Return to the salon

Richard Sommer and Alan Dilani

When salons were popular in France over 300 years ago they filled a need for people who were trying to make sense of confusing times. Three magic ingredients – diverse perspectives, a spirit of inquiry and social rapport – added up to fertile ground for sparking breakthrough thinking. Unlike a lecture format, which conveys pre-packaged information, these conversations addressed what we now call “wicked problems.”

Wicked problems are messy and full of ambiguity with no simple, right or wrong answers. To understand wicked problems calls for wrestling with questions that can be overwhelming to an individual. So what could be more appropriate for thinking together about today’s perplexities and opportunities than a return to the salon?

The rise of social media indicates a massive global yearning to wrestle with tough questions by making human connections. The salon format can be thought of as an offline version of social media conversations – full of emotion, doubt, and the willingness to share lessons learned related to a complex issue.

Recently we experimented with such a gathering of the minds which drew health care architects, media, engineers, academics, government representatives, programmers and students together to talk about the relationship between design for health and economic well being. The evening’s central question: At a time when health care design quality is threatened by “good enough” standards, how can we influence decision makers to believe we can all do better than that?

Our guests included Alan Dilani from Stockholm who was in Toronto to talk about the global shift away from expensive sick care to prosperous health care.

Richard Sommer, dean of the U of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, commented that the teaching of health design has been neglected over the past 20 years. He said his school is planning to emphasize this educational specialty as fundamental for a resilient and prosperous society.

Recognizing that merely pushing such a complex design agenda rarely leads to action, the salon provides a venue for pulling ideas from a diverse group. This open-ended spirit of inquiry seems like a good way to ignite changes in thinking AND doing.

-Sharon VanderKaay

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  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
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