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In: IF Life

We are lucky to have two great interns with us for the summer – Patrick Aouad and Jean Roe. In one day last week, they designed an infographic, spray painted furniture, did urban design research, engaged the public, and set up our new public space. They should have a busy summer. We asked Patrick and Jean a few questions:

Tell us a bit about yourselves:

Patrick: I have always been passionate about people and city building. My curiosity has brought me to explore cities and urbanism in a variety of work and life experiences. In high school, I found interest in studying people and communities, cultures, economies and interactions and how they relate to the built and natural environments. I then became passionate about design and how it emotionally and behaviourally impacts humans, which prompted me to complete a two-month internship in a design firm based in Nantes, France. During this internship, I was able to follow real-time development of retail design and construction projects in a completely different socioeconomic and geographic context. This successfully combined my wide range of interests while working in the recipient city of the European Green Capital Award in 2013. I then began my undergraduate studies in urban planning at Concordia University, where I examined for my honours thesis how citizen involvement and tactical urbanism have reshaped the former working-class neighbourhood of Saint-Henri in Montréal. In my final year, I was involved in the Urban Planning Association as Vice President of Social Affairs where I coordinated the team in assembling five panelists from entirely different practices for the “Diversity in Planning” roundtable and networking event, which students found to be quite eye-opening. My never-ending curiosity then brought me to Calgary, where I am pursuing graduate studies in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, and now proudly working with Intelligent Futures as an intern and member of the League of Engagement.

Jean: Throughout the last four years of my Urban Studies degree (with a minor in business) at the University of Calgary, I have learned much about urbanism and entrepreneurialism. In 2015, I moved across the pond for a year to study at the University of Amsterdam, where, in the classroom, I learned about the (very impressive) Dutch way of city-building. Outside class, while biking along canals, I experienced the joys of lively public spaces and a dominant cycling culture. Having worked with sustainability focussed companies, such as REAP Business Association, U of C’s Office of Sustainability, and Sustainable Amsterdam, I have gained knowledge and understanding about the importance of creating and appreciating sustainable businesses, campuses and neighbourhoods.

Why were you interested in working at Intelligent Futures?

Patrick: What brought me to Intelligent Futures was their successful recipe in combining sustainability, engagement, design, strategy and urbanism. I joined IF after completing my thesis on participatory planning and saw their award-winning work and people-centric approach as a great extension to my quest.

Jean: As a born, raised and very engaged Calgarian, I’ve always been interested in working somewhere that enhances the lives of people in this city (and beyond) in meaningful and original ways. And I think that’s what drew me to Intelligent Futures. The significant intersection that IF finds themselves in — between sustainability, urbanism and engagement — is an important place to be. Plus, there’s something very special about working with really great people.

What aspects of city-building are you most interested in?

Patrick: While I am still exploring my plethora of city-related interests, I find most of my drive in design, engagement and community economic development, as they stimulate my thought process and make me think of why and how things work, and how to improve or challenge the status quo.

Jean: What fascinates me about city-building is understanding, acknowledging, and building all sorts of connections. That is, fostering relationships between individuals but also understanding connections on a larger scale — how is urban agriculture related to well-designed public space? How do transportation options relate to social equality? How can building neighbourly communities affect individual mental health and the global economy? How can we, as planners, citizens and professionals, understand these connections to create happier and more resilient cities?

What are some key lessons learned in your first few weeks at IF?

Patrick: One of the key lessons I’ve learned in my first few weeks at IF are how a collaborative work environment, just like a collaborative planning process, leads to increased productivity, innovative and outstanding end products. I’ve also learned that strategy is the most important aspect of any project, as it guides the vision and drives the entire design and decision-making process.

Jean: The key lessons so far have been:

1. Community engagement, when done properly, can be really fun (and effective).

2. IF’s projects are adaptable, creative and strategic because they are process-oriented, versus product-oriented.

3. There are a lot of acronyms in urban planning.

4. Never underestimate the power of the post-it note. 

5. My bike ride to work (downhill) is much quicker than my ride home.

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.

In November, I was incredibly fortunate to be selected for the first IDEOU Impact House–an immersive experience exploring how design thinking in business can contribute to positive social impact. For a week in San Francisco and Sonoma County, I lived, learned and laughed with an extraordinary group of people from around the world. Facilitated by the wonderful folks at IDEOU and the University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for Social Impact Strategy, this multidisciplinary group of global changemakers gave me one of the best learning experiences of my life.

The Impact House Fellows at IDEO headquarters in San Francisco, along with members of the IDEO crew, including CEO Tim Brown.

I’m still trying to process all the amazing information, insight and experiences that were shared, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts about how elements of design thinking can inform how city-builders do their thing. For those new to design thinking (also called human centred design), it is an approach to problem-solving. According to “It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs. Human centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.”


Empathy, Empathy, Empathy

A foundational element of design thinking is empathy. Design is about solving problems to benefit others. To do that, you must put yourself in the shoes of those for whom you are designing. When creating a consumer product, for example, you think about the eventual user of that product. In city-building, however, the complexity is infinitely greater–you are designing for a much broader diversity of people. Many of our cities are at such a scale and have such a diversity of citizens that it can feel overwhelming to even attempt to empathize with all those who will be impacted by our decisions as city-builders.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs

One of the challenges of the increased specialization we see in professions today is isolation. These professional silos can keep us from understanding people – the very people who we are designing for. In design thinking, the goal is to focus on impact over simply checking the box in your to-do list. Some key questions for city-builders:

How might we see beyond our professional silos to appreciate the impact we have outside our job description?

How might we expand our sense of empathy for future generations?


Strong ideas, loosely held

This concept of having strong ideas, loosely held was often discussed during Impact House. This means that designers are able to explore concepts with vigour, but should not cling to them to the detriment of the goal: designing better places for people. This requires a unique balance of energy, expertise, curiosity and humility.

In the process of building cities, people often dig in their heels. Professionals can hold onto their ideas and views too firmly, closing their eyes and ears to the experiential expertise and knowledge of citizens or other stakeholders. As Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer wrote:

“As a society of professionals, we’ve received educations previously reserved for royalty, made travels once only known to explorers, and developed skills in ourselves that are indistinguishable from magic. However, all these concepts we’ve accumulated are more map than territory: if we fixate our conception of the world on the systems that we build to represent it, we can lose sight of the world. Instead of seeing the world, we see only our ideas about the world. Since we’ve established that we have all the insight, we don’t allow more to come in. This is why we need to maintain what Buddhists refer to as (italics) beginners mind: a certain playful absence of assumptions. As Shunyru Suzuki writes, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.'”

While city-building professionals can sometimes be stuck in a rut, citizens and organizations often aren’t open to changing their own ideas and views. This can mean ignoring the real value of expertise from professionals, or discounting the argument of a greater benefit if it does not align with their own perspective. An open mind on both sides goes a long way toward effective city building.

The backgrounds of all the players involved in city-building varies immensely. A key question remains, for professionals, organizations and individuals alike:

How might we bring our best thinking to the problems of city-building, but balance this with the humility and curiosity to hold these ideas loosely?


The power of the prototype

Rapid prototyping is a key tool for designers. Prototyping offers an opportunity to test concepts, often with the end user as part of the process. Rather than diving into an endless journey of research and analysis to come up with the single, perfect solution, prototyping allows designers to test the value of concepts in tangible ways–learning by doing and experiencing.

As Tim Brown of IDEO said during our time together: “Ideas are only relevant when we interact with them in a tangible way.” A great example of a prototype comes from IDEO, when they were creating a new app for Sesame Street. In a short amount of time, using a giant iPhone foam-core cut-out, some music and a camera, they were able to explore and describe a concept for Elmo’s Monster Maker app. The results were totally effective (and kind of hilarious):

The complexity of city-building makes the scale of prototyping different from product development, but certainly not impossible. An example can be found in the tactical urbanism movement, spearheaded by the work of great firms like Street Plans Collaborative and The Better Block. This approach has shown that the relative permanence and expense of city-building doesn’t have to kill the potential of prototyping. Here’s a terrific example of a project in Atlanta:

A question for city-builders:

How might we create more opportunities for our citizens to interact with potential solutions in our cities, before they are finalized?


Change by movement vs Change by mandate

Brian Walker and Joe Brown of IDEO brought insights into organizational change–focusing on the difference between change by movement and change by mandate. Some key differences between the two:

Change by mandate:

  • Comes from authority
  • It’s fast
  • Directs people to act
  • Can lead to disenfranchisement

Change by movement:

  • Comes by influence
  • It may take longer
  • Engages people to act
  • The results may be more sustainable over time

As we build our cities, the goal should be to create change by movement – engaging citizens, organizations, experts and decision-makers alike in the process. As the folks who have actively chosen to make city-building part of their professional or volunteer lives, it is the responsibility of city-builders like us to continually work to “broaden the tent.”

“People support what they create.” – – Brian Walker

I can think of four related elements that can create change by movement in city-building over time:

Establish relevance–Let folks know how this applies to their lives.

Encourage learning–Create and share information that helps make sense of the complexity of city-building.

Ask for insights–Give people an opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process. (see my thoughts on a threshold of responsibility for this)

Close the loop–Decision-makers share how insights helped inform (or didn’t) the eventual decisions.

Rather than seen as a standalone project, these elements can be considered in any number of city-building activities, regardless of scale. With this in mind, a question for fellow city-builders:

How might we unlock the collective potential in our communities to build increasingly better cities?


An anti-vision for Intelligent Futures

Joe Brown of IDEO said it plainly (and hilariously):

“I think too many companies are cold, mean and stupid.”

It’s a pretty low bar, but we’re really trying not to be that 🙂

I’m sure there will be future posts and reflections as I continue to process the experience and collaborate with my Impact House Fellows around the world. In the meantime, we’ll keep applying design thinking to explore new, creative and more impactful ways of building better cities.

Finally, a GIANT thank you to IDEOU, UPenn CSIS and all my fellow Fellows. It was a truly transformative experience!