As we continue to face the challenges of our changing climate and growing social and financial inequities, we increasingly rely on the innovation and expertise of those working to solve some of our most pressing social and environmental problems. This week, Shads were introduced to some of these amazing problem-solvers as they learned the theme for their design projects, which challenged them to reimagine living spaces for people living in Canada in ways that increase sustainability, accessibility, and community connection.

A panel of experts from different backgrounds came together to share their diverse perspectives on the design theme, helping Shads from across Canada begin to start thinking about how they might approach this complex problem.

The panel included Ian Rolston, founder of Decanthropy, which is a collaborative equity design and innovation studio focused on making systems, strategies, and spaces more human; Marianne Armstrong, an Engineer and Shad alum who now works as Initiative Lead for the National Research Council’s (NRC) Climate Resilient Built Environment Initiative (the same organization at which she got her first job through a Shad initiative!), and Stephanie Trussler, Executive Director of the Peter Gilgan Foundation whose mission seeks to “improve the lives of children and families by empowering charities that help the world transition to a more healthy, prosperous, and sustainable future.”

Each of the panelists approached the design theme question using their own unique experiences in the field, offering the Shads a holistic view of the problem they’ve been asked to tackle. As the head of a philanthropic foundation, Stephanie used an equity-centered approach to issues of sustainability and accessibility. She shared how the foundation has focused on sustainability issues as they relate to rebuilding and low emission and renewable technologies, investing in ways that can bring down the costs to increase accessibility through affordability.

Marianne’s initiative at the NRC focuses on building materials and Canada’s building codes, so her approach to the challenge question centered on how we can improve the way we build structures in Canada to meet our sustainability goals, while also keeping things affordable and safe for everyone.

Ian took a more humanistic view of the question, challenging the Shads to consider the human experience when deciding how to approach the design of spaces.

“When you think about accessibility and sustainability, and really looking at those human connections in community, part of the focus you’ll have to consider is ‘what does it mean for a human being to thrive’? This means considering not just the physical needs, but the ecological and emotional needs as well.”

Clockwise from the top: Michelle McFarlane, panel moderator, Marianne Armstrong, Stephanie Trussler, Ian Rolston

Because issues of sustainability, community, and accessibility are so multidimensional, the questions that followed sought to dig into the complexities of the problem. The panel touched on important considerations, like what it means to “live” somewhere, how to consider the diversity of human experiences in relation to living spaces, and how we can address some of the biggest barriers impeding the reimagining of living spaces in the country.

Thankfully, these are exactly the kinds of real-world challenges that Shads tackle with creativity and ingenuity, which came through in the questions they posed to the panel as they thought about their own approach to the design challenge. They delved into how to consider policy and regulation when thinking about their own design, reflected on concepts like “the 15-minute city” to reimagine how we organize our communities, and considered people’s core needs, both the individual and collective, and how to effectively challenge human behaviour and promote the change needed to live sustainably and equitably moving forward.

Panelists answering question from the Shads

Dominic, a Shad from Caledon, Ontario, asked the important question: “How does sustainability change depending on people’s ability to influence it?” This raised the very important question of whose responsibility it is to affect sustainable change, which prompted Ian to share a project he had worked on using community gardens. The garden became an effective way for the people within that community to incorporate something tangible into the solutions space and proactively engage in sustainable community building, highlighting that we all have the ability to affect positive change in our own communities, regardless of how big or small the initiative.

Shads have never shied away from using big ideas to address global challenges, like those that involve environmental concerns. In 2021, the Shads were challenged to create innovative solutions to help those living in Canada better respect our freshwater resources. One design team at Shad Memorial was inspired to rethink fertilizer, formulating SustainFertilizer by Pristine, an alternative to fertilizers that have high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, which are known to pollute fresh water sources. Another team from Shad McMaster went the tech route, designing a digital solution, an app called Water You Doing?, to educate Canadians on how they can be more eco-conscious. There is no doubt that this years’ Shads will bring the same level of innovation and optimism to their own design solutions.

Product ideas from student teams at Shad2021
Product ideas from student teams at Shad2021

As a final thought, the panelists asked the Shads to really embrace the “reimagining” aspect of the challenge, to think about how it is we can get from where we are to where we need to be. Rebuilding is the easy part; it’s transforming the communities that currently exist that pose the greatest challenge as we work to reshape how we think about and use the spaces in which we live.

The panel made sure the Shads understood that failure is part of the process when addressing these kinds of big challenges; it’s about exploring possibilities and nurturing that curiosity. Marianne noted “very rarely does anything work the first time. You try something out and it doesn’t work the way you wanted, but you learn something and that informs your next try. The important part is that you keep trying, that’s how the big problems get solved.”

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