Fox-Like Thinking: Jennifer Chan of Exhibit Change

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jennifer Chan of Exhibit Change at the ING Network Orange space. An architect and exhibit designer by training, Chan was tired of seeing so many “top-down” cultural initiatives and believed that the principles of design thinking could be applied to create better communities.

To illustrate how effective some of the principles of design thinking could be, Chan pointed to Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge. In his popular TED Talk, Wujec described how he had challenged several groups of people — business students, CEOs, lawyers, engineers, architects, and recent kindergarten graduates —  to assemble towers using uncooked spaghetti strands and marshmallows. Kindergardeners tended to build some of the best structures of the bunch. The key to the children’s success was their natural tendency to prototype. While business types tended to spend their time choosing a leader and then discussing and planning things, the children simply started to build and then refined their models through the process of trial and error. Given the success of design-driven companies such as Apple, the underlying principles of design thinking such as collaboration, prototyping, and iteration are worth exploring.

Traditional businesses have sometimes dismissed design thinking as indulgent (prototyping can be expensive, after all.) However, as Chan pointed out in our conversation, creativity often comes from constraints. In architecture, she found that a constraint, such as the need for a structural wall, served as an interesting challenge: if you had to take the wall into account, you tended to be much more creative than if you had absolute freedom. Using the concepts of design thinking within an environment with many constraints (budgets, deadlines, customer requirements) can produce very creative work. In March, Exhibit Change was the Toronto host of Global Service Jam, a 48-hour collaborative design challenge to create new models of service and customer experience. Diverse teams who had never before worked together created 203 functional new service models in two days.

Chan and her colleagues at Exhibit Change have facilitated a number of community initiatives, often using the “design charrette” as a technique to engage key stakeholders. Exhibit Change facilitated charrettes — structured sessions where diverse groups collectively generate design solutions — involving citizens, government officials, and business owners to arrive at a plan for Parkdale’s communal gardens, design a green initiative in Ward 27, and determine how John Street in Toronto’s entertainment district should function. While the charrette is a technique frequently used in urban planning, the idea of a focused, collaborative, creative session involving key stakeholders has applications in the broader business world.

Chan will be running a workshop on Design Thinking for Community Collaboration on Friday, June 24 at OISE. The workshop focuses on using applied design thinking to increase engagement.

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