Product design student is inventing a sustainable future

Alisa looks on as PS Peter Schiefke addresses polytechnic students

Originally featured on KPU.ca

How does a former mining engineering student become a zero-waste entrepreneur?

She reinvents herself.

Alisa Yao is a fourth-year product design student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s (KPU) Wilson School of Design, and at heart, she’s an inventor.

“Ever since I was in high school, I knew I wanted to make things. I was always very hands-on and it was more enjoyable than taking notes,” said Yao. “My automotive teacher recommended I go into engineering, but after two years and a co-op, I realized it wasn’t for me. The massive lecture halls, upwards of 200 people wasn’t for me, and I still hadn’t made anything!”

Yao reassessed her career goals and enrolled in KPU’s Foundations in Design certificate program.

“I designed a beer bottle carrier for bikes. I got to actually make something. That was it; I decided this is for me. I’m going into product design. I like to make things; that’s what I went to school for.”

She found her niche and went into KPU’s bachelor’s degree in product design program. Since then, Yao has gone on to create work overalls with articulating knees using repurposed theatre curtains and collaborate on a pre-hospital hypothermia rewarming bag. She even runs a side business selling zero-waste food storage solutions through local stores and her online Etsy store.

The common thread through all of Yao’s designs is sustainability, which were surprisingly inspired by her early studies in mining engineering.

“Before you open a mine, you must have an exit plan for when the mine is no longer operational,” explained Yao. “I thought why don’t other industries have a plan for when a product’s life cycle ends?”

Over a year ago, Yao committed to living a zero-waste lifestyle, but she quickly realized that change had to be systemic in order to have noticeable impact. So with the encouragement of her product design instructor Dr. Victor Martinez, she joined a team of KPU students tasked with designing a viable solution to diverting more organic waste away from the landfill.The Challenge Dialogue was a year-long project that partnered KPU students with business and environmental experts to develop a clean technology working prototype for the City of Surrey.

After completing extensive research including community outreach, Yao and her cohort identified a recurring issue residents have with composting – it’s gross. People either lined their kitchen bins with plastic bags to keep them clean, which are banned because they contaminate city composting sites, or people wouldn’t compost at all.

“Yuck was a major factor. People didn’t want to touch it,” said Yao.

So she, and fellow KPU students, Megan Davidson, Harry Chai, and Eyshr Sahota, designed a solution that would encourage residents to compost. Yao and her cohort presented a business plan to the City of Surrey based on their classified design, which was approved. This resulted in a four-month pilot project in which the concept was tested in a real-world scenario.

So far, the feedback has been positive.

“Residents have told us, ‘this is great, why didn’t this exist earlier?’ That’s what I see as my role as a designer: to identify and then solve a problem,” said Yao.

The City of Surrey agrees and is eagerly anticipating the finished project while Yao and her cohort, who have recently incorporated their business, are working in stealth mode to further develop their design.

It’s been a steep learning curve for the engineer turned designer turned entrepreneur, but the process has taught Yao how important and necessary interdisciplinary collaboration is.

“I’m doing operation, logistics. One of us is doing accounting. Everyone is figuring it out. We’re all wearing so many hats,” said Yao. “Instructors keep telling us ‘you’re not experts. You need to consult the experts.’ So throughout the project, we’ve consulted with business and environmental experts to make sure we’re doing it right.”

Martinez agrees: “There are regulatory concerns, students need to know about and so much more, but that’s what good design is all about — solving real world problems by taking the time to understand the people and context that the design is intended to serve.”

Yao adds, “hands-on learning and theoretical learning all come together in studio class and that’s where you apply all the knowledge you’ve gained. For me, it’s the perfect place to work because I get to turn my ideas into reality.

Yao was in Ottawa earlier this week as KPU’s student ambassador at Polytechnics Canada’s National Strategy Group Meeting. She spent time on Parliament Hill meeting with government representatives focused on youth and young entrepreneur agendas. She pitched her clean technology working prototype to the Minister of Small Business and Tourism Bardish Chagger, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Trudeau Peter Schiefke, and to the Parliamentary Secretary of Science Kate Young.

Photos of Alisa Yao in Ottawa and working on design projects at KPU are available for download on Flickr.

To learn more about KPU's product design bachelor's degree, visit kpu.ca/product-design.

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