Archive for the ‘Re-imagining’ Category

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

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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)

What if a garage was much more than a lifeless, single purpose structure?

What if it was envisioned as an international tourist attraction, a place for social events and a lively asset for the neighborhood? What if it incorporated a sculptural staircase, a plaza, gardens and works of art?

Innovation often begins by rethinking the traditional limits of a category. Expectations for public parking structures in North America have been set very low – somewhere between boring and disgusting.

The story of how Robert Wennett developed his site at 1111 Lincoln Road in Miami should be taught in every business school and design thinking course. Wennett and his architects Herzog & de Meuron re-imagined a category that had previously been limited by conventional boundaries and revenue generation models.

Moreover, this project was about concern for creating enduring value. Quoted in UK’s Guardian the developer said, “This was about a moment in time in my life,” says Wennett. “For 20 years, I did things that were all about being commercial. Now I wanted to do something about legacy. About what I would leave.”

Maybe a call for “out of the garage thinking” should replace uninspiring “out of the box” cliches.

Are there naysayers for this innovation? Of course!

photo by joevare

– Sharon VanderKaay

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

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


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

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

Functional, efficient, light and bright hospital design is pretty much the norm for new construction today. There’s solid evidence that links design with reduced need for medication and shorter hospital stays. This proof is vital, but there is also a need to explore unproven intangible design qualities.

Before funds are invested in new hospital construction, it’s worthwhile to articulate the kind of space people seek when they’re at their most vulnerable due to illness. Is it enough to simply choose from the current healthcare design influences of corporate office, chic hotel or upscale health spa? Or should the design aim to address spiritual needs?

Dissatisfaction with proven norms can lead to breakthroughs. A spark of innovation is ignited when someone says: “We can do better than that!”

Credit Valley Hospital was not afraid to wade into emotional conversations when they set out to define their vision several years ago. That level of commitment, combined with their willingness to break from conventional “healing environment” rhetoric, has made all the difference. Here’s how their inspiring words guided this hospital’s memorable design:

– Sharon VanderKaay

Some people consider the notion of design thinking to be exceedingly vague. But it represents a great leap forward compared to loose talk about corporate creative thinking that has been with us for decades. Most advice I’ve ever heard from consultants about creativity has been highly theoretical and remote from day-to-day realities of working.

Years ago, in one of my workshops on how innovation happens, someone remarked that it would be worthwhile to study artists who frequent the cafés of Montreal to understand the true nature of creative thinking. Now, that person was on to something.

Or how about studying songwriters? In his fascinating book Songwriters On Songwriting, Paul Zollo interviews great songwriters of the past fifty years. Zollo identifies some common themes in terms of work habits, attitudes and sources of inspiration. Many of the writers express thoughts about writing songs of enduring value vs. disposable hits. These interviews highlight the fact that although there is no rigid formula for quality songwriting that captures all the magic, there are creative patterns and conditions worth studying.

Design thinking shines a light on designers who must do more than talk about how to be creative. The “say-do gap” between having ideas and implementing them was examined back in 1963 by Theodore Levitt in his Harvard Business Review article, “Creativity is Not Enough.”

As the concept of design thinking gets wider exposure and is subject to rigorous investigation, one of the benefits is that we can at last move beyond warm and fuzzy images of the creative life.

Prosperity in our fragile economy depends on widespread, in-depth understanding of what really motivates and constrains innovation.

– 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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