Archive for the ‘Co-creation’ Category

Could art classes for the masses lower our health care costs?

Few people give much thought to the psychological effect of places they frequent outside their homes. While they may have a vague sense that spending too much time inside a concrete box next to a big parking lot is bad for their state of mind, most folks turn a blind eye to bland or hostile surroundings. Meanwhile, such blocking efforts tax the brain.

Instead of ignoring these settings, more citizens can become aware of the impact of the built environment on their physical and mental health. They can take part in creating places worth caring about, in the words of author and critic James H. Kunstler.

A first step in creating places worth caring about is to encourage more people to develop the critical eye of an artist. For anyone who believes that only a few individuals can enjoy the benefits of an artist’s visual awareness, I recommend reading or seeing The Pitmen Painters. This play, which recently completed a successful run on Broadway, is about the transformational power of art lessons within a Northumbrian coal mining community during the thirties and forties. Playwright Lee Hall was inspired by William Feaver’s book about weekly art classes that became the celebrated Ashington Group.

A particularly astute observation appeared in The New York Times review of the play: “Its lesson is that in looking at art and articulating our responses, we find essential parts of ourselves that enable us to lead happier, fuller lives and, yes, probably be better citizens. That is something that no nation can afford to ignore.”

As a society, we know a lot about what causes disease, but what are the causes of health?  When more members of the public can consciously see things that enhance or erode their well being, maybe we will see a dramatic drop in preventable dis-ease.

– Sharon VanderKaay

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What is the antidote to 300+ years of narrow focus on producing and consuming things while neglecting human needs?

Prosperity eludes us today as we cope with toxic residue from the industrial era. Human potential is suppressed by dysfunctional financial systems, unsustainable medical systems, “angry” citizens, alienation, depression, educational models that are focused on teaching at the expense of learning, plus careless abuse of the natural and built environment.

The antidote to all this sickness and dystopia is health. Health provides people with the capacity to prosper beyond the mindless, passive consumption of goods and services that seemed to have worked so well in the past.

Instead of one more dehumanizing label for the future such as “information age,” how about an aspirational term – a term that evokes active participation in a collaborative creative process: the health creation society.

The question at the heart of aspiring to transform machine age norms on a daily, local level as well as a multi-generational, global scale is:

“Am I /are we engaged in creating health or eroding health?”

– Sharon VanderKaay and Tye Farrow

How can we reverse the damage done by over seventy years of mind-numbing additions to our built environment?

Whenever the dysfunctional norm (such as described in four previous posts below) seems hopelessly entrenched, we can look to the stories and principles of Positive Deviance (PD) to see a way forward. PD can be viewed as a form of Evidence-Based Optimism. It is based on the notion that frequently, if we develop our powers of observation and Colombo-style inquiry, we can discover where the problem doesn’t occur.

This approach is very different from simply adopting best practices. Best practices tend to be instigated from the top down. The “best” may well be temporary (likely to become future worst practices) and they are built on assumptions about what is possible.

For example, the overwhelming disincentives for change in U.S. health care economics may lead us to assume that the norm for high cost, low return billings and habits are just baked into the whole cantankerous system. Relying on best practices for delivering services that are not working will yield the wrong answer.

Yet the way the Mayo Clinic does things places it among the highest-quality, lowest-cost health care organizations in the United States.

In their book “The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems” Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin and Monique Sternin provide examples of the PD way of looking at deep-rooted situations that appear intractable. The authors describe how amplifying successful but “deviant” people and practices can bring about change naturally.

Let’s discover and amplify the PDs in human-centric design.

– Sharon VanderKaay


If all of our politicians understood the nature of innovation as well as councillor Adam Vaughan, there might be a dominant feeling of abundance in our society, instead of a looming sense of scarcity. Yesterday, during his “Adam’s Walks” tour of five parks plus a schoolyard in Toronto’s Seaton Village and the Annex, Adam explained the impressive multiplying effect of changing how we think when planning shared neighborhood spaces. He also revealed some appalling examples of consequences when governments add unnecessary barriers that prevent action on innovative initiatives.

Instead of the old notion that generic urban parks should be bestowed and maintained by remote bureaucrats at their sole discretion, Adam described what happens when community members of all ages become co-creators and partners who are invested in ongoing success. Common concerns – ranging from maintenance, to dogs runs vs. children’s play areas, to safety issues – are best tackled, he says, with “strong, healthy and respectful dialogue.” Out of this dialogue emerge ideas for unconventional uses that benefit the community, as well as new ways to maintain and protect the vibrancy of these spaces. Such ideas have included non-traditional funding models, alternative sources of energy generation, and reimagining the park as a living learning project for nearby schools.         

All of which builds social capital while raising adjacent residential property values. The co-creation approach also turns a potentially hostile and alienating planning process into a healthy opportunity for citizens to draw on local talent. For those who would otherwise oppose the plan outright, being part of the solution provides the best insight into complex factors that affect controversial decisions.   

Adam is not magician who can make all the barriers of city bureaucracy disappear, but he knows a lot about the magic than can happen when knowledgeable people put their heads together instead of simply reacting to a plan.  

About Adam’s Walks
Inspired by Jane’s Walk (named in honour of Jane Jacobs), Toronto Ward 20 Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan leads a series of free neighbourhood walking tours. These tours highlight opportunities and challenges for developing our civic spaces. Since inception in 2007, Jane’s Walks have taken place in cities across North America and the program quickly expanding internationally. In 2009 Jane’s Walks were held in 46 cities with a total of 315 walks offered. In 2010, there are 67 participating cities and over 410 tours on offer.

-Sharon VanderKaay

A fifteen-year study of over 600 projects in various sectors around the globe found that 85 percent failed to meet time and budget goals. This stunning revelation by Aaron Shenhar and Dov Dvir appears in their book Reinventing Project Management: The Diamond Approach in Successful Growth and Innovation. The primary reason cited for such failures was that “…executives as well as project teams failed to appreciate up front the extent of uncertainty and complexity involved (or failed to communicate the extent to each other) and failed to adapt their management style to the situation.”

In our experience with architectural project stakeholders, the dynamic relationship between scope, time and cost is improved by crafting an inspiring “hearts and minds” purpose statement (see “Liquid Arrow” graphic in post below) combined with the shared sense of being responsible for a legacy. If scope is the means to an end, what do we want to accomplish together? Using facilitated dialogue, we build a strong foundation for the project triangle (illustrated above). After the project’s purpose and legacy are fully explored and embraced, we can begin to co-create the vision. This level of analysis saves time and prevents the “iron triangle” of project management from becoming wobbly.

– Sharon VanderKaay

“When Matisse created an image it was often only a starting point,” The Economist explains in their review of “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” at the Art Institute of Chicago. For instance, sophisticated technical analysis of one of the artist’s masterpieces reveals that “the canvas was wiped clean more than two dozen times before he was satisfied.” In contrast to popular notions that such works leap fully formed into reality, these revelations about Matisse’s way of working will come as no big surprise to many artists and designers. This process of learning from what we create with our hands – in the form of sketches, models and prototypes – is the basis for interaction and discovery that results in better decisions.

Donald A. Schon and Michael Schrage have each contributed illuminating perspectives regarding the hands-on iterative process. Schon has written about “design as a reflective conversation” and Schrage writes that “Quick and dirty prototypes can turn clients into partners.”

The slide show above captures aspects of our thinking-doing-thinking process.

-Sharon VanderKaay

What happens when we place as much emphasis on the quality of our interactions as the quality of our products? And to take this notion a step further, what would we expect an all-time best design experience to look like?

To begin this investigation, let’s ask ourselves what kind of interaction is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a Fountainhead-inspired journey of clashing wills? What’s the alternative for innovators who find themselves struggling to defend their ideas in a seemingly hostile or indifferent world? How might clients and other stakeholders actually enjoy—rather than endure—their roles as responsible contributors to the built environment?

In our way of thinking, the opposite end of the interactive spectrum from clashing agendas is a transformational experience. These experiences enrich the lives of everyone at the planning table; they raise our spirits and expand our horizons. In contrast to traditional interventions that aim for buy in, we’ve seen the benefits of a mutual quest to raise the bar to new heights. This mutual quest banishes the assumption that the designer must carry on a valiant, one-sided campaign to address quality of life design issues.

Wrestling with the impact of a project together with stakeholders instills a sense of joint stewardship. Wise use of project resources and opportunities becomes a shared responsibility with the architect, rather than pursuing “us versus them” interests. Reliance on fancy presentations or charismatic persuaders is less important than knowing how to tap into the innate human desire to do something extraordinary.

By focusing on quality of interactions, designers can be catalysts for breakthroughs—experienced as transformational, aha! moments—in design and planning. These revelations and great leaps forward are built on a shared, expansive definition of each project’s purpose, opportunities and constraints.

Tight, mechanically-inspired processes are woefully self-limiting when compared to designing transformational experiences that appeal to hearts and minds. It should also be noted that this level of engagement goes far beyond faux-facilitation methods that skim the surface of obvious options.

Designers sell themselves short when they describe their fundamental role as problem solvers. For one thing, research by Ronald Lippitt indicates that “listing and solving problems depresses groups.” Also, the term problem solving creates the impression that designers engage primarily in reductive thinking.

Designing shared transformational experiences is where exceptional value is created. The above chart illustrates the shift from transactional to transformational design.

– Sharon VanderKaay


Over the past few months we’ve been attempting to capture our design thinking process in some sort of graphic. Part of the reason for setting out to create this diagram was my reaction to Roger Martin’s depiction of “The Knowledge Funnel” in his book “The Design of Business.” Although I’m a huge fan of Martin and his two latest books, the funnel seems a mismatch with his views on expanding possibilities via integrative thinking.

So I started sketching how we actually move through our design process, searching beyond easy answers, leading to co-created solutions. The diagram that emerged looked more like a liquid arrow.

In the back of my mind, I’ve been wondering since I first saw the funnel if I was the only person who had reservations about it. But recently, in Paula Thornton’s post “Design Thinking in Stereo: Martin and Brown,” she also questions the funnel saying “For me, the funnel detracts from the original concepts, as the funnel forces something that was once fluid and unidirectional into a very linear concept.”

So I was inspired by Paula’s thoughts to post our current snapshot above for your feedback.

-Sharon VanderKaay




  • 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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