Innovation, Restoration, & Recreation

By Taylor “Uʻi” Barongan

Deep in the heart of Downtown Hilo there is a building many people pass which few know much about. Across from the Booch Bar lies the stained, white-walled, unused UH Hilo Innovation center complete with an empty parking lot. Recently, Professor Kelly Moran and his students have been working diligently in restoring the long-standing building.

The completed building was opened in 2004, after the Bank of Hawaii donated it to UH Hilo, and has not been fully utilized in recent years. It is currently starting up again with the help of CoBE (College of Business and Economics) alumni, Caesar Hjerten. Hjerten dreams of bringing collaborative cyber-based learning to the classroom and creating a space for students to express their ideas openly amongst other peers.

Caesar HjertenCaesar Hjerten (photo taken from the UH Hilo MSOC website

Last spring semester, Professor Moran held collaborative classes with Hjerten at his side as a TA where students were able to view and learn about other potential Innovation Centers in Japan and the Philippines. Professor Moran encouraged his students to share their ideas for international, project-based learning, a key ideal in his teaching. Since last spring, Professor Moran has been providing Hjerten with the experience he needs to gain real-world business applications through an internship as well as through classes. Moran wants to ensure Hjerten reaches his goal of giving back to the community by relaunching the Innovation Center.

For several semesters, Hjerten and Professor Moran have been coaxing their vision for the center to fruition by examining how to improve today’s methods of learning. The two of them dream of a building filled with screens that project the ideas of students from across the world in real time using a University of Hawaiʻi developed software, Sage 3 in tandem to support the hardware known as Cyber-Canoe. Together, Hjerten and Professor hope to see the screen plastered walls covered in the ideas of students through these programs.

Like Professor Moran and Hjerten, Allan Russell also sees the blank walls of the Innovation Center as a source of potential. Originally from Massachusetts, Russell is a retired U.S. military veteran who then went on to volunteer for the Red Cross, various fire departments, and several charity organizations. Five years ago, Russell found himself staring at the stained northern walls of the Innovation Center and decided to paint a mural. Russell has been painting murals for free since the age of 47 and has since completed 28 murals total, including 10 recognizable ones all over the island. Today, viewers are able to see his mural from five years ago as well as an additional mural. The newest one is entitled “Pillars” is Russell’s latest work and perfectly fits Moran’s vision of the building relaunching project. While Russell claims he just wanted to create a “imaginative and dreamlike picture to draw the eyes of the viewer to” as opposed to caking the mural in overwhelming symbolism, his words featured on the pillars hold a lot of meaning for the Hilo community. Russell had approached a local friend of his originally to ask what Hawaiian tennents he should include on the pillars. The words his friend gave him were “kuleana”, “ohana”, “aloha”, and “mālama.”

Artist Allan Russel and Professor Moran at the new mural on the wall of the Innovation CenterArtist Allan Russel and Professor Moran at the new mural on the wall of the Innovation Center

This newest mural was completed in two months time and finished in October of 2021. The mural spans a 16 by 58.5 foot space and was all done on one ladder. Though Russell did the mural for free, he estimates the mural cost around $2,000, but happily states that he loves creating art for the community for no cost. As Professor Moran puts it, Russell “isn’t doing it for money or fame, he’s doing it for love”. Russell hopes to see more and more artists donating murals to Hilo for free. His dream is for the artists to take over and leave their mark on the town as he has been doing for the past six years. He hopes in the future he will be able to paint more of the Innovation Center and continue to express his love for Hilo.

Similarly, Hjerten has great plans for the inside walls of the Innovation Center. Hjerten hopes to see the walls covered in flatscreen TVs complete with the Cyber-Canoe hardware, the Sage software, and the collaboration of students around the world. Hjerten claims the two programs are “very powerful and there’s a lot of new things we [students] can use it for” including viewing a board filled with the ideas of students all working on a project all at the same time. “Essentially,” says Hjerten, “It’s a normal classroom, but Cyber-Canoe is what everyone looks at. You use one of the multiple computers in the room and everyone can see what you put up, change it, and edit it. Everyone uses the same platform to collaborate with each other.”

Moran and Hjerten haven’t been the only ones spearheading the revival of the Innovation Center. Michael Yee of the County of Hawaii Planning Department has been, as Moran puts it, “the brains and key visionary” behind the relaunch. Michael Yee managed the Idea Center in Seattle for 17 years and has experience in bringing economic revitalization and innovation into economically distressed communities. In addition, people such as CoBE Alumni Krisha Zane and her partner, Dr. Ku Kahakalau of EA Ecoversity, are key Indigenous educators who are considered ideal anchor tenants at the Innovation Center. In the future, Hjerten sees the center filled with new students and ideas that have been established with the help of Cyber-Canoe and Sage.

Professor Moran said, “The downtown Innovation Center has tremendous potential to bring UH educators and students into a close working relationship with local business organizations and social enterprise organizations to nurture entrepreneurship and small business development in a post-pandemic world.” With the help of faculty, artists, and dreamers, students can expect to see the walls of the Innovation Center transformed - both inside and out.