Round Table: Systems change and innovation
SHIFTING THE FOUNDATIONS
MODERATED BY LORRAINE JOHNSON, ERIC KLAVER, OALA AND KATIE STRANG
GERALDINE CAHILL IS CO-AUTHOR OF SOCIAL INNOVATION GENERATION: FOSTERING A CANADIAN ECOSYSTEM FOR SYSTEMS CHANGE, PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2017 BY THE J.W. MCCONNELL FAMILY FOUNDATION. GERALDINE JOINED SOCIAL INNOVATION GENERATION (SIG) IN 2009 AS COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR, LEADING COMMUNICATIONS EFFORTS ACROSS THE PARTNERSHIP AND LATER MANAGING PROGRAMS AND PARTNERSHIPS FOR THE SIG NATIONAL OFFICE. GERALDINE IS CURRENTLY SUPPORTING THE EXPLORATION OF A NATIONAL SOCIAL INNOVATION NETWORK AND THE LAUNCH OF A SOCIAL SOLUTIONS AND SCALING PLATFORM FOR CANADA.
MELISSA HERMAN IS INDIGENOUS TO TREATY 8 TERRITORY. SHE IS A NORTHERN FELLOW AT ABSI CONNECT, AN INITIATIVE THAT SEEKS TO BRIDGE AND AMPLIFY SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND ECOLOGICAL IMPACT PROJECTS THAT ARE SUCCESSFULLY CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO IN ALBERTA, IN ORDER TO TRANSFORM THE WAY WE FORGE SOLUTIONS TO COMPLEX CHALLENGES. MELISSA IS INVOLVED IN SUPPORTING INNOVATORS AT A GRASSROOTS LEVEL. SHE LANDSCAPES SOLUTIONS THAT ALREADY EXIST THROUGH THE LENS OF THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION REPORT AND IS CONFIDENT INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES CAN BENEFIT FROM CONTINUING TO EMBRACE TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE. MELISSA’S MISSION TO IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF LIFE IN INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES IS LIFE-LONG.
PAUL HESS IS ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY AND PROGRAM IN PLANNING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO. DR. HESS’S TEACHING AND RESEARCH FOCUS IS ON PEDESTRIAN ENVIRONMENTS AND DESIGN, PLANNING FOR ACTIVE TRANSPORTATION MODES, AND STREETS AS PUBLIC SPACE. DR. HESS HAS ENGAGED IN RESEARCH ON HOW BUILT ENVIRONMENTS INFLUENCE PEDESTRIAN ACTIVITY FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS, WITH HIS EARLY WORK PIONEERING MEASURES OF PEDESTRIAN NETWORK CONNECTIVITY NOW IN COMMON USE. HIS CURRENT RESEARCH WORK IS FOCUSED ON: INSTITUTIONAL AND POLICY RELATIONSHIPS TO CHANGES IN URBAN AND SUBURBAN DEVELOPMENT PATTERNS; LOCAL MOBILITY AS A SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUE FOR HOUSEHOLDS WITH LIMITED AUTO-ACCESS; THE ADAPTATION OF IMMIGRANTS TO AUTOMOBILE- DEPENDENT SUBURBS; AND RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN BUILT ENVIRONMENTS, CHILDREN’S TRANSPORTATION, AND HEALTH.
LORRAINE JOHNSON IS THE EDITOR OF GROUND.
ERIC KLAVER, OALA, IS A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD.
DAVID KOSSOWSKY IS A GEODESIGN SPECIALIST WITH ESRI CANADA’S EDUCATION AND RESEARCH GROUP. DAVID HAS A MASTER OF LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AND KNOWLEDGE MEDIA DESIGN DEGREE FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, WHERE HE FOCUSED HIS STUDIES ON COMPUTATIONAL MODELING AND SIMULATION, AND RESPONSIVE TECHNOLOGIES. THROUGH HIS POSITION AT ESRI CANADA, DAVID WORKS WITH URBAN-FOCUSED RESEARCH GROUPS ACROSS CANADA TO PROVIDE GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEM (GIS) AND 3D SOLUTION CONSULTING, AS WELL AS TRAINING IN GIS SOFTWARE AND EMERGING SPATIAL TECHNOLOGIES.
CLAIRE NELISCHER IS A PROJECT MANAGER AT THE RYERSON CITY BUILDING INSTITUTE, A MULTIDISCIPLINARY CENTRE FOCUSED ON ISSUES RELEVANT TO CITY-REGIONS NATIONALLY AND GLOBALLY. THE CITY BUILDING INSTITUTE BRINGS TOGETHER POLITICAL LEADERSHIP, POLICY IDEAS, AND PEOPLE FROM DIVERSE BACKGROUNDS TO DELIVER HIGH-QUALITY RESEARCH AND PUBLIC PROGRAMS THAT ADDRESS CRITICAL URBAN CHALLENGES. CLAIRE’S CURRENT FOCUS IS ON POLICY, PLANNING, AND DESIGN FOR COMPLETE STREETS AND PUBLIC REALM.
KATIE STRANG IS A MEMBER OF THE GROUND EDITORIAL BOARD.
REBEKA TABOBONDUNG IS THE FOUNDER AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF MUSKRAT MAGAZINE (ESTABLISHED IN 2010), AN ON-LINE INDIGENOUS LITERARY ARTS AND CULTURE PUBLICATION. REBEKA IS ALSO A DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER, CULTURAL PRODUCER, POET, AND INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE RESEARCHER WORKING WITH THE WELL LIVING HOUSE AT ST. MICHAEL’S HOSPITAL IN TORONTO. REBEKA’S LATEST RESEARCH AND FILM WORK DOCUMENT TRADITIONAL BIRTH KNOWLEDGE FROM WASAUKSING FIRST NATION, WHERE SHE IS ALSO A MEMBER. IN 2015, REBEKA CO-FOUNDED THE ANNUAL GCHI DEWIN INDIGENOUS STORYTELLERS FESTIVAL BASED IN WASAUKSING FIRST NATION AND PARRY SOUND, ONTARIO.
Lorraine Johnson (LJ): How can we create a climate of support for social innovation?
Geraldine Cahill (GC): It’s a big question, this idea of how we can shift anything, really. Do we create the conditions in which people shift voluntarily, or can we nudge or push people into doing something? At Social Innovation Generation, where I worked for the past nine years, we are very aware that social systems and ecological systems are complex.
My colleagues and I often describe change in the same language as we use for natural ecosystems, because it fits so well with how human systems adapt and change, and how human systems reorganize themselves after disruption. Creating the adaptive capacity for humans to withstand shocks is important, but we also need to recognize that our social and ecological systems are in crisis, so creating the conditions for an alternate state is also necessary. It’s important to focus some attention on what those preferred or different states would look like.
There is a huge supply of really good ideas about how we can solve some of our social and ecological challenges, but there is a disconnect between the structures and systems that we’ve created and our ability to take these solutions to scale. At Social Innovation Generation, we were aiming to create the enabling infrastructure or the ecology in which these innovations can grow and take flight.
Melissa Herman (MH): I was speaking with an Elder in Treaty 8 Territory, and I asked her what social innovation meant to her. First, I needed to build trust with her, but after a couple of visits she explained to me that social innovation is seeing things through her eyes. It has a lot to do with empathy. Language is a big part of it because I feel like we are speaking similar languages — people at a grassroots level are saying the same things as people who are more influential — but it’s just the way we interpret it. I was able to break down that barrier by saying, “Essentially we’re trying to get the same thing — and that’s to change the system for the better.”
In supporting grassroots innovators [in the North], one thing I found myself doing regularly was helping them identify themselves as innovators, because many of them are feeling a sense of isolation. And it’s hard to measure the impacts they’re definitely having, so I tried to provide encouragement and support something they’re already doing, instead of giving them an idea and trying to have them embrace it. It’s really powerful to be able to build up something that somebody’s already doing.
The most impactful movements are the result of going into communities and having organic conversations, but those organic conversations can’t happen unless people feel safe, unless they feel comfortable, unless they feel their ideas will be embraced.
Most of the Indigenous innovators I regularly meet with up here in Treaty 8 don’t identify themselves as innovators. They just think that they’re doing what should be done, as it should be done. Most of them are doing communal thinking, which goes back to a lot of Indigenous traditions — we share food and we share stories and conversations. Storytelling is a big part of that.
The disconnect is a result of Indigenous people not really controlling the narrative, for the most part. We have different people telling our stories. And so, I’m trying to empower people—to let them know that what they’re doing is meaningful. We might not be able to measure the impact now, but the potential is there. And whatever supports they need, I help them identify some of them instead of my telling them what they need. I walk with them.
Rebeka Tabobondung (RT): Canadian society is in a post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report era, and it seems to me, as a researcher, that the past couple of years have been full of institutions and grassroots organizations trying to shift their frameworks — their institutional frameworks — as to how they work and how they approach communications and/or their systems building. From health to education, I see that space opening up. I see the Canadian government really mandating that that space also open up.
There’s an immense amount of opportunity to learn about Indigenous history—our own Indigenous history and “Canadian” history here — but also to create new systems and new frameworks that are grounded within our respective Indigenous nations and our cultural understandings and the knowledge of our Elders.
Cultural protocols vary depending on what nation you happen to be in. So, these frameworks we’re building, they’re going to look different across the board. They’re going to be affected by language and that type of diversity, for sure. There’s so much work to be done because the history of colonization in Canada is so present — it’s only been very recently that we’re starting, as researchers and scholars, to document a lot of this knowledge that has been under attack for quite a while.
For example, I am involved in traditional birth knowledge, and a lot of our work has been to document this knowledge for the sake of preserving it, number one. But more than that, it is also about finding innovative ways to share that knowledge and to actually revitalize it and to utilize it. It’s about supporting Indigenous midwives and ensuring that people have access to healthcare that’s grounded in their traditions.
As a media producer, I’m interested in finding innovative ways to share that knowledge through technology and by creating space on the internet. While the internet and social media can be ways for us to share our knowledge, there’s the issue of corporate control over these interfaces.
Things need to change radically in terms of the ecological crisis we’re in. As Indigenous people, we have so much to share, and we’ve been excluded and had our approaches denied for so long. We have a lot to offer, which is not to say that we have all the solutions, but we certainly can contribute a lot of human knowledge. So, when I think of shifts, I think of the inclusion of a holistic way of looking at the world and our relationship to the natural world and including things like ceremony and the sacred into different approaches that we engage.
LJ: What are some of the innovative ways of sharing knowledge that will lead to shift and change?
David Kossowsky (DK): One of the things I’ve seen is that instead of static data being presented, we now have this idea of crowd- sourcing information and of community interaction and community involvement in decision-making processes. Information is no longer being presented as something to be absorbed by people without any method of feedback related to that information. Now, communities and other decision-makers are able to give feedback, especially about community impacts. These emerging ways of presenting information lead to more informed decisions.
Through the internet, web apps, and phone apps, we’re now able to share information in much faster ways than ever before. And that helps with informing decisions in a faster and more dynamic way.
Paul Hess (PH): We need to be sensitive to the importance of social and cultural embeddedness of knowledge and who’s telling what stories and who’s included and who’s not. Sometimes the internet can enhance that, but I do want to strike a bit of a dark note, too.
One of the areas I look at is the impact autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence will have on our transportation system. If you look at the story that’s being told, it’s all about how autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence are going to improve urban environments, and there’s going to be all this space — we’re not going to need parking, and there’s going to be all this space for cafés and people walking. If you look at who’s generating those stories and the kind of research they’re doing, none of those outcomes are actually in the data. It’s all corporate interest. If you look closely at the modeling, there’s most likely going to be more traffic. There’s going to be all kinds of new conflicts. But it’s being sold as a utopian vision around both ecology and social improvement and shift.
We should be careful because it’s basically the engineers and the corporate interests that are telling this story. When you start looking at the data, pedestrians are basically seen as obstacles. If you look at the history of motor vehicles, when they were introduced in the 1920s, a lot of these same stories were told. Certain people control the narrative and have actually restructured our collective environment in ways we’re not always aware of because of who’s telling the stories.
Claire Nelischer (CN): We’re watching this issue of who controls the narrative play out in real time right now as it applies to the Toronto pilot project on King Street [a pilot project to improve transit reliability, speed, and capacity by giving priority to streetcars over private vehicles]. These new ideas about shifting the way we are using our streets, and the way we are accommodating the range of uses and users on our streets, are dominated by a narrative of the war against the car. I think that idea gets a lot of play.
But in terms of influencing a shift towards different thinking about who our streets are for, how we want to use them, and what we want them to look and feel like, we need to push cities to make their data and their sources more accessible to people, so it’s out in the public conversation. It’s critical to make data accessible for people who are not transit engineers and street designers.
DK: There’s a big push right now for open data, especially from municipalities. There’s an expectation of live data streams and good quality data. But it’s not always easy. There’s a big overhead to get that data out there.
There are a lot of other data sources outside of municipalities — open-source data, crowd-sourced data, real-time data streams. And the big question is, when is this data authoritative? When you’re trying to make decisions, you have to have a trustworthy data source. So, in order for a data source to be authoritative, or for it to be released by a municipality, there’s a lot of work that’s involved, and often that can slow down or impact the decision-making process because it takes time for all this information to be processed and to make it valuable for the end user.
We’re at a point right now where all this data is being released through various means, and we’re no longer dealing with a lack of data, but, instead, we’re dealing now with too much data noise. How do we filter out data and control it so that it is actually useful and usable for decision-making?
GC: It’s good to keep in mind that data is not objective. It’s influenced by the questions you ask, and it’s influenced by who’s interpreting it at the other end, as well. I think there’s complexity in putting crowdsourced data out there and saying, “Everybody can share, and we’re all going to accept all of your ideas.” At the end of the day, someone still needs to make sense of that data. And who makes sense of it and how they make sense of it is critical.
We can’t do all of these things as quickly as we might like to. Systems change takes a lot of time. It’s really hard for us to slow down a lot of the time, but we need to try our best to listen to what we’re hearing, especially from Indigenous communities, about other ways we could be operating. We may need to relearn and come to a different understanding about how we imagine our cities and our systems.
I’m a great believer in open data, but I think that being really active listeners is also extremely important.
PH: The way that data is socially constructed often gets lost in discussions. In the big-data world, computer scientists are working on data ontologies, through which they find ways to connect all these data sets. They want to create variables that are defined in the same way across data sets. So we have engineers defining things like what gender is, how many genders we have, and what to call them. Well, that’s actually a political issue—that’s social and political decision-making.
Data is really powerful—but we need to look at the cultural embeddedness of data. That’s why Indigenous ways of knowing are very important. Understanding where that knowledge comes from is very important.
RT: I’d like to comment on that. As a community researcher, one of the most fascinating things I learned was around the notion of gender. Within the Anishinaabe tradition, when a woman is pregnant, the man is also considered to be pregnant. So, traditionally, there were huge restrictions placed on the man, even more so than on the pregnant woman. For example, men who were pregnant were not allowed to go hunting because they would be taking life. Therefore, the couple was completely dependent on the community to meet their most basic needs. This is a fundamentally different view of gender. But if you have someone else controlling the narrative, their understanding of information is going to reflect their own culture and their own values.
I’ve been looking at developing a pregnancy app that would share this traditional knowledge both with families but then also with healthcare providers. Of course, that’s not the absolute solution either, because not everything will be answered through technology. Obviously, it’s being out on the land and engaging in having a relationship to the land, as well.
MH: We can’t assume, in the language we use, that everyone interprets terms in the same way. Here in Treaty 8, which is made up of Chippewa, Cree, and Métis people, we’re in oil-occupied territory, and we are always having discussions and consulting with Indigenous people. I asked a Chippewan person, “How do you define industry?” The answer was: destruction. When I spoke with a couple of Cree people, they answered that question in a different way: monetary gain and power. When industry is sitting at the table, they’re not recognizing that each Indigenous group is interpreting these words very differently. So, you can see where the breakdown is happening, if for some people the word industry means destruction and for others it means financial gain and power.
CN: Questions around language and understanding and making sure that you’re speaking to your audience using words with meanings you share, is on my mind lately. At the City Building Institute, we’re preparing a report looking at street redesign in Toronto in the past ten years. The objective is to break away from technical language, and from the “experts” such as the engineers and street designers, and instead express the way our streets function and look and feel as something that is really personal.
While writing the report, it’s been a struggle to not fall back on the terms that, in planner speak, we accept and take for granted. Shifting ourselves away from that can be really challenging, because that language is so ingrained in how we work.
GC: One of the lessons of trying to foster environments for change is that it always starts with initial intention. Stephen M. R. Covey first alluded to this in his book Speed of Trust, and others have picked it up: collaboration happens at the speed of trust. Language will change. Language will always change. In different communities, you’ll need to start over and build new relationships and trust. But you come to an understanding together to collaborate and you’re agile to the changes that come from beginning to test things out. You adapt to the changes, and you do it all over again when, inevitably, you fail.
Another lesson from the research I’ve been involved with regarding social innovation is that you have to be comfortable with not knowing where you’re going. Systems are dynamic, and social relationships are dynamic.
One thing that’s critical is that systems change really requires the participation of the whole system. So, with regards to open data and city-building, the question of who gets to participate is critical. Who are the users and how are they actively involved, not just in answering a survey, not just in coming to a workshop, but in how everybody participates? What does participatory policy development look like? What does participatory regulation look like? Who gets a chance to speak and make those rules?
You also want to remain awake to unintended consequences. When I say be comfortable with failure, that’s one thing, but you also want to be very awake to how what you think is well intended could actually be a really bad idea. You can get ahead of that by making sure that the whole system is in the room when you start to do something. Setting the table for lots of different voices to speak is critical.
PH: We need to understand how people actually experience environments. We have a research industry that generates millions of dollars of grants every year about the relationship of built environments to physical activity and health. We have all these studies that show the variables that are correlated with people walking more and being healthier. But what about the people who don’t have a choice about how they get around and what they experience?
I try to actually work with communities, translating some of the planner concepts and jargons into questions of how people actually experience the things around them. Planners think in abstract variables, but most people don’t experience the world that way. It’s good to remind ourselves of that sometimes.
DK: Regarding participatory planning, one of the areas we try to provide research on is specifically around street remodeling and complete street scenarios. That is, how do we get people to participate, communicate, and help to rank and review complete street concepts and ideas? How do we better understand notions of human-centred design, and how do we create a design that residents want to live in and enjoy based on data-driven feedback? It’s very hard to be able to present different scenarios to people in order for them to rank them without introducing some sort of bias. If you’re presenting a static image that’s got some sort of rendering technique or visual component to it, or if you want to be able to rank the street conditions or the sidewalk conditions, you have to put the surrounding area in, and its representation will introduce a specific interpretation of space, and will include some kind of inherent bias to overall impressions of space and design. Similar issues are seen through digital and virtual environment creation and representation.
At Esri Canada, we work at creating virtual reality environments, and immersive systems and 3D space modeling. We’re implementing these different ways of showcasing ideas, but there’s always this bias that comes with it, whether it’s bias through representation or bias through the technology being used. People perceive space at a human scale, and when we can’t actually build out a design idea at that human scale, we have to somehow represent it to them in a way that allows us to collect actionable information. We’re always battling with this when we’re trying to gain participatory insight.
PH: Technology can help us, but it doesn’t do it on its own. Technology is embedded in different kinds of practices and ideologies, and you need to pay attention to that. Information and open data is very powerful and important in helping people to participate, but it’s not neutral. You have to understand how it’s being generated, how it’s being used, who’s telling the story, and what story is being told.
MH: I was speaking with an Elder about the importance of storytelling and why one person is told a story and someone else isn’t. He explained to me that if he tells a story to everybody, then twenty years from now, the moral would be watered down and diluted. It’s about trust. I started to realize that maybe that’s why most of our traditions are oral traditions. With stories that I want to share, I always question where the story’s going and how it’s being used. With the internet, it’s very difficult to tell where a story is coming from, where it originated, and what its purpose is. Who’s going to be benefiting from it? Who’s controlling the narrative?
Eric Klaver (EK): With crowdsourcing, how does authority and authorship work in terms of those sorts of data sets?
DK: One of the initiatives at Esri Canada is something called the Community Maps Program. It was started in order to bring municipalities and cities across Canada together to create a map of Canada that utilizes authoritative data produced by different municipalities, regions, and cities. The data included in this map goes through a review and authentication process to ensure that all information is spatially accurate and provided from authoritative sources. We’ve ended up with a map that is highly detailed and constantly being updated. It is influenced by different municipalities across Canada in that they can still update and provide information when needed about changes to their municipalities and to their regions.
So, they have authority over that information, and we have a trustworthy data source that can be utilized by anybody in Canada as a basemap for whatever purposes they may have. There could be arguments, obviously, about who is creating the data within those governments. I mean, there are only so many steps you can take to trust information. So, it comes down to a level of trust you have with different organizations. The data presented in these maps can include everything from imagery to street trees to zoning to demographics to building heights. It really depends on what municipalities choose to release.
One problem often dealt with is the lack of consistency in data type and data architecture across the information that’s being produced, whether it’s within municipalities or different data sources across Canada. It is almost impossible in some cases for us to have consistency where we can actually make comparative analyses between different municipalities or different cities or different regions, unless you have a common grammar or a common understanding of those data sources and structures.
RT: I have a question for city planners: are there consultations with local Indigenous populations around these sorts of projects? These efforts to make the city a livable city—projects like Toronto’s King Street Pilot Project that was mentioned earlier, for example — are there consultations with local Indigenous people?
CN: I work for a research institute, not directly with the city, but it seems to me that efforts to reach out to Indigenous populations are confined to certain projects where there’s general understanding that there’s particular impact for that community. I don’t see those consultations happening or those questions being asked with what might be considered a “transportation project.” I think there’s a disconnect between projects for which Indigenous knowledge and perspectives are sought and valued, and projects that are viewed as “independent” of that.
PH: There’s a lot of decision-making about what will be of interest and what won’t be, without actually asking people.
RT: Exactly. And it goes back to that important issue of who’s at the table to begin with. Who’s included? Toronto prides itself on its diversity, yet as an Indigenous person, I feel that Indigenous people and our connection to Toronto have been made invisible. Some of that is in how we approach data collection. An Indigenous research organization out of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto has published some population data in a report called Our Health Counts Toronto. Previous statistics put the Indigenous population of Toronto at somewhere around 19,000 people. But based on this recent project, the numbers are between 40,000-80,000 people. That’s such a stark difference, and it’s obviously key to understanding who makes up the city and how they can be included.
PH: A lot of planning is managing private development in public infrastructure. As a profession, it only dates back in Canada to the 20th century, but in some ways, the foundational act of planning was converting Indigenous territory into Crown and private land. So, planning actually has colonial settler roots. A much deeper understanding of how our practices are founded in colonialism is really important.
GC: In addition to understanding that history, and really reflecting on it, it’s also important to consider that all levels of government divide themselves into silos — effectively, ministries in which the planning department doesn’t speak to social services, doesn’t speak to immigration, and on and on. They’re all separate and they do not speak to each other in the development of whatever it is that they’re planning. Take the environment, for example: nobody speaks to environment when they’re thinking about immigration policy, but that shouldn’t be the case. I think we have a great opportunity, especially now that we have this global map of sustainable development goals, to work collaboratively across these ministerial systems and come up with ways of being that actually work across boundaries.
MH: I know how we can do it. Be like water: flexible and fluid, but at the same time, able to wear down a rock if we need to.