Tag: Calgary

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Design / Time

Creating cultures of design in space and time

Creating cultures of design in space and time

Design’s relationship with space is complex and well documented in the literature on architecture, interior design, and product innovation. The relationship with time is much more complicated particularly with the rise in popularity of the concept of design thinking.

The discourse on design thinking largely focuses on applying the cognitive patterns and creative techniques more common within the design disciplines to new areas like business, education, and social innovation.

Among the central features of design thinking as it is discussed in the literature is rapid prototyping. The concept builds on various forms of brainstorming and ideation and is aimed at providing a reasonably unfiltered look at ideas and then quickly assembling mock-ups of these ideas to achieve some form of working model to test.

Design group IDEO and its leaders past and present like David Kelley and Tim Brown have done much to advance this perspective. Design scholars and practitioners like Jon Kolko at AC4D have furthered this thinking into specific methodologies used to train designers and social innovators.

I spent much of June touring Italy and Finland, two major global centres of design and came away with many reflections on the role time plays in all of it. In doing so, I realized how ill-considered time is when discussing design thinking.

A read through most of the popular works on design thinking or to view documentaries or reports on design thinking finds great emphasis on the use of rapid, quick-burst ideation and development. To be sure, this is not the only way to proceed, but it is certainly given the lions’ share of attention. This makes sense in a world where communications and product development cycles are increasingly moving faster.

Applications of design thinking to product (or service) development often employ a model based on the charrette, a concentrated workshop-style event that can last between a half day through to many weeks. Having participated in, facilitated and convened many of these in my work I can attest that the majority of such events are closer to the half-day version than the 7 or 8 day one that is favoured by the National Charrette Institute when employed for social planning.

The argument is that people are busy and the pressures to come up with immediate responses to problems are high. It is the quintessential argument of our time — the present shock that Douglas Rushkoff writes about — that we need to act now, and do it fast. But both Italy and Finland are testaments to what happens when you spend considerable time in developing ideas and models rather than seeking fast solutions.

A lasting architecture

A lasting architecture


Thinking to my last post on floods, I was reminded of the situation of Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome arena, which is in need of serious repair at a time when its main tenants, the Calgary Flames hockey club, is seeking a new building. The Saddledome was built in 1983 and was already being viewed as near the end of its run before the June flood hit that city. In Rome I visited the Colosseum (above) , still standing after more than 2000 years despite earthquakes, neglect and many wars in between. It was built to last.

Another impressive architectural highlight in Rome is the Pantheon, another architectural gem that illustrates longer-term thinking in the design, construction and maintenance of a structure. It has been re-purposed different times and still looks incredible despite being built around 125 AD.

The Pantheon: Built to last

The Pantheon: Timeless design


True, these Italian landmarks were built in different times, with different materials, but the idea of building to last and working with history is something that permeates Italian design culture today. Speaking with architects and designers in Italy it was clear that the thinking — the design thinking — that goes into developing, restoring or transforming things today builds time into the plans differently than is visible in much of the popular discourse. That translates in Italian design to taking the time to know history, know places, and understand the context in which a design in implemented.

Yet Finland, a far younger society, has also managed to do this in a different way by anchoring its design and architecture to its natural environment. The Finns take great pride in building structures and environments that fit with the land they call home and the lifestyle they wish to lead.

Consider the image below of the pedestrian underpass built in the heart of the city of Helsinki. Where in North America we do things like the Big Dig in Boston for cars, here they have done something similar for pedestrians and cyclists. Why? Because the Finns value nature and being able to engage the outdoors enough to warrant thinking about how to build that into their cities. One could argue that Canadians have the same interest in nature, but we haven’t managed to translate that into design.

The Big Dig: Helsinki Style

The Big Dig: Helsinki Style

This isn’t meant to argue cars vs pedestrians, rather the way that time and connection to the space around us plays in design. While cities like Toronto build enormous glass skyscrapers that look gorgeous (sometimes), their half-life might be measured in decadescreating a slow-motion failure of design.

The place for rapid thinking is assured for design thinking, but perhaps it is time to spend more energy on considering what other types and amounts of time might be useful if we wish to build things to last, not just to address Ruskoff’s present shock.

The examples presented here are from architecture, but the ideas of thinking longer and taking the time to understand things in a deeper way still resonate. In future posts, this issue will be explored further.

In the meantime, take some time to consider what good design, healthy design and innovative design mean to you.

Photos: Cameron Norman



complexitydesign thinkingemergencesystems sciencesystems thinking

A Flood of Complexity

Flooded Expressway

Flooded Expressway

Yesterday Toronto was hit with a massive rainstorm that dumped more than 120mm of rain on parts of the city within the span of five hours knocking out power to more than 300,000 people, stranding thousands more, and even prompting a rescue of hundreds trapped on a commuter train out of the city by the police marine unit. Yes, a train rescued by officials in boats.

For those commuting in cars they were almost like boats as the video above demonstrates.

To put this into perspective, when Hurricane Hazel hit the city in 1954 – a storm that killed 80 people and left thousands more homeless — it dropped just over 100mm of rain in 12 hours. This is the second time in a little more than a year that a massive surge of rain has flooded widespread parts of this city, the fourth largest in North America, in the Great Lakes Region of the continent.

Less than three weeks ago Calgary’s downtown was submerged by unprecedented flooding caused by combinations of high-levels of melting snow, a full water table, and more-than-usual spring precipitation. The Southern Alberta (and ironically named) town of High River is still largely under water. This part of Canada is grassland and largely dry, home to cattle ranches and some light agriculture. It is not a flood plain and this is not a normal occurrence, at least not at this level.

Earlier this year we witnessed Hurricane Sandy overwhelm New York City and the east coast of the United States and Canada.

New York City Flooding

New York City Flooding

Climate change is shifting weather patterns and making these extreme storms, floods, and other events more likely. It also will expand the consequences of these storms like rats moving to higher ground in cities like New York and Toronto. What are the health implications of this?

Transit plans are changing and the impact on insurance rates (if insurance will be offered at all) may be enormous. In Calgary, there is speculation that it could take a decade to fully recover from what happened.

Entire cities might even disappear altogether. Reporting in the latest Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff Goodell explores the very likely scenario that the city of Miami will disappear within the next century and be virtually unliveable within decades. Using a bit of foresight scenario development, Goodell begins the article with a hypothetical description of Hurricane Milo in 2030 that provides a chilling possibility based on the current threat assessment.

All of these scenarios point to increasing complexity in not just weather patterns, but the human systems that work to respond to and prepare for such weather systems. Speaking on CBC’s Metro Morning radio program, Peter Halsall from the Canadian Urban Institute points to the need for us to see things as interconnected — basically as systems – if we are to develop the appropriate policy response to deal with the treatment and prevention of excess damage caused by the kind of storm we had in Toronto last night.

Without linking issues like infrastructure, weather, housing and social policy together there is little sense that people will act to prevent problems before they occur or address the problems that form in ways that account for their complex nature and structure.

Seeing systems is critical. Acting through foresight methods, system dynamic models, and complexity-oriented scenario planning exercises are ways to prepare for the uncertainties that come with floods like we’ve seen or other storm-related phenomena. This means more than planning for the things you can see, but those things you can barely conceive of. Using creativity-based scenario plans allows us to envision futures that might seem outlandish at the extreme, but pulled back a little can yield insight when real extreme events occur.

Using foresight methods and complexity allows us to design for emergence (PDF), rather than design systems for what is expected and usually happens, because those days might be fewer and farther between. Using systems approaches to planning and responding allows us to take account for the interconnections between things, simultaneously allotting cognitive energy to contemplate flooded transit lines, insurance payouts, rat infestations, and backed-up sewers as a system and not independent events. While not easy and certainly complex, this kind of approach allows us to treat problems as systems and not falsely act on parts while ignoring the whole.

The usual is likely to be unusual in an age of complexity and it is becoming time to embrace that lest we literally and figuratively drown in the flood of changes to come.

Photos: @FirstNewsGTA ,  National Geographic Photoblog

behaviour changedesign thinkingenvironmentsystems thinking

The Lies Told By Innovation

You Can Build It, They Will Come, But Can it Last?

Being innovative requires a sense of the system that innovation takes place and the design sensibilities to make change last. Are we letting innovation lie to us?

I’ve been on the road much of the past three weeks and one stop I was very glad to make was to my hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

The city is nestled in the Alberta foothills with a view of the Rocky Mountains and an hour’s drive from some of the most beautiful prairie, mountain, and river-filled countryside you’ll find. The city I grew up in has been widely known as an innovator, particularly on issues of the environment. It’s light-rail transit system is powered by wind-generated electricity. Everywhere, there were examples of innovative technologies and conversations about innovation in the news and visible as one drives through the city. Calgary’s vigorous culture of outdoor activity, the natural beauty of the Bow Valley combined with a historical connection to land for food and lifestyle has made it hard to ignore the role of the natural environment in everyday life.

And yet, driving through this city — one that has nearly tripled in size since I was born there — it is hard to not see the innovation forest and trees disconnect. Yes, there are waste diversion programs and hybrid cars and more transit, but the city continues to grow (literally) well beyond its traditional borders into territory that was once farmland with barely an eyeshot of the city. I’ve always known Calgary as a physically large urban centre, but the rampant push towards making more suburbs seems at odds with the desire for a liveable, environmentally responsible city.

Calgary is not alone. As I fly to my home in Toronto, the same conversations are taking place and there, like out West, there is the belief that innovation will save the day. As fuel prices spike as they have over the past few days (and reasonably can’t be expected to lower much anytime soon), I find it hard to imagine how innovation is going to reduce costs and impact for people in the short term.

Whether it is on the issue of the environment, improved knowledge translation in health, or better social design for services, innovation can be seen as the answer. If we just come up with the best idea, the thinking goes, we will be able to solve anything. We are creative people, we can do it.

I actually think this is the lie we tell ourselves to avoid going where real innovation is needed and that is: personal and social change. Without a systems approach and a design for those systems, we will continue to ride our horse (to pick up a Calgary stereotype) in the wrong direction. More clever ways to reduce the impact of our lives on the environment doesn’t change that we’ve created systems that pollute and damage the environment in the first place by design.

Creating sophisticated knowledge translation systems aimed at getting the “right information to the right person as the right time” sounds sexy, but doesn’t work unless there is a system designed to support people in accessing that information when they need it and having the time and space to process that information to make meaning of it. Otherwise, we are just shovelling bits at people and making ourselves feel better because we developed something that, on the surface, looks good, but in reality doesn’t address the bigger picture.

If the forest and trees are part of the natural environment, then we need to consider them both at the same time — literally and metaphorically — in the systems we work in and do so with intent (design) otherwise we will continue to perpetuate the lies that innovation allows us to tell ourselves so well.

*** Photo Calgary Dusk Skyline by fung.leo used under Creative Commons License from Flickr