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Intelligent Futures is gearing up for a summer-long urban design experiment, alongside their colleagues at Blank Page Studio. Blank Page Studio, located on Kensington Crescent, is a creative and collaborative space, comprised of small innovative enterprises, from web developers and artists to urbanists and architects. Throughout the summer, the sidewalk space on the east side of the studio will transform into Blank Page Plaza, a dynamic and testable public place for passersby to play games, learn something new, or perhaps just sit down and stay awhile. This project will bring the collaboration and innovation that occurs in Blank Page Studio outdoors for the community to experience and enjoy.

Urban Field Testing

Temporary street design projects have been increasingly more popular over the past few years, with parklets taking over the streets of San Francisco and Vancouver, the book Tactical Urbanism getting swept off bookshelves all around the globe, and car-free, open street initiatives occurring more and more often in cities worldwide.

Short-term public interventions have the potential to create lasting, beneficial shifts within a city. By implementing quick and affordable changes, cities can prototype ideas and gain public feedback during the design process. Take Macon, Georgia as an example — in September 2016, an eight-mile long pop-up bike network was implemented. During this week long bike lane prototype, bicycle usage increased tenfold, demonstrating a demand for cycle paths. Permanent bike lanes have been built since the experiment and city policy in Macon now ensures that any roads being repaved must examine how bike lanes could be added to the existing structure.

First Intervention: The Moveable Chair

For our first intervention, we will create a pleasant place for people to sit and relax.  Public seating creates a useable, comfortable and pedestrian-oriented space, allowing folks to socialize, people-watch or just kick back and relax. Adding seating can be an easy and informal step to creating an active and lively space.

According to William H. Whyte, a late American urbanist and renowned people-observer, the best type of public seating is furniture that can move. Whyte considered the moveable chair “a wonderful invention” that provides people with choice: “a declaration of autonomy, to oneself, and rather satisfying.” Unlike fixed seats, moveable chairs give people the freedom to move closer or farther away from others, and follow or avoid the sun.

Watch this short clip from Whyte’s documentary “Social Life of Small Urban Places” to see how people in New York used chairs that move:

The risk of moveable furniture is that people may take the liberty of moving the chairs a bit too far away (perhaps onto their own patio or front yard at their house). We’re going to take a leap of faith and hope that our new furniture stays put without having to lock anything down. Stay tuned to hear about any thievery and what our next intervention will entail! Use the hashtag #blankpageplaza to follow the adventure on social media.

Urban Agriculture was a significant theme for Intelligent Futures (IF) in 2016. Early in the year, IF joined forces with North Carolina’s Community Food Lab to develop a customized Urban Agriculture Strategy for Strathcona County in central Alberta. The IF team worked closely with Strathcona staff for the better part of a year in a collaborative process that was responsive to community needs and emerging issues. The end result was a highly customized–and ultimately award-winning–strategy.

A key goal of the three-phase project was to ensure all citizens had a voice in the strategy development–from the general public to local agriculture experts. The project team spent several months speaking directly with community members to learn their priorities and concerns, all with the goal of a custom-made approach to urban agriculture that incorporated the vision of area residents. The consultation process was one of the largest ever undertaken in the County, including 3,824 participants who took part in 97 hours of face-to-face engagement, ultimately contributing 8,896 ideas that helped shape the strategy.

On June 18, 2017, all that hard work was recognized with an Award of Merit from the Alberta Professional Planners Institute (APPI). This is the fourth Intelligent Futures project to receive an award in the past two years. “We are grateful for the recognition of our work,” says John Lewis, Intelligent Futures’ president and founder. “A lot of this success is due to the company we keep. Working with enthusiastic clients like Strathcona County, who are committed to authentic engagement and innovative ideas enables us to do our best work. It’s an added bonus when the planning community recognizes that work, like the APPI has done.”

Community Food Lab was a key part of the project’s success, providing insight into urban agriculture initiatives across the globe. The Lab’s founder and principal, Erin Sullivan White, helped Strathcona explore the connections between urban agriculture and the larger community. “It’s a pleasure to see this project honored with an APPI award,” Erin says. “The County needs to be commended for the leadership they showed in the development of the strategy, which will hopefully inspire other communities to explore urban agriculture and the many benefits it can offer.”

One of the priorities for the project was the use of design thinking, with its focus on innovation and multi-disciplinary input. This approach prioritizes the creation of effective solutions that build stronger communities. At 116 pages, the Urban Agriculture Strategy includes three sections (overview, actionable strategy areas and process/implementation strategies). A wide range of local urban agriculture elements are included–from bee keeping to community gardens, and urban livestock to education programs. “The goal was to create a living document that can help provide direction across the community over the next 20 years,” John adds. The strategy area actions are designed to be implemented within three years, with a ‘review and reflect’ process taking place before the next cycle of action begins.

The Intelligent Futures team worked very closely with the County, making sure we had an eye on global innovations in urban agriculture while respecting the unique perspectives, factors and needs of the local community,” says Diana Wahlstrom, Senior Advisor of Agriculture Initiatives at Strathcona County. “The end result was a strategy that was helps achieve the goals for our Agriculture Master Plan, and defined actions which will help guide urban agriculture in Strathcona County for years to come.”

Check a video about the project below.

February 5, 2017

The value of surprise

Too busy.
Engagement fatigue.

All of these have been used to describe citizens and stakeholders in processes that we have been involved. In many communities, there is an increasing volume of engagement activities that are happening (this doesn’t mean they’re done well, but they’re still happening).

In these situations, the concept of “vuja de” can be very helpful.

We’ve all heard of “deja vu,” the feeling of having already experienced the situation that you are in. The idea of “vuja de” is the opposite, and we have comedian George Carlin to thank for the phrase….

As it applies to the design of community engagement processes, vuja de is a wonderful concept to consider – especially in situations where you’re engaging with people that have experienced many processes before.

“You’re in a situation that is very familiar, something you’ve seen or done countless times before, but you feel as if you’re experiencing something completely new.” – Warren Berger

When engaging communities, there is a risk of “been there, done that” over time. This is why surprise is such a valuable tool.

Situation: You’re about to start a workshop with a group that has “seen this all before.”

The participants have gathered. They are waiting for the same kind of process to unfold – a presentation, a facilitator with a flip chart capturing their ideas, a summary of the conversation, and a thank you to wrap things up. In this situation, participants often show up partially disengaged right from the start (this is certainly compounded by the age of smartphones).

How might you surprise the participants to get their attention, spur them to think about the problem in a new way and have some fun?

One exercise we have used in this situation is “forced analogy.” We present small groups with a seemingly random image and ask the group to come up with a variety of ways that the community/organization/issue is or is not like the image they have been given. For example:

How is our community like / not like Prince?


How is our organization like / not like a pizza?

In just five minutes, you can surprise participants in a way that disturbs their assumptions about the workshop, gets them to creatively and collaboratively work with their fellow participants and have a few laughs along the way.

Situation: You’re engaging the community in an area that people visit all the time and are used to what it looks like.

We use a number of different place-based engagement tools. These help engage people in the spaces that we are talking about – making the feedback more tangible and lowering barriers to participating. One of our best tools for this is our sounding board. While the physical design of the boards has evolved over time, they have always been designed and located to surprise people. We want to elicit the question: “What’s that thing?” to draw people in, learn about the project and share their ideas. By placing a new object in the landscape and using eye-catching designs of the structure and information, we can surprise people and leverage that into great feedback.

An example can be found in the ourWascana project in Regina, Saskatchewan. We wanted to capture people’s views about Wascana Centre while they were experiencing the space, so installed our sounding boards (the second iteration of the design of these) within the space itself. Using bold colours and strategic placement, we were able to obtain thousands of responses to our questions. The image below shows one of the sounding boards in action.

In addition to the board itself, we also used information design to inform people about Wascana Centre – an incredibly diverse and dynamic space in the city. The “Wascana at a Glance” infographic was bold enough to draw people from a distance, but interesting enough to keep people’s attention as they learned about the space and the project. This then inspired citizens to answer our three questions, which were posted on the board.

There are many other examples, big and small, of how we use surprise to create more compelling and effective engagement experiences. How might you use surprise to improve the quality of conversations in your community?