The Problem with Problems and what PennLabs is all About

Artwork by Tiffany Chang

I don’t know how often everyone here cooks but think about what happens when you pour oil into a pan. Due to a stubborn property of gravity, there’s always that extra drop that flows down the side of the container. At my house, we actually always keep a designated paper towel next to the oil jar solely for the purpose of catching this drip.

You’re probably wondering what this inconsequential concern has to do with anything — but it’s the mindset that I want to note. Before I pointed it out, had you ever considered this dripping as a problem at all? Maybe you’ve never even noticed it.

Failure to recognize problems is what inhibits society — not the problems inherently themselves.

Not recognizing problems is called complacency. Seeing a problem and choosing to ignore is called laziness. Both are equally detrimental.

Innovation is at the same time both the most jaded and the most ambiguous term in society today. We listen to TED Talks to learn from innovators; we use high tech gadgets to better innovate; we are put into diverse work groups to promote innovation— but what is it, really?


“Innovation simply put, is the child of problem and solution.”


Imagine if everyone, at any given moment, was racking their brains for ways to solve some sort of a problem. At a world population of 7.6 billion, that’s a whole lot of innovation.

Nowadays, we either view problem solving as this one-time achievement (hence the all-too-familiar “tell me about a time you solved a problem” interview question), or as some quantifiable skill. So much so that companies explicitly list it in their job postings, along with “teamwork”, “hardworking” and the other plethora of traits sure to distinguish the most unique applicants. Rather, problem solving is just a constant drive for improvement.

In fact, it has been proven time and again that the difference between the highly successful and the average population is in nothing other than what what they think about. There’s a reason that people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have multiple pairs of the same shirts, pants, shoes — it’s so they can maximize the time they devote to thinking about improving their work and not on trivial matters like “what should I wear today?”

That’s what drew me to be a part of PennLabs — we’re really just a problem solving organization dedicated to innovate and improve student life at Penn. Sitting in our weekly work meetings, you hear discussions from “is this really a problem that students struggle with?” to “what segment of the student population will even find this product useful?” The problems we try to tackle range from housing to dining to studying issues. Some resolutions to date:

Problem: students carrying their laundry up three floors only to find all the machines are in use. Solution: collect real-time laundry machine usage data and display it in PennMobile.

Problem: students want information on class and professor difficulty to make better course selection decisions. Solution: aggregate course and professor reviews on PennCourseReview.

Problem: students struggle to research and reach out to all possible funding opportunities on campus for their club or activity. Solution: a one-stop tool that sends funding requests to multiple sources at once through The Common Funding Application.

These are just a select few of the many problems that we at Labs ponder over day and night, and what drives them to build. It’s an obsession for solving the overlooked inefficiencies manifested in campus life, a passion for finding ways to make their friends’ time at Penn more enjoyable, and an overarching desire to bring Penn closer together as a community.

For those on campus and unaware that the services I listed above were available, take a minute to check out some of the cool solutions that Labs has developed. Download PennMobile from the AppStore to start exploring its features. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for product updates. Follow us here to read more technological musings tangentially related to what we’re working on at Labs. And if you have any ideas of your own, feel free to suggest them to us at any point. Just as there are no dumb questions, there are no dumb innovations.

For example, don’t read too much into my narcissism here, but I would like to point out that the “inconsequential” oil drip problem we dismissed earlier now has an entire market dedicated to it. Isn’t pouring olive oil out of something like this the new bougie thing to do?

Tablecraft H9085 Olive Oil Dispenser 8 oz, available at Amazon.com

As a matter of fact, search some variation of “no drip spout” on Amazon and you will find a wide array designs, sizes, shapes of bottle spouts all dedicated to getting rid of the dripping. Clearly this problem extends further than a mere personal pet peeve.

But hey, look at the number of innovations it led to.


Innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.” ~ Steve Jobs