Zahra Ebrahim is the principal and founder of archiTEXT, a design think tank and consultancy in Toronto. She is also the recipient of a 2014 Bhayana award for her role in the Community Design Initiative and teaches design at OCAD and the University of Toronto. Imagine a City spoke with this up-and-coming urban designer to discuss how design can be a powerful vehicle for social change.
Tell us a little more about archiTEXT and the idea behind ‘design thinking’: Our organization works primarily with the public sector—government, charities and not-for-profits—to help support community projects. Design thinking brings an added layer to projects by finding ways to engage communities—particularly those that might otherwise be left out of the process—throughout the entire life cycle of the project. This approach takes analytical thinking and equally values imaginative thinking so that communities can really take ownership of both the process and the outcome. Designers and architects are so well positioned to understand people. By strengthening our ability to understand the experience of other human beings, we can design projects that have the highest impact possible, even with limited resources.
Describe the Community.Design.Initiative: This project is a unique collaboration between architects, designers, artists, urban planners, academics and residents that is transforming East Scarborough Storefront-Tides, a United Way Toronto-funded agency, into an innovative, 10, 000-sq.-ft. community services hub in Toronto’s priority neighbourhood of Kingston Galloway Orton Park (KGO). We engaged 75 local youth—many of them facing barriers like poverty—in the design, fundraising, permitting, zoning and building of this inner suburban community agency. We started six years ago and we’re about half-way done. This past summer, we installed a splash pad and sports structure and we’re about to launch a capital campaign to expand even further. This project is a great example of finding ways to engage people who wouldn’t ordinarily be involved in a multi-year building initiative like this.
How has this project led to meaningful social change in the Kingston-Galloway community? CDI is about so much more than just a building. The project has dramatically increased the decision making and leadership capacities of local youth. It’s also transformed the community into an amazing place to stay, to build your life and to invest in. Residents know that their contributions are reflected in the projects they’re involved in—and are truly valued by the community. Youth in KGO know that whether they’re going to design a building, a service or an afterschool program, the first thing they need to do is convene the people they want to serve and ask them what they want. There’s this connective tissue that grows between the professionals, residents, youth and social service providers. The social infrastructure has become so strong. The community trusts its own capacity to change itself.
Design isn’t just about bricks-and-mortar. It can also be used to re-imagine processes, projects and services within the social sector. Any examples? Our studio also works with charitable organizations, foundations and governments to help them use design thinking to more creatively approach their projects. We’re currently working with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and its Youth Opportunities Fund to fundamentally change the grant-making process for youth-led initiatives. We also led the design workshops for last year’s 101 in 1 Day, a civic engagement festival supported by United Way Toronto and Evergreen CityWorks. We’re also working with Evergreen and the McConnell Foundation —a co-created national urban agency—to engage citizens in 30 cities across Canada to develop a policy agenda together.
What are you most excited about moving forward? Design thinking is still a fairly new field. If we can continue to approach social change from a design mindset, I think it will be transformative for the social services sector. It will make entire communities more resilient by increasing collaboration and strengthening their ability to understand each other.