Designing Toronto: Incubating, Iterating & Prototyping

A new project for 2013, Designing Toronto is a collaborative initiative between Think Fresh Group & Exhibit Change.

Back in November, the Designing Toronto team hosted an amazing session with our Advisory Team that really helped to push this project forward. We were able to bring together many elements that had been under development since the summer – everything from our online survey results to a draft course curriculum. Not to mention, we were able to tell the advisers that Designing Toronto was already featured in the Novae Res Urbis journal!

At the meeting, the advisers really pushed our thinking in terms of what will really make this initiative scalable, sustainable as well as exciting and innovative. It was a really great meeting and Exhibit Change and Think Fresh Group can’t thank the Advisory Team enough!

Taking time to reflect on the feedback and advice given, we have been able to iterate the course prototype into a model that will definitely bring Designing Toronto to life in 2014.

Screen shot 2013-12-19 at 5.53.44 PM

Moving into the new year, Designing Toronto will be focusing on launching a stellar crowd-funding campaign (we already have some top-notch prizes!) and putting together a strong communication, branding and marketing package. Just as much as a priority, we will be working hard to refine and polish the course structure and curriculum to make this project sparkle, as well as starting a working group to research organization models to keep this idea growing beyond the first cohort in 2014.

Are you interested in helping us build Designing Toronto? Have an expertise at crowd-funding campaigns? Want to show off your marketing mojo? Make sure to sign up for the Designing Toronto newsletter to stay updated and get the details for the next design session.

See you in the new year and hopefully also at the next Designing Toronto meeting happening on Wednesday, January 15!

Engagement in a Ball Pit


This summer the Exhibit Change team got really excited to throw a ball pit event. Yes, you read that correctly. An event with a ball pit. Why? Well, where to begin…


If you live anywhere in Toronto, it would almost be impossible to have never seen the development proposal white boards announcing a potential new development project and spelling out details for upcoming community consultation meetings.

If you have ever dared to venture into one of these community consultation meetings, it is arguably an alienating experience that is a mix of posturing and politics set up in a conference room somewhere. You will soon discover that any opportunity to participate in the decision making process in your neighbourhood has been diminished to reading presentation slides and filling out feedback forms.

Which begs the question: why is the standard for community consultation in Toronto not anywhere close to authentic engagement?

Community engagement is a catchy phrase to throw around, and at its essence requires a culture where citizens have greater decision making powers beyond the occasional opportunity to cast a vote. If we, as a city, want community engagement then we very much need to start building this culture of participation.

So how do we begin to create a culture of community engagement? We at Exhibit Change decided that it might start with a ball pit.


If we want to build a culture of citizen participation, we need to start learning who we share this community with on a daily basis. Which, naturally, is uncomfortable. We all have our circle of family, friends and co-workers, but when it comes to the people we share a building with, wait at the same TTC stop every morning, or buy vegetables at the same market, it’s easier to keep a distance.


The Ball Pit project seeks to challenge that, if only for an afternoon. For our first event, we set up shop in a park and asked perfect strangers to jump into the pit and to start a conversation with someone they have never met. Sounds challenging? At first, yes. But the results were amazing.

As with our other work in design-driven community engagement, we know that true learning begins once you get people a little uncomfortable and then helping them move beyond that. On that sunny summer Saturday, we met enterprising cheese salesmen who connected with a stranger in ball pit about growing up in New Brunswick. Another set of strangers talked in length about whether coyotes were cool animals to have in the city or a real problem. Most people we met call Toronto their second home.


As we explore this new venture, we want to give props to the Soul Pancake team who inspired us to do something awesome with a ball pit. Thanks!

Designing with Consequences: Reflections on Tune Up

Last week we hosted our first ever Tune Up with much success. Working with Equal Grounds, we were able to bring 11 Design Thinking practitioners together with 4 Equal Grounds team members to work collaboratively to unpack, explore and design potential services to deliver.

To help focus the group and maximize our collective work, the central question that was put forward by Equal Grounds was:

How do we create employment inclusion for people with disabilities?


Diving into the conversation, it was quickly obvious the effect of using a real-world problem was having on our designers. Unlike a typical DT4i training workshop where the focus is more on practising tools & processes in a sandbox environment, Tune Up is intentionally set up to challenge your assumptions;  both the stakeholder and designers are collaborating on prototype solutions as well as challenging each others biases in defining the actual problem.

In the morning, we definitely had to take the time for Equal Grounds’ team members to connect with designers, creating a safe space that paid recognition to mutual fears of failure, of saying the wrong thing or to individuals not having all the right answers. Without underscoring the importance of empathy in the design-thinking process, moving forward into defining the problem and designing solutions risked moving the focus towards the designers’ biases. Tune Up really is a workshop where you get a chance to design with very real consequences.

The empathy phase of the design-thinking process is an important step that in foundational in defining what is the actual problem instead of moving instinctively into defining solutions. Remaining in the problem longer allows you to figure out what you don’t know and what information you need to move forward. This may take more time upfront and can feel really messy at times, but by doing so, it will ensure whatever prototype that ends up being implemented is more likely to be relevant to a very important stakeholder: the user.


With our first Tune Up under our belt, we are excited for the next one happening in February. We learned a lot from the December 7 workshop, both in how to deliver a great Tune Up as well as the amazing value design thinking brings to real world, wicked problems.

If you want to know how you can get involved in the next Tune Up, stay posted in the new year for when we announce the next Tune Up project. In the meantime, make sure to sign up for our newsletter.


[section title=”ABOUT TUNE UP”]Tune Up is hands-on design thinking applied to a real world wicked problem. Anchoring the conversation in reality, the workshop engages both an organization with an identified problem as well as individuals eager to practice and experience the design-thinking process. The ultimate goal for Tune Up is to expose both the organization and the designers to the design thinking process and facilitate collaborative learning.



Presenting: Equal Grounds! Our December Tune Up Project.

We’re really excited for our Tune Up workshop this Saturday. We have a full room of designers ready to dive into an interesting project with some serious problem solving.

Presenting: Equal Grounds!

The organization coming in for a design-thinking Tune Up is Equal Grounds. An inspiring initiative and new start up, Equal Grounds aims to be a social enterprise dedicated to providing professional services to clients by creating opportunities for people of different abilities. Equal Grounds primary goal is to create employment inclusion in all industries and sectors, especially for those who are differently abled.

This Saturday’s Tune Up will definitely be an engaging workshop where Exhibit Change and the designers in the room will help push Equal Grounds closer to answering what a program for employment inclusion looks like for people with physical disabilities.

Interested in attending this workshop or the next Tune Up? Ready to start putting your design-thinking knowledge into action? Register here.


[section title=”ABOUT TUNE UP”]

Tune Up is hands-on design thinking applied to a real world wicked problem. Anchoring the conversation in reality, the workshop engages both an organization with an identified problem as well as individuals eager to practice and experience the design-thinking process. The ultimate goal for Tune Up is to expose both the organization and the designers to the design thinking process and facilitate collaborative learning.

Click here for more information on Tune Up.



ELNStudio & Design Driven Community Engagement


This Saturday the Exhibit Change team, Jenn, Nisha and Clara will have a great opportunity to help infuse design-driven community engagement into the many conversations happening at CivicAction’s 2013 Emerging Leaders Network Studio (ELNStudio).

We’re really excited to be part of this year’s event! ELNStudio has grown over the years to become a signature event for emerging leaders across all sectors and industries to come together, connect around the issues facing our region, and work out a plan to take action. This year’s Studio will focus on job creation and economic opportunities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and is shaping up to be an event not to be missed.


As the facilitator team for the Local Economic Development and Micro-Entrepreneurism topic, Exhibit Change will be brining our design-driven community engagement approach to help drive the delegates’ conversations into action during and after the November 2nd event.



Design-driven community engagement is a method of imagining what is possible, seeing things from a different point of view and being led by the power of the question.

The facilitation for ELNStudio was designed specifically with the intention of getting ideas to action. The facilitators have crafted a process that will evoke new perspectives, honour the multiple and diverse voices in the room and generate ways for participants to plug in their experiences and value. The approach comes together from our multitude of backgrounds including design thinking, Art of Hosting, business thinking and strategic foresight to name a few. Together, this process is meant to create a container for all the background ideas, visions and passions coming from the ELN community. [/section]

[section title=”SO WHAT?”]The impact of this facilitation method is to encourage leadership to emerge within the groups, and for the solutions to be human-centred and striving to influence systemic change. [/section]

ELNStudio is about creating space for innovators and initiators to take on their natural roles as change-makers, working together to build an action-centric team to foster and promote provocative disruptions.

We are confident that the facilitation will build a foundation for an action-oriented conversation, fueled by all the great minds in the room and develop to support the instigators who emerge as leaders of projects.



It ‘s important to highlight that this conversation won’t happen again with this exact group of people, or with the exact constraints and thinking; the facilitation process lets us not miss any opportunity to get the most value out of November 2nd.

We also only have one day to forge ahead. The design-driven community engagement approach will help us to figure out what conversations are already happening and which ideas have started to take root and collectively push us towards the next iteration.

Sounds like fun? Then be sure to join us on Saturday, November 2nd! Register for the event now or follow along on Twitter this November 2nd @elnonline 


Exhibit Change comes to Richmond Street West!

In an exciting development as September rolled through, Exhibit Change has officially set up shop in the Situation Lab at OCAD U as the Innovator in Residence!

Located on Richmond Street West in the old Fashion District, the Situation Lab is an immersive research lab focused on applying game theory and transmedia methodologies to storytelling, participation, augmented reality and foresight.


This is an incredible opportunity for Exhibit Change to build upon its current work with the Educators’ Studio and applying design thinking to education, not to mention the exploration of design thinking and community engagement through the lens of moving audiences from being consumers of content to being the creators and key stakeholders of community initiatives.



Make sure to subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date on more exciting news and events to come.

Lofty Proposals

We recently participated in an amazing and unusual focus group as part of the Upper Toronto experimental proposal. For three consecutive weeks, we collectively bashed our heads together on Tuesday evenings to dream up plans for a world in which a new city of Toronto would be built above our current city, with the intention to eventually abandon our former homes below. Sounds scary, right?

The creative minds behind Upper Toronto acknowledge that such a project is a bad idea, but if we had to do it, what would be the best way to build a new city, and why? As our group attempted to dream up this City of the Future, the problems we had to confront are ones that are not so foreign to the challenges Toronto has faced before, but perhaps on a much more catastrophic scale: planning and executing long term visions without completely destroying the lives of the people who already live here. Be it transit, social housing or gentrification, the problems with building the City of the Future are very much rooted in the challenges of running the City of Today. Planners and politicians need to address resistance to redevelopment and relocation, incredible and often unthinkable capital expenses in building and upgrading new infrastructure, and the necessity for the political will and momentum to actually see the plan through from start to finish.

How do you plan for the City of the Future 25, 50, and 75 years down the road?
The real-life trend seems to favour ambitious plans that extend 25 years into the future. Believe it or not, there are many of these plans already being implemented that will dramatically impact, and hopefully improve, our experience of living and working in the Toronto region. Some great examples of these ambitious plans already underway are Waterfront Toronto’s redevelopment plan, Metrolinx and the Big Move, and Ontario’s Places to Grow regional plan.

Image: Exhibit Change

Waterfront Toronto is making great progress towards redeveloping an area bigger than four times the size of Monaco, close to 2000 acres. This is as close as it gets to literally building a new city, and as everyone may remember the Ferris Wheel and monorail idea, the Waterfront Toronto plan also serves as an example of how easily a long term plan, no matter how great, can be derailed by the politics of the day.

Ontario has crafted up two important plans to address regional transit and growth. The regional transit agency Metrolinx has begun implementing a 25 year initiative which includes building a much anticipated rail connection between Pearson Airport and Union Station. The Big Move initiative is aiming to create an integrated transportation system for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area to tackle congestion, increase transit use and improve satisfaction and accessibility across the region.

The provincial “Places to Grow” initiative has taken a wider view and focused on the Greater Golden Horseshoe (PDF) to begin to manage growth in the region centred around Toronto. The aim is to set development guidelines to help municipalities to revitalize downtowns in communities throughout this region while simultaneously curbing sprawl and promoting denser development to protect green spaces, the crown jewel being the vast green belt comprised of the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment.

The million dollar question: what does authentic community engagement look like? Image: Exhibit Change

To Build or To Engage?

During the Upper Toronto exercise what became clear was the need to address how to authentically engage people and communities from planning to implementing over such a long time frame. Planners and politicians are great at drafting initiatives and putting shovels in the ground. The problem is whether or not the best laid plans will meet the needs of the future community. Conflicting opinions and doubt can literally stop a project dead in it’s tracks, wasting time and money.

Once the Upper Toronto focus group sessions ended, the question that we walked away pondering over was if you were given a chance to recreate the City of Toronto, how would you improve not how it’s built, but how people become involved in shaping its future, from planning to implementing?

Sound off your ideas in the comment section below!