First regional design jam tackles food insecurity and homelessness

Keynote speaker Mike MurrayHunger and homelessness sucks. That message was emblazoned across the screens of the Tannery Event Centre on February 1 as a group of approximately 90 students and 30 community leaders came together for the first-ever DesignJam Waterloo Region.

The day-long event was co-hosted by St. Paul’s GreenHouse and Communitech’s Accelerating Social Cause Entrepreneurs (ASCEnt). The workshops were facilitated by the Ontario College of Art and Design’s sLab (Strategic Innovation Lab).

Tania Del Matto, Director of GreenHouse, explained the idea behind the event.

"Often students are eager to get involved in social causes, but are slightly removed from the issue. We wanted to give them an opportunity to engage in a pressing local problem and be immersed in the issue. As we talked with the Region of Waterloo, poverty and related issues of food and housing insecurity arose."

GreenHouse joined with sLab to develop a day where design leaders would share ideas, tools and perspectives to help young entrepreneurs and leaders conceive innovative user experiences and ways of activating ideas to improve food and housing security in the Waterloo Region – skills that could also be applied to other ventures.

A wide variety of students participated in the event, including from UWaterloo, Wilfrid Laurier, Conestoga College, and farther afield, such as Ryerson, and even from the University of Southampton in England. Students came with varying motivations. Brendan Belanger, a Recreation and Leisure student at UWaterloo, is in a seminar course on tourism in which food security has been raised as a pressing issue. Social entrepreneurship students from Laurier who are engaged in projects on health and food waste were interested in learning design thinking and how they might apply this to their own projects.

There were also a wide variety of community leaders attending the jam. Katherine Pigott of the Region of Waterloo’s public health department works with healthy eating and food security issues. She saw the opportunity as a terrific way to link people across sectors and disciplines to solve problems.

The design jam began with lightning talks by Mike Murray, chief administrative officer for the Region of Waterloo, Wendi Campbell, executive director of the Waterloo Region Food Bank, and John Neufeld, executive director of the House of Friendship. They explained the strategic priorities and current activities around issues of homelessness and food security, as well as the challenges and opportunities where innovation and fresh ideas are needed.

Campbell showed that the local approach to food insecurity has been a collaborative, innovative one over the last 35 years, with a network of 100 social service agencies and programs meeting this most basic need required by one in 20 local households.

Neufeld, who noted that locally, more than 3,000 people accessed the shelter system last year, pointed out the value of engaging with these issues. “We work so hard to convince ourselves there is us and them – but we can all be in that condition at any time and we need to build communities that have place of belonging for all of us.” He added that research shows that a failure to address these issues lowers the quality of life for all citizens. Finally, he showed numbers that demonstrated that ending homelessness actually costs less.

Students brainstorming ideas.

Students were then introduced to the sLab model of design by Patrick Robinson, who noted that “’How might we ensure food security and appropriate housing for all?’ is a big question, and there won’t be any magic bullet answers or simple solutions.” Instead, the design jam would allow students to generate insights, learn to frame problems differently, consider possible solutions, solve sub-problems and learn to think like someone else, to move past biases and preconceived thinking.

Another part of the day’s programming focused on the words of people with lived experience of homelessness and food insecurity. Colin Plant, co-chair of Step Home Participant Advisory Group, explained how his three-and-a-half years in “revolving door homelessness” taught him a lot about what he “was and wasn’t capable of.” He talked about the complex and interrelated issues of housing, food and health instability, but encouraged participants that “Anything is possible,” recalling his own experience of getting his daring, fearless, precocious spirit back.

Breakout sessions focused on user insights, service design, and a third on the co-creation process. Students chose which breakout session they would attend, using post-it notes, new methodologies, and skilled facilitators to help them develop new ways of designing innovations.

students categorizing their ideas on a board

GreenHouse student Konica Kochar, who has worked in a homeless shelter in the past, found the sessions helpful as she considers what design-based solutions she could create in her own future projects.

For students with ideas sparked by the event, an exciting opportunity is coming up: The ideas could be developed for GreenHouse’s Big Ideas Challenge, with 10 fully funded summer fellowships to stay and learn at GreenHouse this summer to be awarded to the winning pitches.

For the agencies attending the event, however, there was a recognition that not all participants would engage with issues of homelessness and food insecurity. John Neufeld said, “We don’t need everyone in the community to get involved in our particular issue. As long as students use this process to learn how they can engage for community good, it’s successful.”

Wendi Campbell agreed. 

"An event like this gives students a chance to get in there, get their hands dirty and apply their creative thinking to an issue. They can also hear what is happening so they aren’t reinventing what’s been done but infusing it with new life that those of us working in the sector sometimes don’t have time to do in the midst of our work."

Neufeld added, “I’m excited to see GreenHouse and other incubators more attuned to social issues emerging and helping students find their place in the community.”

Financial support for the design jam was provided by the Libro Credit Union, the Ontario Trillium Foundation Future Fund, and the Ontario Centres of Excellence.

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