Designing Toronto: Creating the Capacity to Convene

The evolution of Designing Toronto as an idea has come a long way since its first inception back in 2013. Originally envisioned as a weekend workshop about navigating the planning system, Howard Tam of ThinkFresh Group and Jennifer Chan of Exhibit Change brought together a community of people to try to figure out how to take this idea to action.


Originally, the Designing Toronto team was focused on how we could support people to better navigate the planning and unplanning spaces, ultimately helping to get new community projects off the ground. What soon become obvious to the group was that part of the value of Designing Toronto was the ability to bring together some of the diverse and passionate players in the city-building community.

Opportunity in Failure.

As planning for Designing Toronto unfolded, we soon hit conceptual road blocks around whether or not our solution was solving a real problem and what resources we needed to see it through. Through research and conversations, there was no doubt about an interest in seeing more support for citizen-led projects. Our main question was whether or not pushing Designing Toronto to deliver a course on Toronto’s planning system would be the kind of support that citizen-led projects needed. Perhaps it is one part of a more holistic solution. Then there was the issue of generating a sustainable business model to deliver this new service.

Needless to say, our doubt and our collectively stretched resources were starting to wear at our enthusiasm.


What we soon realized was that many other groups had been in this groan zone that our team had  suddenly found itself in. This realization would be a critical insight into the way forward – it was time for us to pivot instead of charging ahead.

To better understand this phase in the project development, we needed to learn from those who had already been here. We wanted to convene a group of projects that had jumped through and beyond this zone, we wanted to hear about the projects that has been consumed by failing to move beyond this point, and we wanted to speak with those teams that had just arrived with their fresh ideas.  Thus, the dezTO Hackathon was born.


On March 29th, Designing Toronto convened a room of curious community-builders, planners and serial social entrepreneurs. The full-day event allowed us to hear war stories from the creative minds behind the now defunct Toronto Urban Exchange (TUX), to learn from the experience and expertise of ClearVillage, a London, UK-based nonprofit, to better understand the challenges facing Green Change, a Jane & Finch community space, and to meet the open government guru helping to incubate the Toronto Changes concept.

Since then, we’ve been working hard at digesting and synthesizing the harvest of ideas and actions that came out of the Designing Toronto hackathon. The creative brief on citizen-led projects in Toronto will outline case studies of ideas that had struggled plus highlighting the themes common between each of the citizen projects that were hosted during the dezTO hackathon. Pushing this creative brief into a call to action, we will outline what these projects need, and where you can help, to move these initiatives into their next iteration.

The creative brief will be out very shortly! So make sure to sign up for our newsletter to ensure you get a PDF copy when it comes out, hot off the presses.



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.



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!

Designing Toronto

In the middle of the summer, Howard Tam of Think Fresh Group  brought an emerging idea to Exhibit Change and asked if we’d like to partner on designing a course about urban planning and unplanning in the City of Toronto.

Howard is best known for being an urban innovator and instrumental in getting the shipping container market outside Scadding Court Community Centre established and operational. Market 707 is a key inspiration to Designing Toronto as a community-driven, urban planning initiative that drives engagement with the city and the streets.


After a summer of brainstorming and 2 design sessions with a few key community partners, we launched a survey to find out more about what people are thinking. We had an overwhelming response from community members, people who work in all aspects of community engagement, consultation, public policy and urban planning. The responses show us that there is in fact a need for what we are proposing and we are working to be responsive in our design & delivery.

We are hosting another design session on November 12th to dig deeper into the curriculum and our upcoming crowd-funding campaign. If you’d like to stay updated or get invitations to the design sessions, please sign up for our newsletter. 

We are pretty excited about all the interest we are getting and are looking forward to the next steps. We were recently interviewed in the Novae Res Urbis, an urban planning journal.

Look for more information soon, we are expecting to launch in Spring 2014.