Letters from (Civic Design) Camp -
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27 Jul Letters from (Civic Design) Camp

Photo by Athena Kay

Cross-posted from plus.timeraiser.ca.

Last month I attended Toronto’s first ever Civic Design Camp, and spent the day listening, discussing, and designing ways to make Toronto a more equitable, interesting, and engaged city. Based on a model that started in San Francisco and Chicago, Toronto’s design camp was an act in three parts: three keynote speakers, a series of unconference- style breakout groups, and a design jam. Each part of the day approached civic design from a different perspective, with the common thread of designing systems and interventions with, not for, citizens.

At the Civic Design Camp, we were challenged to think creatively, co-design solutions with people we’d met only minutes before, and ultimately consider the role of design in civic interventions. Some parts of the day were more rewarding than others, but overall I enjoyed the challenges of applying design thinking to the wicked problems of governance and government.

Throughout the course of my work, I attend many interesting nonprofit sector-focused events, but I believe the social sector can learn a lot from models like the Civic Design Camp. I’ve suggested a few starting points below.

What they think they need is technology; what they need is design. - Dana Chisnell

The power of play

Put another way, it’s OK to have fun. Despite the seriousness of the subject—civic issues more typically engender rage or despair—the overall tone of day was lighthearted. It probably helped that Joeri van den Steenhoven who was MCing, really (really) enjoyed clanging a cowbell to move participants from one part of the schedule to the next. But the design jam portion of the day was also fun.

In small pre-assigned groups, we were given a detailed problem, complete with personas, and asked to design a solution that would address the needs of those involved. My group was tasked with creating a more equitable ride-sharing economy in Toronto where persons without access to credit cards or mobile phones could still benefit from the flexibility of Uber-like services. We could use anything to prototype our solution, from craft supplies to code, and we opted for a low-fi representation using pipe cleaners and tin foil.

Since many other groups used similar tools, by the end of the design jam, the room was filled with great ideas represented by string, play-doh, and pompoms. It’s unlikely that our solution will solve the problem of the current ride-sharing model; regardless, it was genuinely fun way to explore the issue. The nonprofit sector is starting to embrace fun—think CKX and their love of Lego—but there remains untapped potential in exploring thorny sector challenges through playful creativity.

Moving beyond the sector echo chamber

The design camp drew a cross-section of Toronto including designers, developers, academics, public sector workers from the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, and a few nonprofit folks. Yes, there were a lot of civil servants in the room, but there were just as many people from outside government who brought different perspectives on unraveling the various problems of service delivery and information sharing.

Typically, the nonprofit-related events I attend are filled with amazing, committed people… who are almost all from the social good sector.

What kinds of problems could we solve if we focused on gathering together designers and academics, developers and civil servants?

This is something that we’re starting to see more of in Canada; for instance, the Lighthouse Labs’ Code It Forward event in Vancouver and projects like Data For Good. Cultivating lasting change in our communities means we must engage in cross-sector dialogue and build strong, long-term, multidisciplinary partnerships.

Openness is more than just a word

All of the materials used in the Design Camp are available online. If you want to, you can hold your own Design Camp in your city or neighbourhood—and in fact, you’re encouraged to do so. The Canadian nonprofit sector has been taking small steps towards embracing the idea of openness; see for example, the announcement this spring that the Vancouver Foundation is adopting a Creative Commons licence for all its projects. But we’re still far from giving away our best ideas, like the Design Camp is doing. In the nonprofit sector, we talk about openness a great deal, but we’re still fundamentally steeped in a resource scarcity mindset. We might be dollar poor in this difficult economy, but we are information rich: let’s try sharing knowledge more openly and see where it gets us.

Jumping off from knowledge sharing, I want to add one final key idea: data donorship. This concept comes from the first speaker, Nigel Jacobs, who co-founder the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston, and it takes openness and information sharing in an entirely different direction. Data donorship is what it sounds like—donating your data for the common good—and the concept opens some interesting avenues in the social good space.

Perhaps we should hold a non-profit design camp to explore the idea.

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