Bridging the gap between city government and universities.... and having our future generation solve some of our toughest problems impacting the entire city!
Duane Elverum, co founder and Executive Director of CityStudio Vancouver shares his insight into the amazingly simple and highly innovative CityStudio program, that started off in Vancouver, went national (Canada) and is now scaling internationally!!
"It just made sense to us that two of our biggest, public institutions - the city and our universities - need to be talking to one another about the daily business of city building in order to have the largest impact.”
Duane Elverum is a designer, an educator, an avid cyclist- someone who loves the world around him, in real time and in three dimension!!…..so it is no surprise he co-founded and runs a program that is deeply influenced by and influences the world around us. What is interesting about the venture, CityStudio Vancouver, however, is the large scale, systemic change-oriented platform which bridges the gap between two of a city's biggest players- city government (City Hall / local government) and post-secondary institutions (universities and colleges, and even high schools).
(See the CityStudio Vancouver Case Study in the Projects Section to know more).
The venture is in its ninth year, has scaled to other cities and countries and is growing in size and funding, and whilst it is bringing tangible benefit to city residents, these CityStudio ventures display every element of a leveraged social innovation! So what is it about CityStudio that has worked so well?
Duane Elverum and co founder Janet Moore. Pic credit: CityStudio Vancouver
What is it?
CityStudio is a venture that is all about bringing systemic change in the urban environment by connecting a city government with universities and post-secondary institutions in a city. And they do this by convening city (government) officials to learn about their strategic priorities to faculty and researchers at the university (or sometimes at high school level), bringing to fore some of the issues they are working on, or issues they'd like to explore more, pressing problems they would like to see addressed. The faculty, in working with City staff and our CityStudio Project Coordinator develop project topics that fulfill the curriculum requirements on some of these issues. Students visit the site, collect data and brainstorm ideas and work on the project. These are then presented at the end of the term to city hall, who then decide which of the projects they wish to take on and pursue and which ones to put on hold.
City government get crucial work done by students, students get to work on real projects, it is woven into their coursework so they get credit for it - projects that do get implemented benefit the public- there is something in this for everyone!
And CityStudio is the organization that brings all parties to the same page, working out agreements, scope of work and plays guide and mentor to the projects.
The logic works something like this:
Duane and co founder Janet Moore have been very strategic from the beginning. When a mayoral initiative for turning Vancouver into a green city came about roughly around 2010, the duo who had long been thinking about a systemic approach bringing together not only society members and students, but also influential institutions like universities and local government saw an opening to get their idea through the door.
Rather than write reports and feasibility studies, in true designer style, they fashioned an urban scale project, demonstrating how this would potentially work. From there on, the CityStudio project picked up, with several initiatives coming up and City Hall and universities taking strong interest in this, given the obvious benefits!
In just a few years, other Canadian cities asked to know more, and as Duane puts it, 'scaling to other cities was not our idea, but theirs!' There are now over a dozen CityStudios that dot the Canadian map and beyond.
It remains very clear however, that this would not happen without explicit approval and funding from city hall and universities! Now, that is something a lot of cities and people within around the world would love to have! However, Duane is quick to point out that there are ways things can get done, if the intent is right- private institutions can step in- for and nonprofit organizations can fill that funding void, the scale of operations can be smaller until impact is evident-- clearly, there are ways!
What stands out about the CityStudio projects are the strategic partnerships. And the need to be clear and explicit on every little thing- scope of work, scale, size, funding, measurement metrics. They have even devised a checklist which those involved will need to tick off before starting a project.
If anyone is now wondering whether this goes against the basics of a social innovation- do things not morph and change as they go along, isn't that a hallmark of a social innovation? And this is where social innovations and enterprises are most misunderstood.
The actual content of work could morph and grow, and there are slight variations in how each city views and implements their own city studios. However, if your basics are not signed off on, who is to rein you in? If universities think funding is coming from somewhere and city government thinks universities are taking care of things, if students assume they are getting course credit for it…. And someone realizes down the line this has not happened, there isn't much point in proceeding is there? The project will shut down, people will lose credibility! And this is why we see so many good ideas closing shop after a promising start.
From my own experience talking social innovators for nearly a decade now, I can tell you without doubt, the ones that have scaled and sustained have all been ones that have paid attention to documentation!
(Pic credit: CityStudio)
Projects within a CityStudio covers a wide range of issues. From fostering a market for salvaged material, rainwater harvesting, to raising awareness on food waste to giving new life to orphaned spaces within the city. From physical products to apps to human interaction, the projects are varied in content and delivery!
The CityStudio ventures are exciting for so many reasons - getting young minds to engage in real problems, tackling things at a scale and level they can handle, work on problems they are facing themselves, on regions and community they know and belong to (bringing in a sense of ownership).
Pic credit: CityStudio
It is also exciting because it brings together bigger, more powerful players in a city. Local governments and universities nothing less! It is a social innovation for its systemic thinking, its 'local' way of handling things and for bringing everyone into the map and giving them roles based on their own competency and abilities as individuals and organizations! The net result is a greener city, brighter minds and reduced burden on city government (and cheaper too I'd say!!)!!