Geraldine Cahill will wear two SiG hats for the next 8 months. She is our (amazing) communications manager for the National SiG office and as of this past fall, has the unique experience of also being a participant in our Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation. Her experience and position gives her a perspective that is rare and will highly contribute to the program, to her colleagues and to her fellow participants. Below is the beginning of her reflections on being part of this program and what she hopes to achieve over the coming months. Join us in following her journey…
Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.
-W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Yes, my sense of reality has diminished (with startling exactitude) in relation to my time spent working with Social Innovation Generation. But I am not without blame.
I have immersed myself in literally hundreds of resources on social innovation over the past three months. I swam the depths of the Internet collecting videos, slideshows, and articles. Like a traveller captures his memories with scribbles and dates on the back of a photograph, I, too, returned to my fellow travellers with familiar stories. I willing endangered the delicate constitution of my intuition by attending the last module of The Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation. And I admit, I even enjoyed it. Yes, by taking an intern position at SiG I willingly set forth to change my perspective, and to capture in the complexity of theory a more perfect image of the world.
Have I misplaced my sense of reality under piles of notes, or, perhaps, scattered it amongst the post-its that often line my wall? I wouldn’t be surprised if it abandoned me when I began to re-create process maps from the world’s leading design thinkers…
No, I’m afraid that doesn’t get at the heart of the mater. If at SiG “we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work” it is because I have had the pleasure to work with passionate and generous people. I cannot thank them enough for the time we shared this summer and the happiness they have brought me.
The imponderable draft that opened this door is quietly closing it behind me. As I tie up loose ends and begin to clear the clutter from my desk, I am reminded that my course through life is guided by the unfathomable compassion of others.
Sunshine speaks of the power of his education to shape him, his outlook and his skills. In speaking with Rick Haldenby, this is again confirmed to me. But I have come to think that it is not only the School of Architecture or even the University that molds; it’s the community at large. Rick Haldenby is the director of the School of Architecture. He has been in the position for many years. Originally arriving here for his undergraduate degree, he returned to the University of Waterloo after taking a long break to cycle across Europe, and has never left.
Rick was notably enthusiastic about doing an interview with me. In our correspondence, he was friendly and accommodating. We met for the first time at William’s Café, beside the Kitchener City Hall, and right across the street from the SiG office. I waited, a little anxiously, near the front door. As we had never met in person, I was worried that I might fail to recognize him. When he entered the café, he greeted me with a confident smile, and I knew I had the right person. In the line for coffee, we exchanged pleasantries and a mutual happiness about having found each other. In person, he expresses himself so similarly to his correspondent’s voice that I felt I was speaking with someone I had known for some time.
Before we had even sat down, and without beating around the bush, he began talking about the University, and the need for a strategic vision. He had been at a meeting earlier that day about a new initiative around social innovation. As he sees it, innovation is about better design and the here-and-now, perhaps a not surprising opinion from an architect. Still, as he emphasizes throughout our conversation, he has unique views on architecture and design and, consequently, on the School of Architecture, which he in no small part helped to create.
We sit down. Throughout our conversation, Rick stops to greet people in the café. As it turns out, he has a meeting at City Hall right after our interview, and several of his colleagues are in the café. I get the sense that he is well connected. Coffee in hand, I start off by asking Rick to tell me his story. With minimal prompting, I get a picture of a person, a member of this community, and a culture.
Beginnings: autonomous, self reliant, maverick.
Rick: "The School of Architecture was founded in 1967 and i started as a student in 69. The school began as part of Engineering, but it was the 60s and architects were long-haired, socially active, slightly subversive people, so it just didn’t work. The School of Engineering was a juggernaut with a very clear sense of mission, and the School of Architecture really didn’t fit in.
When i arrived, the School had been in existence for two years. it was completely chaotic, and with all due respect for the people involved, appallingly run. We were on our own, off campus in a completely inadequate building on Phillip Street. it was a recently built, one-story space in a completely featureless industrial building. virtually no money was invested to create educational facilities. it was the most unlikely location, in fact, quite ridiculous: an Architecture School in the “degree zero” of architecture.
In one sense, the university should have been ashamed, but looking at it from the point of view of institution building, it was genius planning; completely unintended, but genius. because of the fact that we had to invent everything, the strength and the resilience of the culture created on Phillip Street was extraordinary. You get a bunch of really creative people in a semi-isolated situation with very little support and they start inventing things. They invent a culture of really interesting ideas and actions. it was a wild time.
So, from the beginning, the Architecture School had a clear sense of its own autonomy. Many of us who have been with the school since it was on Philip Street consider our 21-year stint on campus to be the era of displacement. it was always our ideal to be more closely linked to the community."
Rick tells me that this maverick spirit of independence and inventiveness is central to the School of Architecture and its successes. It’s how they ended up incorporating a semester in Rome, how they changed the structure of the program to include a research-based Master’s degree, and how they ended up relocating. Each of these decisions came from a recognition that change needed to happen, and a belief that this could be accomplished. As Rick puts it: “It is not that I don’t consider the risk, or consider failure, but when something seems like the right idea and it answers the need, we try not to be overwhelmed by the details or constrained by normal expectations. I admit we have make mistakes, but somehow, we are able to make remarkable things happen.”
I find myself thinking: there it is again, the spirit of “Why not?”
Although all of Rick’s stories are telling, I think the best example of this is the School’s recent re-location. The School of Architecture has come full circle and is once again off campus... way off. The School is now located in downtown Cambridge. I ask Rick to explain how and why this happened.
Opportunity: moving the School of Architecture
He reiterates that the School’s community wasn’t happy on campus and was always considering the possibility of going elsewhere. They were not actively looking, but they were open to ideas. He tells me:
"It happened out of the blue. i was running a research project on mid-size cities, and i was trying to get the cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo to support the project. One day, i was at a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce in Cambridge when one of the members of the executive said, “This project is fine, but we would really like to know what it would take to move the School of Architecture to Cambridge.” And, as we were sufficiently frustrated, my reaction was quite simple; i said it would take a great site and lots of money. He said, “Fine, then it’s as good as done.” That was November 3rd, 2000."
I wonder what prompted this suggestion. Rick explains that the Cambridge core had been decaying for a long time. Over the years, ideas were proposed for cultural centres or museums, but these things are terribly expensive and don’t attract enough people.
"So they just limped along and waited. Then on that day in November, the group experienced one of those moments. They said, “Wait a minute, you have four hundred of the brightest young people in the country, they are a co-op school, and they are unhappy up on the Waterloo campus. We can find them a beautiful site.” So we said, “Great, let’s do it!”
Back at the campus we met with the President. He said, “This is going to be a short meeting. i have two questions. Number one: Does anyone think that Architecture doesn’t need new facilities?” Everyone knew we needed new facilities. “Number two: “Does anyone have any other ideas about how they would get them?” The answer was no. So the President said: “Okay, much as i would like to keep the School on campus, it looks as if we are going to Cambridge.”
I look back at this thing and see that a thousand eyes of needles had to align. leadership was crucial. The election in Cambridge was happening during the fall of 2000. A new candidate, Doug Craig, won by a very slim margin, so they asked for a recount. We had set up a meeting for the morning of the recount, with whoever won. At 10, Doug Craig walked into the room and i make the presentation, along with Tom Watson, the chair of the group of business people that were supporting this whole thing. No more then eight minutes later, Doug Craig said, “This is it. Architecture is the future of the city.”
Once the decision had been made, and a location chosen, they went to the provincial government and then the federal government to get money. Rick gives some details:
"We received support from the Province through the municipal infrastructure program. The federal legislation at the time prevented spending any of this money on educational facilities, so our alliance presented the building as urban renewal and, once again, we got the money because the City was making the request.
The organization of the project was also very innovative and fully cooperative; the City actually handled the construction of the school. The Province wouldn’t flow the money to the University because it was a municipal “super build” program, so the City built the building and on October 22, 2004, at the official opening, the City turned the building over to the university, so the university owns it now.
It was a brilliant solution and, again, there were elements of luck; but when you see the way opening in front of you, you have to go for it."
Two additional fortuitous things occurred in making the School of Architecture the place that it is. First, they acquired a gallery. As Rick explains:
"We couldn’t afford to create a gallery. The director of Cambridge library and Galleries, which is located across the square from us, came over and said, “I can find half a million dollars; if the university can lease the space to us, we will design and build the gallery, provide the staff, and we can collaborate on the overall exhibition program.” i was sitting there thinking, “i have died and gone to heaven.” All architecture schools want to have exhibit galleries, but it is difficult to get the necessary funding from universities. Community art galleries do far better, as they are eligible for a wider array of grants and funding. So we created Design at Riverside, one of only two publicly funded galleries in Canada dedicated to architecture and design. it is a unique collaboration and a wonderful bridge to the community."
Second, they got a restaurant on site.
"Shortly after we decided to relocate to Cambridge, i went to university Food Services and said: “So what can we do about a food outlet at the School of Architecture in Cambridge?” They came back and said: “You don’t have enough students; three hundred and eighty students isn’t enough to justify us putting anything in, even a coffee and donuts operation.” I filed it away, and then, with the business association, we did a request for proposals from restaurant operators. The winning proposal was from the people who run Solé and black Shop. They pay rent and we get an excellent café."
The new location, with all its various finishings, has had the intended effect. According to Rick, the students are proud of the facility and the City of Cambridge seems all the better for it. The School attracts about two hundred thousand people a year to the building.
Rick elaborates on this: “If you want to measure the tangible effect of this move, look at a tourist map of this area. The School of Architecture is on it. Since we announced the School was coming, the number of housing units in the Cambridge core has increased by two and a half times. The architecture students built Grand House. There is a new City Hall and a theatre on the way. Main Street is about to be renewed. All is change.”
I ask Rick whether, on the whole, the University has been supportive. He responds, “Absolutely, the University supported the initiative; everyone knew the School of Architecture needed new facilities and there was no hope of obtaining them in the foreseeable future.” That said, the thought of moving away from the campus was not universally welcomed. Upon reflection, it seemed to Rick that the University that grew out of the community had become somewhat isolated over time. Significantly, perhaps, the Waterloo campus is encircled by a ring road; in contrast, the School of Architecture was from the beginning conceived of as a partnership with Cambridge, with the intention that the School add a creative heart to the community, a facility in which the public would feel welcome.
He goes on:
"There is a spirit of innovation at the university of Waterloo that is balanced by a spirit of conservatism; in that sense it is actually quite consistent with the community. The same people who are visionaries in one sense can be quite conservative in other ways. it’s something about the culture here; they look at issues squarely, they are best when addressing practical problems and technical problems. There is a spirit of innovation, but the campus itself has no overall order and the quality of design is mixed to say the least."
In all this, I can tell that Rick feels that the School of Architecture is different. But I wonder. It seems to me that the spirit of “why not” prevails across the board. Perhaps it is more an issue of scale; the School is relatively small, while the University is huge. At that level it is more difficult to act independently and spontaneously; different tools are needed. However, the University does seem to encourage this spirit in its faculty and students. In fact, Rick himself notes this: “If I might be a little irreverent about it, one of the great provocations to be innovative at Waterloo is its belief that it is still a bit the underdog: “You think we can’t do this—just watch us.”
Thinking about this spirit, I ask Rick for his opinion on what motivates the School, his faculty and himself towards innovative change.
He responds that the whole quality of innovation that the School developed was to simply look at problems as directly as they could: “We took advantage of opportunities, we made opportunities, we were willing to step outside and try something no one else has tried, and immediately things started to happen.”
Indeed. With its unique program, its semester abroad, and the new location, the School has become a great success. “Now we are getting sixteen hundred kids applying for seventy-two spots, and these are the best students in the country.”
In his experience and his thinking, Rick is strikingly similar to Sunshine. They both believe that self-reliance, recognizing and capitalizing on opportunity, and the spirit of the underdog are all key to making change happen. Sunshine speaks of the power of connections directly; Rick makes reference to it in all his stories, and would no doubt attribute some of his success to this. They both give credit to the University for molding and infusing them with the “Why not?” spirit, but almost like teenagers to their parents, they criticize it in turn. They are both deeply invested in Waterloo, in one way or another, and want to see it build into a vibrant cosmopolitan community. However, in their strategies to achieve this, they differ somewhat. Sunshine seems to affirm his local commitment by staying very central, but it seems that Rick has done so by moving to the edges.
Rick strikes me as ambitious. I think he wants to see the School of Architecture on a world stage. This seems to come at the cost of separating it somewhat from the University, and maybe even the community, in the short term. The move out of the municipality of Waterloo is symbolic: breaking away from the local while bridging with the national and the international. The success of the School of Architecture brings this community closer to its cosmopolitan ideal.
My conversations with Sunshine and Rick have made me recognize a conflict in this community between its independent, highly entrepreneurial, self reliant spirit, and its desire for growth, cosmopolitanism, and change on a large scale. Social innovation operates at multiple levels, and necessitates changes at each, and across them all. I think this may be a real challenge for this community. Scaling innovations up to the next plane often requires breaking with practices and norms, allowing for dissent and diversity. It also requires adding resources, often from new sources. This last point was reinforced for me in my next conversation. Chantal Cornu was open and frank about financing, and made me aware that few people discussed this central issue.
Please stay tuned for the next post in the series.
If you are interested in obtaining a hardcopy of the book, please contact the SiG office at 1-519-888-4567, Ext. 32525 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About 'Notes of a Newcomer':The 'Notes of a Newcomer' project began in late 2008 and is both an investigation into social innovation at the local level and an exploration of Waterloo Region specifically. Told through the experiences of Clara Bird, a young person newly arrived in the region, it was also an opportunity for SiG@Waterloo to build, and build upon, its relationships in the local community. As a result of the exploration, a book was published consisting of a series of interviews with community members. Through the ‘Notes of a Newcomer’ Blog Series, we hope to share these stories with you.
It is now undeniably fall and utterly unlike the sunny morning when I started writing this account. I am out at my parents’ house in Haysville. Again, I am out on the porch, only this time I am covered in blankets, sipping hot tea and watching the rain and the trees swaying in the wind.
I have reached a natural pause in the story. My first interview with Lynn set the context and gave me some clues to understanding this region: its unique capacities and its challenges. To paint a complete picture of this region would be a lifelong project. For the purpose of understanding the capacity for social innovation here, I will now focus in on the community characteristics that seem to either enable or inhibit social innovations as they emerge and struggle for viability in the Waterloo Region. First, though, I take a stab at linking what I have heard so far with what I am absorbing of social innovation models, from Frances Westley and others.
Beginning with Lynn and through Sunshine’s story, i am beginning to see that this region may be a place where renewal and reorganization thrive. In terms of social innovation models, this directly relates to what is called “the back loop of an adaptive cycle”: the natural periods of time when elements of the old are left behind and new possibilities get lots of attention. The entrepreneurial, creative, bottom up, self reliant and maverick spirit of Waterloo Region means that new ideas abound, are usually welcome and appear to be supported.
These qualities are affirmed in Isabel’s story. However, as I conjectured initially after talking to Lynn, some of the capacities essential for the periods of renewal and reorganization may perversely be limiting a capacity for the growth and conservation, or what is called “the front loop” of the adaptive cycle. It is in this phase of innovation that ideas become institutionalized. They are scaled up, spread out and become part of the fabric of every day life.
I wonder if initiatives and organizations in this Region may at times unintentionally block social innovations by not making place for outsiders in central roles. In an environment that lacks relevant diversity, or that fails to include all voices connected to the place or the objectives, ideas will be born, but then may struggle to be brought to fruition. Ironically perhaps, having a strong grassroots stakeholder model in which most ideas must be collaboratively imagined, may mean that some potentially important innovations are not widely enough supported, do not get approved up, and therefore, never see the light of day.
I shall now turn my attention to the remaining interviews with the hope of deepening my understanding of these capacities and their roots, as well as these challenges and their origins.
If you are interested in obtaining a hardcopy of the book, please contact the SiG office at 1-519-888-4567, Ext. 32525 or email@example.com
About ‘Notes of a Newcomer’:The ‘Notes of a Newcomer’ project began in late 2008 and is both an investigation into social innovation at the local level and an exploration of Waterloo Region specifically. Told through the experiences of Clara Bird, a young person newly arrived in the region, it was also an opportunity for SiG@Waterloo to build, and build upon, its relationships in the local community. As a result of the exploration, a book was published consisting of a series of interviews with community members. Through the ‘Notes of a Newcomer’ Blog Series, we hope to share these stories with you.