator or researcher, which means we need to change how we communicate. Autonomous learning is bound to be the next big thing, and the American Innovation Center is trying to find a new learning model.

Director Yipei Wu showing off student work

Innovation is about imagination, not age

Perhaps unlike other countries, Taiwan’s maker movement has for years been focusing on understanding and discussing technology: design thinking and innovative thinking. According to Yipei Wu, the results can be seen in the Kodu Cup Elementary and Middle School Game Design Contest that has been held by the American Innovation Center and Microsoft for many years. As Wu observes, children who receive less formal education show more creativity than college students. The 2016 Kodu Cup was won by a team of lower-grade elementary school students, and the game they designed was even better than those of many college students. Wu asked the college students why they thought the elementary students had been able to design better games than professionals like themselves. They said that it was because these children’s imagination had not yet been restricted by knowledge structure imposed on them. When the American Innovation Center was recruiting teachers for these camps, they also hired teachers for adult classes. Even the future workshops that they are collaborating on with IBM and Microsoft will remain multi-age classes.

About 80 to 100 events are held at the American Innovation Center each year, some of them major global events. The 2016 Fishackathon also helped the American Innovation Center to better understand Taiwan’s capability and creativity. What makes them really proud is team Akubic, the 2016 Fishackathon champion of Taiwan, who later represented Taiwan in the world finals and became world champion. Their research theme was the management of the Asian Carp invasion of the Great Lakes; they also made a water quality sensor that was rather well received. Since they won the prize, the research project has continued with sponsorship from a domestic organization.

Taiwanese innovation shining on the international stage

The 6th NASA hackathon, Space Apps Challenge 2017, ended in April, and the American Innovation Center is very proud of Taiwan’s victory. This year’s theme was Earth, so data collected by NASA from the air and from space were provided to teams to help them find solutions to various problems facing survival on Earth. Taiwan was especially strong this year. The top two prizes in the finals went to Magic Conch with their work “Let’s go to the Beach!” for Best Use of Data, and to Space Bar with their work “Landslide we defeat” for Best Mission Concept. Taiwan heard the news on June 16, and President Ing-wen Tsai even congratulated the winners on Twitter. For their next challenge, first prize winner Space Bar wants to build a tool that forecasts landslides and can be used by the general public.

(The video below shows Space Bar’s work)

The American Innovation Center is located in Songshan Tobacco Factory, which is equipped with FabLab tools for the public.

In addition to organizing events, the American Innovation Center is also a place to visit. It is located at the center of the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park, within the popular attraction Songshan Tobacco Factory, which also gives off an open and accessible vibe. There are a lot of books on innovation in Chinese and English at the American Innovation Center, and nearly a hundred events are held each year. Maker lab equipment like 3D printers are also available free of charge to anyone who registers, and there are tabletop games, toy blocks, Dremel tools, and computers, to help people looking for inspiration or trying to be creative to find the true meaning of innovation. From time to time fun exhibitions are held, and works by other makers are exhibited. This is the best place for makers to achieve their full potential.