Co-authored with our summer interns Katie Verigin and Sarah Bleiwas. 

Civic design is an emerging global movement that has the potential to make a big impact. Last month, Canada’s first Civic Design Camp was held at MaRS and encouraged participants to harness the power of design in creating better citizen experiences and tackling public challenges. The event was attended by 125 civic innovators from the design, technology and government sectors.

Studio Y fellow Meghan Hellstern led the charge. Inspired by organizations like Code for America and informed by her experience as a public servant with both technology and design skills, Meghan is on a mission to reimagine the relationship between citizens and their governments.

“I want people to have a better sense of agency… the feeling that you, as an individual, as a group, as a neighbourhood, have a chance to influence the system and society that surrounds you,” she explains. “And I also want our governments to take advantage of the amazing lived experience, skills, knowledge—all of this capacity—that exists in society.”

As the problems that our world faces become more complex and challenging, citizens’ lived experiences are in many ways an untapped source of ingenuity for creative problem-solving. How might we enable citizens and governments to more effectively work together to address these challenges? Enter Civic Design Camp.

Step. 1: Build empathy and connections across sectors and disciplines

The best way to bring a diverse group of people together to learn and collaborate with one another is by holding a design jam, a creative problem-solving and co-creation process that is based on design thinking. While previous Civic Design Camps in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago have emphasized skill sharing, hacking and learning, Civic Design Camp Toronto added a twist in the form of a design jam intended to tackle real-world civic challenges.

Intentionally setting up tables with diverse sector representation, interdisciplinary teams worked together on challenges facing clients in and around government. Here are some examples.

  • Government of Canada: How might the government connect citizens with opportunities to participate in decision-making processes through consultations?
  • Government of Ontario: How might we make government data open by default?
  • City of Toronto: How might we engage newcomers in the planning process?
  • Imagine My City: How might apartment building owners in low-income communities better communicate with their tenants about energy conservation?
  • The Mowat Centre: How might we design an approach to taxis and ridesharing that sets a level playing field for drivers and also improves service, accessibility and inclusiveness for consumers?

Civic Design Camp prototype

To tackle these challenges, participants were facilitated through a design-thinking process that involved empathizing with users, journey mapping to define the problem, ideating solutions and prototyping. For many participants, this was the most daunting element of the day. We were even told by experts who we consulted before the event that the schedule was too ambitious to produce a valuable outcome. However, we see the value of this type of co-creation in a different way: It’s about the process of formulating ideas into tangible and practical solutions. By taking the focus away from the end product, we encouraged participants to develop a deep understanding of whom exactly they were designing for and with.

The afternoon design jam was an attempt to build empathy and connections across disciplines in a very concrete, action-oriented and compressed way. The process was inspiring and invigorating, as were the prototype solutions that the participants developed. For example, one group created a blend of bus stop marketing campaigns and street teams.

“We wanted to integrate our intervention into the daily lives of our target population because we saw that asking people to come to city hall meetings was a pretty big ask,” reported one participant. “The bus stop was outfitted with a digital voting system, allowing individuals to take action right away, as well as to motivate people to add ideas.”

Civic design is an empathy-fostering movement for individual citizens living in a shared society. As Meghan describes, civic design urges us all to remember that “at the end of the day, almost every person has a desire to have a meaningful, positive impact in the world. It does not matter if you are a public servant, a technologist or whatever—you probably have some element of that inside of you. It’s just being reminded that, even if it feels like others may be against you, everyone almost certainly has that same desire.”

Step. 2: Equip participants with tools and techniques that they can apply to their own work

Why a design-led approach? The principles of user-centric design rest on empathy—that is, a deep understanding of the people you are working for and with—and intentionality. Design offers various methods and mindsets to deal with the complex and interlinked challenges that governments and, by extension, citizens engage with.

As Meghan puts it: “We can talk ourselves in circles about what a more equitable society should or could look like, but it’s not until you start building something that someone can see, touch, feel and actually understand that you’re going to get to a place where you can really envision what is possible.”

For instance, out of hundreds of ideas, it is important to select the one that might add the most value to the world. The Desirability-Feasibility-Viability-Impact (DFVI) axis tool helps by guiding groups to reflect on key aspects of their potential solutions. How desirable is the design solution to users? Is the technology needed to power the design solution available or within reach? Are the resources required to create this solution actually available? Finally, will the solution affect a significant amount of people over time?

For more information on the DFVI axis tool and the other tools and techniques participants tried out at Civic Design Camp Toronto, check out the Design Jam Facilitator Guide.

After participants developed an idea and were ready to prototype and test it, they began to build it. It is important to understand that prototyping is part of the thinking process. In prototyping, participants are thinking through doing and are testing assumptions by iterating to come up with a workable solution. The emphasis on “show-don’t-tell” in prototyping processes is a really powerful antidote to some of the apathy that can result from grappling with complex and often overwhelming problems.

Civic Design Camp

Step. 3: Build a community of like-minded innovators

Canada’s civic design movement is starting to emerge. The existence of Civic Tech Toronto and talk of other potential camps being developed elsewhere speaks to this fact. There is a lot of energy and desire to innovate and to do things differently inthe public sector, and there are a lot of citizens who have the capacity and desire to make a meaningful impact. The next step is to continue building an ecosystem that can support this community.

As Meghan sums up: “The challenge is channelling those two energies and getting them to meet somewhere to have productive collaboration. That’s what is on my mind—what do those spaces look like and how do we create more of them?”

The Civic Design Camp Toronto team is motivated to keep the momentum going. By sharing all of our resources online—including the Design Jam Facilitator Guide!—we hope to equip everyone with tools and techniques that they can adapt to their own work. We invite you to get in touch for advice and support on running your own Civic Design Camp.


The Civic Design Camp Toronto team,

Amanda, Idil, Katie, Meghan and Sarah


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