Pressing Questions

The Emperor’s New Clothes‘ is an analogy that any of us can interpret in a variety of ways. When you ask yourself “how am I like the emperor in my own life?” you could explore some interesting insights that might turn into action. The same with the boy, the same with the swindlers. It really depends on how honest you care to be with yourself. If you were a comedian, many stand up sketches could come out of such an exercise.

What insights would it yield if you were a participant in a City of Vancouver neighborhood planning workshop? One problem with this exercise is that the workshop is part of a democratic process. The ’emperor’ is a curious story from a not so distant social structure. But are we really fully democratic? Yet again, you could question your own government as to its practices and, not to forget, you could question yourself. 150223-ConDiv The workshop for the Commercial-Broadway sub-area was held on Saturday, February 21st. A few days before that, White Rock City Council voted to eliminate question period from their agenda. In that city, 19,339 residents were counted as of 2011. The Grandview Woodland neighborhood is home to 27,300. What are the differences between the two communities? What similarities can we count?


White Rock, with its recent questionable decision, is like a vestige from an extinct species. Will we be so lucky as to have someone pick on the comic perspective of it? The proposed community plan in Grandview Woodland of mid 2013 was a display of disregard to community consultation. Fortunately, the lack of listening on the part of Vancouver City Hall resulted in an interesting eruption of community opposition. The lessons from that process are still being learned, as information becomes available and is shared. Here too, some giggles and laughs will hopefully emerge.

The efforts to govern and serve a city these days are intriguing to the point of practitioners becoming overwhelmed. Within the context of change, we humans, are almost the only part of the city that stays the same. The transfer of responsibilities from federal to provincial to municipal in recent years means that we are all still adjusting. From a sleepy region up until 1986, the lower mainland has experienced a constant push for growth.

Right now the neighborhood is bubbling with experimentation that is yet to be determined as successful or frivolous. The extent of residents’ involvement in the democratic process is a crucial factor, in which direction we take. This is where the workshops in Grandview Woodland provide a platform of engagement. Within the context of change, that platform promotes a degree of stability. So how do we benefit from it?

In the Croatian Community Centre the City of Vancouver facilitators were busy framing the discussion. As usual, the questions we were asked included the topics of Local Economy, Arts & Culture, Heritage, Parks and Public Space, Social Sustainability & Social Issues, Transportation and Housing. The difference this time compared to previous workshops was the introduction of a request to express our impressions of convergent and divergent items.

Our discussion covered items such as pedestrian friendliness of the area around the Skytrain station, building-form-and-height, green-and-open-space, etc. The topics that resulted in a sense of general agreement, were framed as convergent. The topics of disagreement were framed as divergent. This process was presented as experimental. Some facilitators admitted to it being challenging for them as well.


Has our platform lost its sense of stability? Listening is one of people’s ongoing challenges. The experiment on Saturday might have stretched the effort of listening beyond most people’s attention span. It has possibly also triggered the underlying question many of us have: are they truly trying to listen to us? Is this exercise employing the comprehensive planning tools in the best possible way or is it just a fancy dress up to “eliminate question period”?

The comic in me takes a step back to ask, what if that boy’s parents had a babysitter that day?!


Technology and behaviour

The stamp on my disposable cup said “Without the internet.” I was visiting the Faraday Cafe on 434 Columbia Street in Vancouver. Beside the front glass of the space, many used cups were placed with phrases added to the existing one. I also finished my drink and added a few words to share my perspective.

Julien Thomas has opened a café that blocks wireless signals from reaching its customers. A few years ago I’ve read a disclaimer at JJ Bean explaining their stand on not providing wi-fi in their coffee shops. I’m not sure whether they are still doing that but at the time I was wondering if it really is necessary for a business to engage in such issues. With or without access to communication tools (A.K.A. Technology) it’s people’s behavior that determines their degree of engagement with each other.

Faraday Cafe-1082

What are the questions we ask ourselves in the context of our needs? I remember the emotional effort required to discuss with my wife the issue of using her cell phone in the presence of friends in a coffee shop. I’m trying to compare that effort with the effort invested in putting up the Faraday Cafe for the days it will operate. What I feel is at stake here is made up of many layers, branches and threads of thought. Maybe a significant one is the balance between confrontation and engagement.

It seems like almost everyone feels the challenge of giving our attention to the people important to us. That attention requires emotional investment that is acquired in time and reaches unique and many times incompatible levels. Face to face or through a variety of tools, our control of communication is a magical mess. Are you listening to me? Do I hear you?

As well and unintentionally Julien has come up with a design layout that in itself invites contemplation and discussion. For any of its achievements, this display is a great opportunity to foster awareness. Take away any part of your habits or routines and your awareness to its importance as well as its substitutes can improve.

What is a coffee shop without coffee?

How hard is it to turn off your device?

Food for thought

Referring to my previous post – yes, using food as a tool to attract people to an event seems radical to me . Why?!

In one of my Crawls at the Vancouver East Side, I was intrigued by a set of tables designed by the artist whose studio I had visited. What intrigued me even more were the guy’s complaints about the public who didn’t seem to buy into the marvels of his piece’s ingenuity. At the time I wasn’t able to articulate what seemed to me to be his mistake. Maybe I still struggle with it.


The question does not lie in the degree of interest of your audience. The funny/sad thing is that probably my own interest in my own product’s marvels doesn’t really make a difference. That product could be a chair, a service or any activity. If I want my audience to buy into any of my offerings, I have a responsibility to engage them. When I think of engagement, it’s not about me; it’s not about you: it’s about our connection. The implementation process for the revitalization of Broadway East includes an impressive schedule for gatherings way into 2013.

However important the cause, if we fail to bring our stakeholders to the table, the void will be filled. The reality we are trying to change will be succeeded by another. Our aim is to bring benefit to all if not most. Without community participation the risk is that the benefits will be lost into the hands of a few. Reality sucks. Or does it?

Successful community consultation in the Collingwood neighborhood back in the 1980’s resulted in a development process that is appreciated and remembered to this day. It seems like in Vancouver’s urban planning, the aim is to achieve similar successful development processes in other areas of town. For that to happen, community engagement is just one part of the puzzle but is a crucial part. It is also a massive challenge.


At the individual scale, planning as a concept could be one of life’s biggest threats. Think of planning for a wedding; consider financial planning etc’. We like things to just happen to us in life; good things, that is. Many times though, procrastination is our first step when we embark on planning. Now try to lure a significant amount of people to help in planning A Neighborhood? “Oh, I have a hairdresser appointment” or, “Shawks, I forgot…” or just plain neglect.

Food does help. The Vancouver Design Nerds base any of their events on sharing food, drinks and on fostering a collegial atmosphere. I think they’ve built their success on a gradual and steady outreach to a growing audience of like minded people. In the case of a City sponsored, one-off, legally-binding (?) process like Broadway East’s revitalization, the set of challenges and opportunities is somewhat or maybe utterly different.

Which still doesn’t mean food is not a good option.

Which leads us back to asking more questions.

On that, later.


Landfill can strike a chord on the way to land use

In the past month or so, I’ve been trying to get a sense of the platform of community engagement. There’s been a few of them in various forms and formats that always raise the biggest question for me: how do you get people to participate in a valuable process that is beyond their immediate influence? East Broadway is currently the project I am most engaged in and the mystery is still unfolding.

Who Can Make It Happen

We use questions, at times, as a threat. Other times our questions are so perceived without our intention. Asking the right questions is both a matter of mindset as it is of context. This is probably why we should always keep asking them.

Community Outreach sounds like something politicians should be good at. But anyone trying to attract an audience will have to go through some sort of it before a room is filled with the desired energy. It’s always great to be involved in conversations that discuss ideas intended for actual implementation. The challenge is generating participation that is representative of the eventual community who is supposed to benefit from the change. The planning department‘s intention to have “input from all Mount Pleasant residents and business owners” is always at risk of staying unfulfilled. For the meeting of December 11th 25 people confirmed their attendance. In reality you work with what you have. I think we were eight including our facilitator Sylvia.


Rules for a storm? What if this title is read with rules as a verb? As long as it’s within your brain, storm as much as you want. Urban planning exists for productive results. It is a social art of balancing conflicting needs. Brainstorming is a much friendlier social engagement than the employment of riot police in civic confrontations.

The title for the evening was Good, Fast Cheap: First Moves to “Better” on Broadway East. An upcoming feature-length documentary illustrates what can be done with not only cheap stuff but dirt cheap stuff. Sylvia showed it to us before we started. I remember showing my family a photo of a woman in Calcutta  preparing cow dung cakes on a wall. My grandma was apparently appalled by what to me seemed like a fascinating illustration of ingenuity. Can we imagine people in Vancouver celebrating Christmas with lanterns salvaged from the landfill? The Moon Festival in Renfrew Ravine is not that alien to the concept. Are we necessarily looking for crazy ideas?

QEC StreetClosure

I love to hear someone say: “Oh, you can’t close Broadway! It’s an artery.” Well, it’s not that I have a desire to stop traffic on Broadway, but we sure can…, if we want to. Considering whether an idea can work or not, if we want it – we can make it work (“Yes, we can!“).

There is a risk with crazy ideas to turn people off from participating in community consultations. However, other people might be attracted to radical proposals and push for even more extremes. Then again, when residents feel something threatening to their lifestyle is about to happen they show up in droves. But do we need controversy to bring as many people to the table or something else? What is the balance? How to make 25 people signed up to an event actually show up? Give them food, Jocelyn said. Jocelyn is Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House’s Executive Director. This to me sounds radical enough.


The business of design

The design profession will always be challenged to inform its clients as to the services they are required to pay for. From the moment we are all born any of us is a designer: we all think; we all create; we all make connections between our thought process and the actions required to bring those thoughts to reality. This is a journey from the internal to the external. What good designers do is build a process that is both efficient and desirable. In order to make business out of design services designers must realize their value.

Three simple questions can determine what constitutes the design service: what are the tools; what is the result; what is the product. As soon as you manage to agree with your client about the value of your services, looks like your in business. This is true to any business. As mentioned, design is in each of us (sounds pretty religious, doesn’t it). The transition from design as a naturally occurring activity to design as a professional service requires some articulation of the three questions above.

Here are some quick thoughts for further expansion later on:

  • The tools (the skills set): your brain, your hands and the connection between them 
  • The result (the delivery): a creative process that includes a variety of purposeful human interactions
  • The product (the tangible): communication tools and governance

Your skills set enables the quality of engagement in the design process.  The way of delivering the service affects all of the people engaged in any specific project. The product is just the tangible aspect of the service and is as important. These three components of our service constitute the strategic value of design.

Many designers enter their career after being the ones who created visually compelling images. They might have had the most readable hand writing; those who drew the nicest cars or dressed in the fanciest fashion ware. Only after years of perfecting the whole spectrum of our own service do we manage to become the consultants we actually are. The sooner we build awareness to the components of our service the sooner we can charge the premium for it.