Watering the green shoots of innovation

Anything is possible when great ideas receive the support they need to thrive.



Story By

Veronica Apap

Professor Ken McKinnon AO and his wife Suzanne Walker know that too often, good ideas never see the light of day. “There are so many people with good ideas and they get squashed down because there isn’t a way to help them forward,” Ms Walker, a UOW alumna said. “I think if we can help them do that, it would be wonderful.”

To help make those ideas a reality, the couple donated $1.3million to the University of Wollongong. The donation formed the McKinnon Walker Trust and funding from the trust is given annually at the Vice-Chancellor’s discretion to academic staff, professional staff and students to foster innovative programs, activities and ideas. Prof McKinnon and Ms Walker called on the University community to surprise them with what the gift could achieve.

“The first steps from an idea to a prototype are the most difficult,” former UOW Vice-Chancellor Prof McKinnon said. “[You ask] `What’s stopping you from going ahead?’ [They say] `I haven’t got $5000 to buy this piece of something or other or to go on the trip that would make things work.’ That’s what I think you should spend the money on. Any little green seed around. I can’t predict in advance, which of them will work, [but] the Vice-Chancellor’s got to have some money [so] that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.”

Among the projects and programs to receive funding was the McKinnon Walker Trust Study Tour which saw seven students travel to nine universities in Europe and North America. The students were there to examine better practice examples of how the built environment and physical resources of a university strongly influence student life and academic experience. They produced a report, Education Beyond Knowledge Transfer.

Mitchell Brown, who was among the students on the tour, said the report resulted in changes in the UOW Library to increase student connectivity, creativeness and accessibility.

“This opportunity has given me the chance to enable other students to enjoy the best practices of Universities, right here in Wollongong”

“This opportunity has given me the chance to enable other students to enjoy the best practices of Universities, right here in Wollongong,” Mitchell said. “Students have become further engaged with their campus through a consistent range of activities, events popping up and the capacity to be heard as the campus grows. UOW has continued to grow in terms of sustainability as students, staff and the community see changes employing the best practices in taking care of our environment.”

Mitchell said the study tour also demonstrated the impact of philanthropy and community support. In reflecting on the McKinnon Walker gift – and his own decision to give back – Mitchell saw how philanthropy often started as an idea but could ultimately transform lives. “I hope that whatever I am able to give will have the capacity to make a major difference in the life of someone else – you never know, my own donation may even assist me in the future,” he said.

The McKinnon Walker Fellowships are also supported by the Trust. This program brings together researchers from diverse fields to respond to a shared global problem. The one-off fellowships aim to build supportive, applied research communities and global interdisciplinary research partnerships that yield impactful research outcomes.

The fellowships are awarded to the most innovative thinkers to help them discover the best way to transform the most vulnerable lives, communities, regional economies, and coastal and marine ecosystems through challenge-led research.

Most recently, the Trust has funded a community project in Bellambi which aims to change negative perceptions of one of Wollongong’s northern suburbs. Associate Professor Kate Senior from UOW’s Faculty of Social Sciences initiated the visual arts-based project, but said the community ultimately took the lead and made it their own.

“Since I began working in Bellambi, I’ve found that the residents’ perceptions of their community conflict with outsiders’ perceptions, which are largely negative. Every time you see something about Bellambi in the media, it is inevitably bad. The community is a scapegoat for everything negative in the Illawarra, but I wanted to share a different view,” Professor Senior said.

“We’ve been working with students who come to Bellambi Neighbourhood Centre and we’ve trained them in interview techniques, note-taking, and research, and they’ve had to go out into the community and collect stories about what makes Bellambi special.”

During the Bellambi Festival of Community Mapping held in September 2018, residents created a Bellambi Master Map, which will be used to tell the stories of the area and form the basis of an exhibition.

The project also draws on the talents of UOW’s design students who created promotional materials for the event, using the new tagline, Be Bellambi, and will transform the completed map into a short, animated film.

Professor Senior said one of the key aims is to empower the community’s younger residents through job-ready skills and exposure to the impact of higher education.

“We are committed to the young people of Bellambi. We want to explore their aspirations for themselves and for their community,” she said.

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