Introducing the Department of Imaginary Affairs

DIA_logo_2Earlier this month, I finally announced a project that has been incubating since the beginning of the year. It is called the Department of Imaginary Affairs!!!

I know, awesome name right? ūüôā

I wanted to take a moment to catch you up on where this all started and where it is headed.

In December 2014, I met up with Blair Francey. Blair and I have known each other off and on since about 2010 but have never had a chance to really work together. Over coffee, we were talking about different things, projects we were working on and projects we wanted to get off the ground.

Blair told me about one project that he had always wanted to start here in Toronto. Inspired by the Ministry of Stories from London, England and 826 Valencia in San Francisco, Blair wanted to start a project here called the Department of Imagination.

Both the Ministry of Stories and 826 Valencia share something in common, they are both youth literary organizations that live in a retail storefront space. The retail spaces are run as their own businesses and support the work of the youth literacy programs that share the space. For the Ministry of Stories is supported by Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, selling everything from cubed ear wax to zombie fresh mints. And at 826 Valencia, they are supported by San Francisco’s Only Independent Pirate Supply Store,¬†where you can get your beard extensions and cures for scurvy.

It is our 3-5 year goal to get a storefront in the East side of Toronto to run and operate something in a similar model. We don’t know what we will be selling yet, we are open to suggestions.

This conversation sparked a series of other conversations and before long, the vision for the Department of Imaginary Affairs (new name too) was formed.

The Department of Imaginary Affairs is a collaborative organization fuelled by the power of imagination and a toolbox of design thinking, as we aim to engage and inspire young people across the East side of Toronto to get involved in create solutions for city-based issues. The DIA is an ever evolving organization, never static, always changing.

For our first experiment, we are doing a Scotiabank Nuit Blanche installation called “The East Side Story”. We will be building 4 giant story books in St. James Park filled with stories collected from people who live, work and play on the East side of Toronto.


So far, we have partnered with 4 schools from the Toronto Catholic School Board, the Toronto Public Library, East End Arts, Young People’s Theatre, Ryerson University Tri-Mentoring, Kettle of Fish at St. John’s Mission and the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA to collect stories from now until the end of July to build the content for storybooks.

We have two grand plans for the stories we collect. The first plan is to include them in our Scotiabank Nuit Blanche installation. We know the stories we collect will demonstrate how vibrant and diverse the East side of Toronto is. The second plan is to use these stories to decide what the DIA’s first set of projects will be. We are looking to these stories to tell us what is important to the East side and where we need to take action.

Want to get involved with this super cool project?

Here are a bunch of ways: 

Tell us your story 

Become an Ambassador

Share the love on social media @dia_space #imaginaryTO





Evolving Exhibit Change

I am proud to announce that Exhibit Change is going on a evolution journey.

With a lot of excitement and a good mixture of freaked-out-ness, Exhibit Change is embarking on a refining process. It is time to put the mess out on the table and to see what comes out of it.


To capture this process, I have started a new website called Evolving Exhibit Change, you can go there to read more closely about the process. 

HMW question

There are 2 reasons for a new website rather than posting here.

1. Having a clean space that doesn’t come with all the baggage, assumptions, history and existing goals is the best way to really say I don’t know where this is going and I am ok with that.

2. At some point, I think that a new website will likely happen and I want to be able to continue capturing what is happening while that transformation is ongoing.

GS workshop

Hopefully you are now asking yourself, how can I help?

There are a ton of ways! 

1. Check out the ENGAGE page on the Evolving Exhibit Change site Рover there I will be sharing current questions through polls and surveys to get a sense of where the EC community is at.

2. Do the collaborator/supporter/friend survey – don’t worry there are no right or wrong answers.

3.¬†Volunteer for a longer interview – if you’d like to see yourself as a future client of Exhibit Change give me a holler at designthinking [at] and we can set up a call or coffee.

4. And of course, following along and stay tuned to the evolving process, through Facebook, Twitter and the Evolving EC website. 



Our Tune Up Experience Tackling Accessibility

Last year, we hosted a Tune Up Workshop with Equal Grounds. Tune Up, is a hands-on design workshop taking ideas to action while practicing how to co-design solutions with users. For Tune Up last year, we had 20 practicing design thinkers and 4 people from Equal Grounds participate in designing 4 possible ways that Equal Grounds could offer services and get their enterprise off the ground. Here is a blog from Co-Founder, Terrence Ho.


It’s been almost a year since we participated in the Exhibit Change Tune Up back in December 2013.

Equal Grounds started in 2013 a few years after my brother Torrance graduated from college and could not find employment. We decided that if employers were not willing to provide opportunities we would create opportunities for him instead. After prototyping different things that he could do from data entry for small businesses to running a petition campaign, we were contacted by a family friend that heard about our project and wanted her son to be involved who also has muscular dystrophy. That’s when I realized there are many more individuals that are impacted besides my brother and his friend.

We brought our team to Tune Up because we felt we needed clarity in our direction and whether what we are tackling and our problem definition of “how do we create employment opportunities for people with disabilities” is actually true or a problem that doesn’t exist.

There were four key concepts that came out of Tune Up:

  • Internship Concept ‚Äď whereby a company brings on an individual with accessible needs into their workplace for a short period of time or on a small project to see of there’s a fit.
  • Accessibility Website ‚Äď as a source for information on AODA and consulting services.
  • Accessibility Centre ‚Äď where individuals with disabilities can work from, with on site attendants to allow persons to work remotely for other companies and have proper care. It was even suggested that we have a remote site in a warmer climate of Florida!
  • Accessibility Association and Awards ‚Äď bringing together all organizations working on employment and accessibility and awarding other organizations and companies that have achieved and gone beyond the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) standards.

What these concepts from the design thinkers that day did for us is validate our concepts that we were testing and have thought about.

Nine months after Tune Up this is where we are, still tackling the opportunity of “how can we create employment opportunities for people with disabilities?‚ÄĚ There are three key initiatives we are focused on:

1) Inclusive Consulting: We designed and pitched an accessible consultancy at the Emerging Leaders Network (ELN) Studio and Showcase where we received positive feedback from the panel. Our main focus is to provide AODA audits, training and strategic/metric development. This has spun into its own entity called Employable Accessible People. We are currently building our team of consultants as we gear up for our first client.


2) Arts and Socialization: We’ve also been prototyping a wheelchair dance and theatre¬†program for the last seven¬†months. With eight core members we continue to adjust our program to meet our member‚Äôs needs. We teach everything from line dance and salsa to improv activities. We were recently invited to participate in the opening ceremonies of the ParaPan Am Games in 2015. We are very excited with this opportunity and continue to look for more individuals with mobility needs to join our wheelchair/scooter dance and theatre program.

3) Writing and Awareness: Our third endeavor is our Enables Me network around raising awareness through writing. We have a team of writers sharing their personal experiences and to report on accessibility news locally and abroad on topics from sports, work, travel and technology. You can read the stories at:

Our objective is to become a go to source for accessibility stories and information online. We continue to look for writers that want to share their personal experiences and to report on accessibility news.

As you can tell our work continues to evolve well after Tune Up, we are thankful for the opportunity to have the minds of so many thoughtful and experienced individuals that day.

— Terrence

A HUGE thank you to Terrence for recounting this story for us to share.

Gazebo Confessionals: A Partnership with the Institute Without Boundaries

From its conception, LandMark was designed to have 3 main components: a community engagement element, a citizen design lab and photo-stories. The citizen design lab was originally imagined to be an interactive city-building space where participants could build and rebuild the city throughout the night, highlighting that city-building is never done by one person alone.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 12.01.08 PM

As LandMark grew as a project, we knew that strengthening our community partnerships meant collaborating with different organizations so when the opportunity to collaborate with Institute Without Boundaries arose, we knew we had to embrace the opportunity.


We met with the new incoming students in early September to share the initial concepts but really to create the container for a LandMark citizen design lab that would take on a new spin. We didn’t want to dictate what the students could or could not do, that would defeat the purpose of the collaboration. We shared the same creative brief with the students that our photographers worked with and knew that the openness might be daunting at first, but it offered a lot of opportunity for creativity and originality.

15275008289_fdf27df1cc_z (1)

The IwB class is a small group of about 10-12 students. In an afternoon of brainstorming and ideation, they came up with two ideas that eventually became the Gazebo Confessionals and a Fondest Memories Wall. Both installations offered visitors a way to interact with LandMark either by individually sharing a story on the Memory Wall or connect with a stranger or several.


A HUGE thanks to the students of IwB who toughed it out for LandMark and really helped us animate St. James Park in an exciting way.

Wrapping up LandMark

It is hard to believe that a little less than a month ago, we stayed up all night in St. James Park for LandMark. This project was an unbelievable triumph of community partnerships and stories.


In February, we submitted a proposal for a Scotiabank Nuit Blanche independent project following a few conversations with the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood BIA. The idea for LandMark was born out of a goal to capture stories and bridge together different community organizations from the neighbourhood to complete one goal.


We specifically chose St. James Park as the site for our proposal, as it is a site rich with history and controversy. It is well known as the site of the Occupy Toronto protest and demonstration in 2011, the site of the St. James Cathedral which is the first church in the city of York and where you can still take bell-ringing classes, and now it is home to Music in the St. James Park where you can enjoy free concerts in the park on Thursdays throughout the summer. We knew this was a park of many layers and it was those layers that inspired the theme of LandMark.

To uncover the city, layer by layer.

This theme alongside the curatorial mission to capture the stories of everyday heroes, LandMark emerged as a one-time event that can only be created by these partners at this time.


What is remarkable about this project, is that each of the partners were like a moving piece of well-oiled machine, without each other, this project would never have come to life in the way that it did. Much like a community, we are a series of individual pieces that can operate separately, but collectively can accomplish larger goals without taking on the entire workload individually.

It is our goal to take what we have learned from LandMark and put it into longer and continuous community partnership projects in the St. Lawrence Market Neighbourhood and strengthen the foundation that has been built.

Everyday Heroes

We all know them. We pass by them everyday. They are the people who make the little things happen and it is a thankless job.

For our Scotiabank Nuit Blanche exhibit, Landmark; our goal is to capture the stories of everyday heroes.

We usually think of Landmarks as the buildings, monuments or public spaces that have been named after a famous person, we are flipping the idea of Landmark on its head and going after the people that work tirelessly to keep this city running.


There is a story I have heard time and time again that is the quintessential story of ownership. A caretaker at NASA was noticed working late into the night and when asked why he was there working so hard, he responded “Because I am helping put a man on the moon.” It is this dedication that often goes unnoticed and why we are so proud of the stories we will be able to share.

We are proud to be working with 11 community organizations to showcase their stories through photography essays.

These organizations will be sharing their everyday heroes with us!

  1. Young People’s Theatre
  2. Enoch Turner Schoolhouse & Parliament Interpretive Centre
  3. C’est What
  4. 1812 Re-enactors
  5. Market Vendor
  6. Toronto Tool Library
  7. Crisis Centre for Mental Health
  8. Jamii
  9. St. James Cathedral
  10. First Post Office
  11. King Edward Hotel

We can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Here are some of our heroes:


5522573365_d70a955101_z (1)

Urban Design Guerillaz: 100 in 1 day

 We are Guerillaz!

On June 7th, we are participating in 1 of 100 urban interventions across the city of Toronto alongside a team of Urban Design Guerillaz. UDG

The Urban Design Guerrillaz were started by brother-sister team Amos and Karen Shaw after an ice cream outing where they noticed a street corner that could use some love. Ever since then they have been performing Guerrillaz operations throughout the city and this weekend we find ourselves in Jane and Finch.


In preparation for this weekend’s Jam we joined the UDG at the Driftwood St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club on May 29th for a quick design jam to see what ideas were emerging. The all boys group talked about space for quiet homework, loud video games, a girls lounge, a new kitchen, an improved and welcoming outside and an indoor park and beautification.

While we didn’t limit the brainstorming the ideas were mostly practical and really demonstrated the place that this drop-in centre has in the community. Simple tasks like cleaning the windows and throwing away junk was quickly added to the to-do list. In addition to a laundry list of video games.

The group will be joining us again on June 7th to participate in Evergreen’s 100 in 1 day. We will be in charge of rallying the troupes and getting everyone motivated for a day of work. The guys at the jam have already signed up for roles and will be leading tasks like storytelling and getting resources. The most popular role is the Ninja. A role suited for a person that is good at working in the shadows and getting things done without needing to be asked.

Come out on Saturday from 10am Р6pm or support the intervention with a donation of time, money or resources. 




Road Trip: EdCamp Island

There is something about getting in your car, loading up on junk food and braving the traffic that is so rewarding. We ended up in a totally different place and it was only a few hours away.

Colin and I took a road trip to Manitoulin Island to visit our friend Julie Balen and for EdCamp Island. 


Apparently there is a quintessential first trip to the island and that includes running on to the ferry with moments to spare. And our first trip was not unlike the rest. We made it and were grateful for the 2 hour ride from Tobermory to Manitoulin. It gave us time to decompress from the Art of Social Innovation training and to get ready for the weekend.


The planning for this trip started probably last summer, when I first met Julie on twitter. And we had a few really great conversations and Julie along with her colleague Sue came down to Toronto last August for EdCamp BootCamp and for DT4i. At EdCamp BootCamp I delivered a training on unconference principles and the lessons I have learned from convening and planning EdCamps, Julie and Sue were among a group of educators looking to start their own EdCamp or other unconferences. In October, Julie came back to Toronto again to participate in EdCamp Design Thinking.


At this point, Julie had started the wheels going for an EdCamp on Manitoulin¬†and was joined by a few other educators to start the planning for EdCamp Island. Not unlike most EdCamps that run the first time, most of the team had never experienced an EdCamp before. They did a splendid job of picking a location that offered a cozy place for conversations and wasn’t a school (which I personally always think is good for getting out of the traditional headspace) and they kept us so well fed with lasagna and a huge plate of desserts!


In the weeks leading up to going to Manitoulin, Julie and I spoke a few times about us doing the facilitation at EdCamp. It was our pleasure to step in and take on that role. Fitting in with our road trip theme, we were able to start the day with World Cafe and ask 2 framing questions to get conversations going.

1. Where are we on the journey?

2. What inspires you to take the next steps into unchartered territory?

I always find that starting with these open mind and open heart questions leads the Open Space conversations to intuitively go deeper.


For fun, I brought Hello Kitty with us for the road trip as a way to capture the adventure and she ended up being the perfect companion. In the afternoon, during Open Space, one session talked about “Be More Dog”, a funny video about a cat realizing that dogs have more fun. And so Kitty in a Dog costume was iconic.

As a perfect end to the day, we spent time in Julie’s garden and playing fetch with Satchmo and Hawkeye! And we can not forget the hosting and cooking for Chef Norm! We had plenty to keep our minds and bellies full.





Practicing Being a Sponge

In 2010, I was lucky to be invited and hosted at a training on Toronto Island for the Youth Social Infrastructure (YSI) Collaborative. This training was transformative. I was able to connect to a group of extremely passionate, like-minded, action oriented folks who understood the value of reflection. It was powerful.


Throughout the years, I have been intention about practicing these skills of participatory leadership and in particular Art of Hosting. The YSI introduced me to a way of working where voice and power and parallel to the calling to do work that moves you.

Last year, I was honoured to be brought into a calling team looking to connect with others and create another opportunity to practice these tools.

At Exhibit Change, we bring Art of Hosting and Design Thinking tools together specifically in our work to connect with stakeholders and facilitate co-design to build ownership and purpose into each project we work on.

IMG_20140416_200942 (1)

Next week, I am excited that Art of Social Innovation is finally happening. Being on this team has already taught me so much.¬†Heading into next week’s training, I am delighted to be a host and a sponge.

I know that I will get the most from the 3 days of training and 1 day of design by opening myself up to people around me and learning with my heart and mind open.

Art of Hosting practices key principles that have resonated with me for some time. Primarily, it is about having conversations that matter. Honouring people for who they are and their voices and experiences.

“Give what you can and a little bit more” – Tim Merry

We have often integrated Art of Hosting tools into our work. You may have experienced a World Cafe or Open Space or Pro-Action Cafe with us. Each of these tools builds our tool kits and gives us methods of convening and cultivating relationships and connections.

IMG_20140416_201126 (1)

World Cafe is a great tool for getting a sense of the conversation in the room and drawing out themes in the room. The harvests from World Cafe are often nuggets of surprise or questions that lead to deeper conversations.

Open Space is a ideal tool for creating a container for participants to lead conversations or inquiries that they wish to share and jam on with others.

Pro-Action Cafe is useful for connecting others to one idea and working the intention towards action.

The best part about these tools is that we can facilitate conversations with them and scaffold a conversation for deeper meaning without having to explicitly tell participants about them. For example, here are 2 events we have used these tools in:

EdCamp Design Thinking (world cafe & open space)

Designing Toronto  (pro-action cafe)


As a process and methods nerd, these trainings get me excited in a particular way as I know that they will stay with me long after the training has ended.

I am really looking forward to next week and being able to bring back and share learnings.



Connecting with Richmonders

The James River is 560 km long and one of the 12th longest rivers in the United States that remains within the same state (source: wikipedia) and the centre piece to a design challenge at Collegiate School in Richmond Virginia.


How might we connect with Richmonders to bring awareness to the James River?

This HMW question was the frame for a 1 week design challenge and I had the pleasure of being able to kick of the design thinking work with Collegiate. I travelled to Virginia for 2 intense days of design thinking following a half day Jane’s Walk aka “Jenn’s Walk” designed specifically for me by the Collegiate Students ūüôā

Often, the question about design thinking is around what are the outcomes and what are the students really learning by being involved. Most evidently are the practical outcomes of producing a product and being able to present that idea that get assessed and evaluated, and then there is the process and perhaps more intangible outcomes. These are the outcomes that I took notice of.


Talk to strangers ¬†We teach kids not to talk to strangers.¬†For some of the students, it was unnerving to go up to complete strangers to ask questions and they soon realized that they had to pick themselves up quickly from rejection.¬†It was invaluable how the students had to learn to grab someone’s attention and to try and state their intent quickly, this was something they had to iterate on often.¬†These grade 8’s at Collegiate very quickly had to learn how to talk to strangers and we had a critical conversation about when it is appropriate to observe strangers and a few expressed concerns of unease when it came to people watching and making notes about it. The major difference between your personal comfort level as a researcher/designer¬†and how to gain information needed to inform your work to be human-centered.


Collaboration takes time We have expectations of what collaboration should look like. For students to work together is a key to learning how to negotiate, how to balance power and where the boundaries of roles are that influence and distract from the team. As Heidi Siwak once said “Collaboration is not group work“. It is not as easy as putting students in groups and expecting them to perform a specific way. On day 2, the teachers at Collegiate and I had a conversation that I think captures this well.¬†It was pointed out to me that one of the groups “was behind”. This prompted an interesting conversation about what it meant to be in this emergent process and how this group was performing in comparison to the other groups. Ultimately, it was the tension of what collaboration should look like and what it actually did. The group stayed together and worked their way through the week at their own pace.


Ask for what you need It takes vulnerability to verbalize how we work. During design thinking 101, I watched as groups pushed through the process and for some it was physically a struggle. I could see the frustration in some of the students faces as they worked through uncertainty and ambiguity. Following DT 101, we had a conversation about Task, Team, Self to reflect and in particular one student spoke up about her personal frustrations of having to move forward before she felt like a task was complete. It was inspiring to hear her share this and together we were able to work out a way for her to ask her team for time to pause before moving on. Later in the day, she told me that it helped her greatly to let her team know what she needed and for the team to be able to reciprocate.


Our time was brief together, it was a ton of fun and I know the students got a lot out of it. It was exciting to be a part of their engagement with the James River. The river that runs through some of their backyards and is the root of a nature, physical activities and economy. Through design thinking 101, an introduction to ethnography through observations and interviews, and a deep dive into defining the problem and developing solid HMW questions; I was inspired to observe some of their lessons learned through engaging in the design thinking process.