Archive for the ‘Co-creation’ Category

Factory Dreams +HL_with caption

Today’s Packard plant naysayers echo the words of New York’s High Line critics back in 1999. Since that time 15 years ago the 1.45 mile-long High Line has been transformed from a disused liability to an enormous asset that inspires reclamation projects globally.

On the surface, the Packard and the High Line may have little in common beyond their status as industrial relics, but the process for creating such a massive success is comparable. Decades from now, the epic story of both efforts will begin with dire predictions by vehement critics, no financial resources and very few leaders willing to step forward to make things happen.


How do dangerous hell holes become prosperous hot spots? How does a vague vision take wing to exceed the founder’s wildest dreams?

Attention all Packard plant cynics, skeptics and dreamers!

Here are five leap-of-faith lessons to be gleaned from the High Line project:

1. You don’t have to be rich to attract major capital.

When the Packard’s new owner Fernando Palazuelo recently told a group, “Sorry, I’m not a millionaire” some hopes were deflated and a few people may have heard only impending doom. But High Line founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond were also not wealthy. Both were resourceful residents of ordinary means who stepped up to attract extraordinary talent and financial support.

They did this by bringing fresh energy and passion to the task while realizing that this was a pivotal moment in history. Joshua David and Robert Hammond knew that if they didn’t find ways to rally people around this cause, nothing would happen. So they stepped forward to get things rolling.

Likewise, we are now witnessing a historic moment for Detroit’s citizens and supporters. Will we find ways to make this site an economic powerhouse and magnet for inventors? Fernando Palazuelo stepped up when no other viable buyer for site came forward. Now we must do what we can to support him, while always keeping our eyes open.

2. “Impossible” projects require many “owners.”

So if Mr. Palazuelo is not a magnanimous benefactor, how should we see his role?

The High Line founders provided a human face and an emotional story—versus an anonymous, unilateral announcement by a remote corporation—that attracted a torrent of support and talent. They found ways to benefit from a wide range of quality consultants, authorities and donors. In particular, they worked with first class designers, including graphic designers, urban planners and architects. Their big idea was to not only preserve the rail line, but to create something new and exciting.

The Packard plant must embody holistic change from Detroit’s old culture of dependency. It must fuel the belief that people can get big things done when they contribute to a common purpose, rather than waiting for a benefactor. Palazuelo is currently the legal owner, but many other citizens must step up and feel a sense of ownership and investment in the Packard’s long-term success.

3. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

The High Line offered supporters a chance to make a lasting contribution to a big exciting project and legacy. It brought people together in an entrepreneurial environment to feed the natural human longing to part of something with an enduring higher purpose.

The Packard plant is seen internationally as the most visible symbol of Detroit’s extreme frustrations and suffering. The idea that this site could become a new global symbol for the city’s deeper, inventive spirit presents a cause worth fighting for.

Strong commitment to a cause and legacy will be required to navigate financial, regulatory and political obstacles. Whenever big ideas are proposed there will be naysayers. It is useful to keep in mind that there were prominent Parisians who once opposed the Eiffel Tower.  

4. Avoid false dilemmas, such as a choice between “unproductive space” and revenue

Whole neighborhoods benefit when places succeed in developing their true assets. In the early days of the High Line, some naysayers assumed that an either/or choice must be made between preserving the rail line and tearing it down to build revenue generating properties.

Instead of choosing between demolition and revenue, the High Line has accomplished both. More than $2 billion in developments can be linked to the first two sections of the High Line. The elevated park and promenade has become a major iconic tourist attraction for the city, with three million annual visitors (10 times what the founders originally envisioned) a quarter of whom come from outside the United States.

Genuine assets generate interest and investment. The Packard and the High Line offer meaningful stories that connect us with the long march of history. These connections with the past and layers of human intervention are irreplaceable assets that cannot be faked.

5. Overnight success may take a decade or more.

The High Line took ten years to plan and realize. It continues to evolve as an additional segment is added.

Fernando Palazuelo has stated that the Packard plant may take over a decade to develop.

Instant, fully-formed developments rarely endear themselves to the public. The reality of big complex projects is that, while they benefit from a master plan and vision, multi-year phasing allows for new ideas and adjustments to emerge. Phasing also provides opportunities to build enthusiasm, attract diverse participation and to learn from early experiments.

– Sharon VanderKaay






Janes Walk buttonsThis weekend I attended a planning session organized by the folks at Jane’s Walk Toronto, where I picked up these buttons.

WalkShop: Health and the City took place at the bustling Centre for Social Innovation Annex (below).

JW planning session 2014

After participating in several Jane’s Walks over the years (one of which is posted here) I decided to create a walk for the upcoming May 2-4 event.

My proposed “walking conversation” will be around the question, “How healthy is this place?” We will gather at the corner of Bloor St West and University, then proceed west toward Bathurst St. Together we’ll analyze therapeutic visual elements such as vitality, variety, nature, legacy and cultural connections. I hope to raise awareness for visual health through questions and bits of research regarding brain health in the city.

Here is a 15-second video that highlights my question.

My Jane’s Walk idea stems from having created this video: “Salutogenic Places,” as well as years of leading facilitated Critical Eye (visual literacy) sessions.

These walks began in Toronto in 2007 as a tribute to the memory of urban activist Jane Jacobs. Now a global movement, they have spread to 85 cities in 19 countries. Several aspects of Jane’s Walk keep her spirit of neighbourhood awareness and advocacy alive:

  • an informal, hands on, social way to explore and analyze elements that make places livable
  • builds on shared, first-hand knowledge rather than experts and theory
  • largely self-organized and globally contagious requiring a minimum amount of promotion

And lest we forget, World Labyrinth Day is May 3 with a corresponding Jane’s Walk.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Rarely does a design project begin with a well understood “higher purpose” statement that addresses how it intends to feed our psyche.

The purpose of both art and architecture as depicted in Alain de Botton’s recent book Art as Therapy should be “to help us lead better lives–to access better versions of ourselves.”

Art as Therapy

The needs of our psyche in de Botton and Armstrong’s view include (paraphrased):

– to remember what matters

– to see the hopeful side of life

– to gain perspective

– to amplify our best qualities

– to understand what we are most proud of

– to discover missing bits of ourselves as individuals

– to see how the imperfect can be attractive

– to see the things that affect us (but are not noticed)

The authors say we need better critics who will help us practice Enlightened Capitalism. That is, society needs more people who help us make choices that are in line with the true needs of our psyches.

de Botton previously wrote The Architecture of Happiness, which I summarized in the post “Design for Empathy.”

– Sharon VanderKaay



On his HBR blog Michael Schrage observes, “Right answers to wrong questions virtually guarantee failure…Asking “how can we build a better mouse?” in an era of touchscreen and haptic virtuosity is not a recipe for success.”

Schrage’s new book, “Who do you want you customers to become?” raises a question that we as architects have given a lot of thought to over the years. The set of slides above introduces ten  interactive elements that are intended to transform non-designers into champions who demand better, health-causing design.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Detroit Collision Works Hotel

Collision Works will be much more than a cool boutique hotel in Detroit’s lively Eastern Market – it will re-define what a hotel can be. Founder Shel Kimen is shepherding the creation of a co-working and lodging space rooted in community participation and story-telling.

One of her organization’s laudable stated beliefs is in “honoring the freak genius in all of us.”

A vital aspect of this project is that the design will convey an intriguing “Detroit Style” rather than “Anytown, USA” disorienting blandness. In other words, it will reflect the edgy, imperfect, quirky aesthetic of a hands-on working community in a one-of-a-kind location.

This “community accelerator” (the city must now attract lots of accelerators and investors in order to quickly shore up a shrunken tax base) aims to bring meaningful stories of the past and present to life.

Detroit has a lot of emotional stories to tell and learn from. One over-arching theme is the power of grass roots change vs. top-down efforts. Answers to the question of what has held Detroit back for so many years are complex, but imposed change has a dismal record here and is arguably the main culprit.

This hotel, constructed of shipping containers, is a grass roots initiative story that will surely attract global attention, perhaps on a scale comparable to New York’s High Line.

collisionworks logo

Here is how Collision Works describes their new role as a “make and stay space”:

“In the last ten years we’ve seen an evolution of hotels from places to sleep to social settings for culture development. They incorporate music and art, host independent events like film festivals and book releases, and sell locally made crafts in the rooms. We’d like to see this trend deepen. We’d like a hotel to be a meaningful participant in its community.”

I can think of no better place than Detroit to break this kind of new ground.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Image: Conceptual art of Detroit’s planned Collision Works, design by KOOP architecture + media and The Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC)


The people of Detroit have suffered through several generations of abuse, neglect and hostile urban renewal. Destructive labor and management relations instilled a norm of dependency and mistrust on all sides; decades of extreme government corruption, racism, oppression and violence made things much worse.

High profile urban renewal projects such as the original fortress-like design for the Renaissance Center failed to contribute to diversity and street life.

Despite these pathological realities, Detroit’s enduring core assets are the basis for a powerful new role in the U.S. economy and beyond. The city has a deeply rooted, resourceful “maker culture” which is now coming to life and attracting creative entrepreneurs from far and wide. This asset, combined with a low cost of living, have created a magnet for budding talent. Detroit is set to be a rising star of urban vitality.

Two major concerns could throw this exciting revival tragically off track. One would be the failure to engage all local citizens—people living in poverty as well as in trendy lofts—in creating their own future.

The other pitfall is the danger of tolerating souless urban design renewal. The city must find a way to avoid bland, placeless, spirit-crushing, energy-draining new construction.

Detroit has a rich history of humanistic design. My wish for my birthplace is that decision-makers will not blow this one chance (as Eminem might say) to use an asset-based planning and design approachRather than simply focus on gaps that must be filled with anonymous new construction, the asset-based design process identifies vital, health-causing qualities to be reflected in the design. These qualities include character, roots, human relationships, local identity and design aesthetic.

Looking ahead, Detroit must avoid faux-anything and define its own style.

Since Detroit is a music-oriented city, I wrote a poem (video here) that highlights the city’s best qualities.

Songs and poems can have more impact through power of suggestion than any blog post. Will “Makin’ it in Detroit” become the first urban design pop song? And will this popularity lead to human-centric design?

– Sharon VanderKaay (Detroit native)

photo sources: photo of Robert Graham’s 1986 “Memorial to Joe Louis” by hannerola on Flickr. Photo of Marshall Fredericks’ 1958 “Spirit of Detroit” by buckshot.jones on Flickr.

Salient questions are an antidote for blind spots. 

But how can we get in the habit of asking better questions?


Maybe someday in the future somebody will build a ?-shaped learning center to emphasize the value of asking better questions when making important decisions.

A major “aha!” occurred for me about 15 years ago as I began to absorb the decision-making research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Their “loss aversion” theory focused on “people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.

In 2002, Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work (with Tversky, who died in 1996) on cognitive biases.

The significance of Kahneman’s work is highlighted by Janice Gross Stein in this Globe and Mail review of his recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Daniel Kahneman’s contribution to the understanding of the way we think and choose…Kahneman has reshaped cognitive psychology, the analysis of rationality and reason, the understanding of risk and the study of happiness and well-being.”

Understanding loss aversion and cognitive bias research is vital for innovators who seek to attract support for their ideas. In my view, it underlines the importance of asking investigative questions in every encounter with potential clients, as well as with current project stakeholders. Otherwise, we may hear what we want to hear, interpret meanings that mislead us, and frame our pitches in ways that intimidate our audience unnecessarily.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Roger Martin has said, “…the best innovators recognize mysteries, and are brave enough to dive into them.”

If we compare the information-gathering modes of two legendary TV detectives, we can see the enduring qualities of Lt. Columbo‘s (1968-2003) conversational style. In contrast to the linear mode of Dragnet’s 1950’s era Sgt. Joe “Just the Facts Ma’am” Friday, Columbo took the scenic route to solving intricate mysteries.

Lt. Columbo’s path of investigation may not have been direct or conventional, but it enabled him to collect diverse bits of valuable insight. The resulting level of understanding led him to his trademark (Just one more thing!) zinger revelations.

By contrast, Sgt. Friday was a information collector who saw problems to be solved. His MO was to nail things down as soon as possible.

As architects we engage in working through mysteries, beyond merely solving problems. In recent years the nature our business has changed from simply designing for clients to designing with clients and their stakeholders. Planning decisions require insight regarding current issues as well as in-depth knowledge to assess future scenarios. There’s too much at stake for us to treat this as a mere data collection investigation or a linear problem-solving effort. Nor will we add much value by manipulating obvious pieces of a puzzle until they fit.

In order to solve mysteries we need to think together with various client groups. Fifteen years of engaging in Columbo-style planning sessions have convinced us that this is best way to help clients make sense of issues they have not fully explored, and to bring fresh options forward that would otherwise be missed.

Joe Friday was an apt character for the 1950’s environment of Cold War, conformity and fascination with machines. By contrast, the Columbo series was conceived when the developed world was just beginning to hear the term “tree hugger.” Since then, the industrial economy has slowly moved toward a greater appreciation for nature, creativity and roads less traveled.  But we’re still coping with the environmental degradation that was the norm during Joe Friday’s anti-conversation era. Part of our job as designers is to accelerate environmental regeneration.

Enduring Columbo-inspired principles that underlie our creative process can be summarized by these Pitfalls to Avoid:

1. Not asking enough questions (“just one more thing” can make all the difference when unlocking a case…or a site plan’s greater potential)

2. Accepting false limitations (maybe the body found in the pool was moved from a neighbor’s bathtub…and maybe there’s another way to generate the necessary revenue for your project)

3. Misled by unexamined basic assumptions (don’t rule out the police chief who is heading the investigation…and maybe you will change your mind about a “no way” planning scenario)

4. Jumping to conclusions (if there are no fingerprints on the gun, try dusting the bullets…and don’t settle for the obvious design solution)

5. The trap of either/ or thinking (it’s possible that the victim both drowned and suffered a concussion…there are many ways to combine and redefine your planning strategy)

Unlike problem-oriented LAPD investigators back at the station, Columbo knew he was dealing with mysteries. As Roger Martin observed in an interview, with Vern Burkhardt at IdeaConnection Ltd., “Dealing with mysteries is one of the hardest things to do. You don’t know what to pay attention to. You don’t know where to start. That’s the tricky thing. When you’ve got a heuristic, you know where to start, and what to do. With a mystery you don’t know where to start so it takes a lot of bravery to dive in and try to figure out what’s going on.”

With Columbo as a model, we can summon the courage to face mysteries and end up with the right answer – not merely an answer.

-Sharon VanderKaay

“Breakthrough in the Shower” by Sean Stanwick


Anyone who is waiting for a predictable process for breakthrough innovation (similar to TQM or BPR) may find the illustration above instructive.

Fresh insight depends on favorable ingredients and conditions – more like improvising with a recipe than a formula. By contrast, incremental improvements in the design of products and services suit predictable steps and outcomes.

What are some conditions that spawn eureka moments? What is the recipe?

There’s a lot we can learn about how innovation happens by paying attention to everyday situations. For example, my colleague Sean captured his recent insight in the shower by the illustration above; Tye Farrow reports he has new ideas while gardening; I rely on walking to work for fresh perspective.

What do these three activities – showering, gardening and walking – have in common?:

– SUSPENSION of MULTI-TASKING: they allow us to clear our heads

– PERMISSION to WANDER: escape from self-imposed pressure of conflicting priorities

– SPACE to WONDER: they give us the choice to think of nothing

We will be delving further into recipe/cooking/innovation/design similarities in future posts.

– Sharon VanderKaay

Ross Dawson coined the term “black-box consulting” to describe low value consultant-client transactions in his book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships.

When I first read Dawson’s contrast between isolation and co-creation consulting models over ten years ago, his views struck me as the way of the future for anyone who is in the business of offering advice—including doctors, designers, real estate agents and tech consultants.

Now I am even more convinced of how important it is for clients and consultants to wrestle with questions and options together.

Black-box consulting happens when neither client nor consultant emerges from the assignment any wiser. Essentially, the client receives an outcome without meaningful participation in the process. Dawson says that this opaque model turns the service into a commodity because there is no shared knowledge-creating experience which leads to better decisions. Moreover, the black-box yields no learning, no ah-ha moments, no growth and no transformation.

Which also means that black-box engagements prevent any chance to think through fresh possibilities together. Black-box relationships are about minimal interaction, avoidance of risk and low personal commitment–the opposite of what’s required for innovation.

So clients and consultants do themselves a disservice when they rely on third-party selection processes and impersonal working relationships, which limit their ability to create value together.

Dawson’s book presents a framework for clearly seeing why transactional advice-dispensing models lead to competition driven by price rather than value, as well as doing things the same old way.

– Sharon VanderKaay

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