Institute without Boundaries


COLAB at Work: Case Studies Introduction

The Main Street Markham and Old Kennedy Road revitalization projects are presented here as case studies to demonstrate the COLAB model at work. Each case study presents a unique approach to main street revitalization that shows how strategic problem solving and innovative ideas can be generated when interdepartmental, multi-stakeholder and collaborative design thinking is embraced.

Main Street Markham and Old Kennedy Road are characterized by distinct histories, demographic make-ups and development conditions. Taken together, these case studies illustrate many of the key challenges and opportunities that Markham must consider as it pursues sustainable development, including: how best to undertake intensification in established low-density areas; how to incorporate sustainable building design within the limitations of a heritage context; how to create resilient communities and prepare for a transit-oriented future; how to meaningfully engage community and business in the revitalization process; and how to approach development that is strategic and leverages all available assets to greatest effect.

In both case studies, we illustrate the COLAB model of engaging community, business and municipal stakeholders in a creative process of research, ideation and communications to achieve results that respond to the real needs of people. The Main Street Markham case study shows how COLAB could help Markham use prototyping and design development to initiate small-scale design interventions for Main Street with a focus on enhancing accessibility, residential and commercial infill, and public realm infrastructure. The Old Kennedy Road case study shows how COLAB could help Markham use systems thinking and foresighting to plan for large-scale community revitalization that is strategic and establishes new market opportunities for Markham in the green economy.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

Markham Meet COLAB: How does COLAB Begin?


Start Up : 6 Months
Jul 2012 – Dec 2013

Core Staff : Coordinator
Key Activities: Recruit Board of Directors, incorporate as non-profit; perform community and stakeholder
outreach; lead Markham strategic policy review.

In the first six months of operations, COLAB will focus its energies on recruiting a board of directors and establishing itself as a non-profit organization.

Ten board members will be recruited, with three each representing the citizens, private sector and municipality.

$30,000 in seed money from Markham’s Department of Economic Development will cover start-up staffing costs.

$10,000 grant from the United Way of York Region’s Strength Investment Fund will help cover other costs such as rent and studio facility purchases. The Strength Investment Fund supports emerging collaboratives with a mission to bring different stakeholders together to create new and innovative approaches to tackling community issues.

The Manager will begin formally reaching out to community organizations and striking up working relationships with the private sector.

A review of existing municipal strategic plans and, in particular, Markham’s Green Print will determine areas of strategic focus for COLAB over the following three years.

A multi-stakeholder engagement process will help the Board of Directors establish a vision and mandate.

Year One : 12 Months
Jan 2013 - Dec 2014

Core Staff : Coordinator + Manager
Key Activities: Stakeholder outreach; Main Street greening initiative

In its first year, COLAB will continue reaching out to build relationships with its citizen, private sector and municipal stakeholders.

A Coordinator will join the Manager on the team.

Another installment of $50,000 in seed money from the Department of Economic Development will go towards staff costs and overhead.

The remainder of staffing and overhead costs will be covered by an additional $40,000 grant from the United Way’s Strength Investment Fund.

A $10,000 grant from Evergreen’s Green Grant program, $15,000 grant from TD Bank’s Green Streets and $10,000 from the Markham Village BIA fund will help COLAB initiate its first major project: a Main Street Greening initiative. This project will work with the Markham Village BIA and residents to imagine, design and prototype small-scale greening initiatives for Main Street Markham. These will include tree and native species plantings, community gardens and a green wall prototype.

This project will allow COLAB to demonstrate its value as an expert facilitator and community engager while also helping the town begin to experiment with sustainable design technology in the public realm.

The Project Coordinator will recruit a landscape architecture summer student intern and volunteers to support the project.

Year Two and Three

Core Staff: Coordinator + Manager
Key Activities: Stakeholder outreach; knowledge sharing and capacity building with other change labs; Ontario Centres of Excellence, Social Innovation Partnership Challenge.

In the second and third years of operation, COLAB will focus on building its internal capacity as a change lab.

In fulfillment of this objective, COLAB will initiate a knowledge sharing and capacity building program to connect with other change labs in Ontario and around the world to establish best practices. The Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration’s Partnership Grant Program will provide $210,000 in funding over three years for this project.

COLAB will continue to receive $65,000 annually in start-up financing from the United Way’s Strength Investment Fund.
Over time, COLAB will build the capacity to pursue grants and projects with the private sector.

Demonstrating leadership in social innovation, COLAB will be named a “Regional Innovation Centre” in its third year as part of the Ontario Network of Excellence program.

Building on this, COLAB will establish its first formal project with a private sector partner. HydroOne will match a $50,000 grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, Social Innovation Partnership Challenge. Together, COLAB and HydroOne will work with new residents in Markham Centre to develop new products, services or business models that meet social and environmental needs.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

Markham Meet COLAB: Why Does Markham Need COLAB?

Markham is recognized as a leader among Canadian municipalities for its progressive and visionary approach to planning. Time and time again, we have observed that Markham is a city that works. A culture of collaboration, respect and pragmatic problem solving is already alive and well in the halls of the Civic Centre. COLAB is a proposal that builds on this tradition. COLAB presents Markham with an opportunity to set a high bar for interdepartmental and multi-stakeholder collaboration.

At the heart of the COLAB vision is the simple idea that the solutions to Markham’s most pressing challenges are already at hand. As Canada’s high tech capital and one of the most diverse municipalities in the country, Markham is in the enviable position of having incredible assets in knowledge and creative capital among its citizens. Furthermore, the design processes that are at the heart of the COLAB working model– research, ideation, systems thinking, design development, prototyping, communication and foresighting– are already happening around Markham. What is not yet happening, however, is the interface between the potent mix of community, industry and municipal interests and the design-thinking process within a collaborative setting.

COLAB addresses this opportunity with a proposal for a design solutions unit within the municipality that is dedicated to building partnerships with community and the private sector and engaging them in creating innovative new ideas for Markham’s sustainable future. By drawing on the wisdom and perspectives of its citizens and complementing these insights with the knowledge of city staff and the dynamic energy of the private sector, design solutions can be generated that are tailor-made to meet Markham’s unique needs.

COLAB responds to the need for a strategic and integrated approach to achieving sustainability that is identified in Markham’s existing planning documents. Over the last decade, Markham has undertaken an impressive program of strategic planning and policy review. From the Integrated Leisure and Markham Diversity Action plans, to the Green Print Sustainability Plan, and more, the town has identified a number of progressive sustainability and economic development objectives. These objectives encompass a range of issues from environmental health, social and cultural well-being, and economic vitality. They include recommendations for promoting greater levels of resident involvement in community stewardship; increasing the viability of local commercial food growing and processing; promoting green business development; creating a culture of walking, cycling and transit usage; and planning high performance new neighbourhoods.

The Green Print Sustainability Plan sets out a number of strategies to ensure the successful implementation of these objectives. The proposed recommendations include:

  • Coordinating project management of cross-departmental initiatives
  • Embracing pilot projects
  • Leveraging partnerships with the private sector
  • Establishing stakeholder working groups
  • Emphasizing the role of community engagement

These strategies are at the heart of the COLAB model. As Markham moves forward, the city requires an approach to sustainable planning that is interdepartmental, multi-stakeholder and collaborative. COLAB is the design solutions unit that can facilitate communication and consensus-building between community, the private sector and municipal departments, to help Markham achieve its economic, sustainability and community development objectives.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

Markham Meet Colab: COLAB’s Structure

COLAB is located in Markham’s Civic Centre. The physical space accommodates the creative needs of a working design studio with the administrative resources to support the Board of Directors, Manager and Coordinator.

The Board of Directors is responsible for setting the vision, mission and overarching strategic objectives of COLAB. The board is made up of nine volunteer members representing stakeholders from the community, municipal and private sectors. The board is responsible for overseeing the financial health of COLAB by pursuing funding opportunities and maintaining financial records, as well as establishing operational policy and promoting high level partnerships with industry, academic institutions and the government.

The Manager reports to the Board of Directors and is responsible for helping to establish COLAB’s strategic objectives and nurturing stakeholder partnerships. The Executive Director implements COLAB’s mission by setting program directions, submitting funding proposals and producing regular reports and program evaluations. The Executive Director also curates interdisciplinary teams to support COLAB’s ongoing projects and ensures that project results attain a high quality.

The Coordinator oversees the management of COLAB projects, guiding project teams to achieve successful results. The role of Design Coordinator requires strong leadership and facilitation skills to maintain the day-to-day working relationships of the COLAB team members. The Design Coordinator is the public face of COLAB and as such is the point of contact with the community and inquiring public. The Design Coordinator promotes  the work of COLAB through public speaking engagements and other communications channels.

The COLAB space is a multipurpose Resource Area designed to support a variety of project requirements. COLAB understands that its partnerships with the community and private and municipal stakeholders are essential to its success. As such, the COLAB Resource Area is designed to support collaboration and promote a sense of optimism, possibility and dynamic energy. Facilities include computers equipped with design software, printers, a shared work table, a supply of creative materials and flexible space in which to move, model, draw and experiment.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

Markham Meet COLAB: How Does COLAB work?


The Town of Markham is an essential client partner for COLAB. Although COLAB is an independent agency, it works closely with the municipality to find innovative ways to help the town achieve its sustainability objectives. Markham’s investment in COLAB will take three forms: financial support, information and resource support, and access to space. In addition to contributing financially, the Town of Markham will support COLAB by fostering a culture of openness and cooperation with the agency, consulting with COLAB in the official planning process and providing COLAB with access to staff. This close relationship between COLAB and the municipality will be supported by COLAB’s proximity to leaders and decision makers, being located physically in the Civic Centre.

In exchange for this support, Markham will have access to an in-house consultancy dedicated exclusively to helping Markham achieve design innovation. COLAB meets a need that Markham has identified in its own strategic planning documents: the Green Print Sustainability Plan in particular makes a number of recommendations to support the implementation of its sustainability objectives that COLAB meets directly. These include coordinating project management of cross-departmental initiatives, embracing experimentation through pilot projects and leveraging partnerships with the private sector and community. Municipal staff will benefit directly by having a dedicated space where they can dream big and propose visionary ideas and pick up new skills in the design-thinking process that can be used to support their own work.

Private Sectors

The private sector will be a key partner in assisting COLAB to fulfill its mandate to help Markham achieve innovation in sustainability. The private sector can support COLAB in a number of ways, including providing staff with specialized knowledge and technical skills, supporting pilot projects with financial and material donations, and offering expert market advice that will be crucial to ensuringthe viability of COLAB initiatives. Markham is one of Canada’s leading hubs for high technology business. An impressive group of information and communications technology companies, both large and small, have chosen to locate their offices in Markham. These companies have the resources and the wherewithal
to get involved in the kinds of projects that COLAB will undertake.

By supporting COLAB in its mission to help Markham achieve sustainability targets, the private sector will benefit from the creation of favourable conditions for increased growth and commercial activity in Markham. Furthermore, by supporting COLAB with intellectual capital that may lead to innovative sustainable services
and technologies, the private sector stands to benefit from the creation
of new market opportunities. Joining community members on projects that contribute to quality of life and healthy living is an excellent way for businesses to meet their corporate social responsibility targets in a meaningful way. By engaging with COLAB in the creative design-thinking process, business leaders can acquire new ways of problem solving and creating innovation that can be brought back to their own companies.


Citizens support he COLAB process by contributing their expert knowledge, and volunteering their time to help execute projects. This knowledge is invaluable, as it is the citizens of Markham who live, work and play in the city and bring an intimate and intuitive knowledge of its quirks, charms and challenges. Residents often have the most visionary ideas for the future of their communities. In addition to their deep knowledge of Markham, these citizens are also a pool of talented and well-educated professionals, capable of contributing insights and skills to the projects they work on.
By working with COLAB, citizens are able to help shape and direct Markham’s future in a tangible way. COLAB’s projects also help citizens build capacity by helping them understand the municipal process and allowing them to build skills. Markham is already seeking to forge meaningful connections with its citizens, and engage them in the planning process. COLAB has a strong focus on citizen engagement and can help Markham achieve this. By facilitating relationships between citizens and the municipality, and engaging them in real world projects, COLAB helps citizens feel empowered to effect change in their world.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

Markham Meet COLAB: Change Labs in Action

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The Danish government has MindLab, and Kent in the United Kingdom has SILK (The Social Innovation Lab for Kent). The value of collaborative thinking is evident from these successful precedents. The IwB is in many ways a change lab for people, places and ideas. By collaborating with faculty, guest speakers and domestic and international students from interdisciplinary academic backgrounds, and, most importantly, by taking that collaboration and distilling it into solutions, the IwB transforms participants into design thinkers. Design thinking and the ability to work interdepartmentally without the limitations of civic bureaucracy are the value that a change lab offers.

“SILK is a small team based within Kent County Council that was set up in 2007 to ‘do policy differently’.Over the past 4 years we have been doing projects which have demonstrated the benefits of working in a different way and have developed a Methodology and Toolkit which provide a structure for the way we work.  We believe that the best solutions come from the people who are closest to the issue; this could be service users, residents or frontline staff. We go much further than community consultation and we believe that people should be actively involved in the design of services that they are going to use or deliver. The SILK Methodology provides creative and innovative ways to engage with people and approach projects, and enables a collective ownership and responsibility for project design, delivery and outcomes.”

“MindLab is a cross-ministerial innovation unit which involves citizens and businesses in creating new solutions for society. We are also a physical space – a neutral zone for inspiring creativity, innovation and collaboration.We work with the civil servants in our three parent ministries: the Ministry of Business and Growth, the Ministry of Taxation and the Ministry of Employment. These three ministries cover broad policy areas that affect the daily lives of virtually all Danes. Entrepreneurship, climate change, digital self-service, citizen’s rights, emplyment services and workplace safety are some of the areas they address. MindLab is instrumental in helping the ministry’s key decision-makers and employees view their efforts from the outside-in, to see them from a citizen’s perspective. We use this approach as a platform for co-creating better ideas.”

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

Markham Meet COLAB: What is a Change Lab?

There is widespread global momentum toward collaborative thinking and doing. Rather than specialize in one medium and create solutions in silos, design has been expanding into the realm of participatory collaboration between client and designer. Contemporary thinking is now suggesting that the practice of engagement is a critical element of a design education. Three entities have emerged as leaders in the integration of design thinking, community engagement or a combination of both practices, to produce exceptional results: IDEO, IBM & MaRS.

In June 2011, Metropolis Magazine described how IDEO had brought design thinking to the US government. This San Francisco-based product design and innovation firm had secured four contracts with different branches of the government between 2009 and 2011. This indicates that governmental interests are shifting to make their administrations more innovative and less bureaucratic. Why the sudden shift? IDEO is distinctly unscientific in their approach, but employs user engagement to extract results. The process of using design thinking to approach problems faced by government agencies often results in an overall rethink of the system at large.

IBM, whose Canadian headquarters are located in Markham, has adopted the use of community engagement.  In the words of IBM Chairman and CEO Samuel Palmisano, “If we want to make quantum leaps in service, we need to make quantum leaps in our thinking.” For the company’s 100th anniversary, it organized a huge Service Jam that engaged both current and former staff members and their families for an eight-hour session to apply their skills and expertise to civic challenges and societal needs. In the publication following the Service Jam, one finding was the importance of an intermediary place or framework for service providers to come together to collaborate, learn and connect. IBM imagined a “Service University” where opensource knowledge could be shared by guest speakers from different professional backgrounds. Rather than requiring its own physical space, Service University would exist both online and at existing academic institutions. The Service Jam report also indicated that “the urgency for effective collaboration across sectors and borders is building behind a weak global economy and scarce resources for businesses, governments and non-profits alike.”  All of this is an indication that the large-scale private sector players understand that change is needed, and sharing resources is how this new collaborative model makes the most sense.

In February 2012, Toronto’s MaRS released a publication called Labs: Designing the Future that acknowledges the limitations of government departments and large corporations to tackle interdisciplinary challenges.  An astute quote by Charles Leadbeater, former advisor to Tony Blair, kicks off the document by stating, “In the name of doing things for people, traditional and hierarchical organizations end up doing things to people.” This is exactly how disconnection
can develop between citizens and their municipal-level decision makers if collaboration between them has no forum to exist. MaRS has explored many global change lab initiatives in their examination of the concept, including the IwB. In a section about process and characteristics, MaRS compares the change lab to the science lab, in the way that a neutral space is used to problem solve in a highly experimental environment.

Business and governments are beginning to understand the financial opportunity that sharing resources represents, and the high level of results that open collaboration and communication between stakeholders can generate. IDEO’s contracts with US governmental offices, IBM’s Service Jam results, and MaRS’ publication on this emerging methodology all reinforce an emerging belief: change is coming from the lab.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

Markham Meet COLAB: What is COLAB?

COLAB is an interdisciplinary design solutions unit for Markham.COLAB draws on the resources of the municipality, the dynamism of the private sector and the wisdom of the community to research, design, develop and prototype innovative solutions to 21st century urban challenges. COLAB is a laboratory for interdepartmental collaboration and problem solving within the municipality. Working with diverse stakeholders from the community, business sector and town, COLAB facilitates open communication and engages creative ideation methods to help Markham achieve its strategic
sustainability objectives.

COLAB is not for profit and works on a per-project basis. A core staff of two employees work with stakeholders to identify project directions and source interdisciplinary teams made up of individuals representing the public, private and municipal interests.

COLAB is on site. In order to succeed, COLAB has a physical workspace in Markham where it can collaborate with citizens, municipal staff and private sector stakeholders. COLAB is accessible, located within the Civic Centre and close to key knowledge and decision-making resources. The space is open and inviting, with room for small groups to gather around tables and design facilities that support the creative process.

COLAB is project based. COLAB consults with its stakeholders to identify project opportunities. COLAB takes on projects in the area of sustainable planning for the public realm. COLAB puts the right people on the right projects.

COLAB is ongoing. Great conversations start in collaborative environments. Business hours and online forums are not enough to support the momentum COLAB inspires in its members. COLAB regularly hosts events like charrettes and other community engagement activities to collect insight from participants.

COLAB is online. COLAB online allows for more outreach and immediate feedback. COLAB online is also a resource for current and prospective clients to explore our work. Our online presence also makes us accessible to a global audience.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

COLAB Project Approaches: Key Insights

Over the course of nine months spent researching and proposing design strategies for Markham’s
main streets, we extracted some important insights.

The seven design processes and methods that we identified can be applied in a number of intersecting combinations, or independently, to support design innovation. These are processes that interdisciplinary teams within the municipality can use to:

  • Understand issues from a citizen’s perspective
  • Identify unanticipated challenges and see new opportunities
  • Crowdsource ideas for Markham from the public and private sectors
  • Engage the community in creative and meaningful ways
  • Recognize emerging trends to assure competitiveness
  • Take action to move good ideas from concept into execution
  • Plan strategically for a sustainable future

We learned that many of the challenges Markham faces are in fact opportunities for innovation when viewed from the right perspective. Innovation often happens at the periphery of established practices—when different perspectives are invited to challenge assumptions, new approaches to problem solving are born.

Our most consistent and high quality results were achieved when we worked at the intersection of the municipality, community and private sector, harnessing the knowledge and resources of each to develop strategies that went above and beyond. Innovation in this context is about enabling dialogue and collaboration between diverse partners, and providing a laboratory for new ideas and best practices to be shared and celebrated.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.

COLAB Project Approaches: Foresighting

Foresighting is a strategic way of thinking that synthesizes research insights and systems analysis to predict future trends and emerging opportunities. By understanding these patterns, leaders can design urban conditions that suit or support the coming change.

Practicing strategic foresight is fundamental to sustainable design. When we imagine alternative or future scenarios, we are designing not only for the needs of people today but also for the needs of future generations. Foresighting also asks us to suspend our individual bias and exercise our empathetic imagination. We practiced our foresighting skills this year by creating personas and user scenarios to help us imagine and design for the specific needs of an individual or group. Our user scenarios set context by imagining details such as a person’s age and occupation, and then modelling how that person might interact with a proposed design.

We used foresighting skills to predict two emerging trends in Markham: a reduced market demand for light industrial lands, and a rise in self-employment and the mobile workforce. These insights allowed us to design an innovative new housing typology for Markham that transforms employment land warehouses into exciting opportunities for increasing live/work options.

Understanding emerging patterns, proposing future scenarios, and designing strategically to meet changing future needs is an important tool that cities can use to plan for a sustainable future. Markham needs foresighting that will enable the city to identify emerging trends and step in front of the leadership curve to plan for a sustainable future.

This is an article from COLAB, the final project of students from the 2011/2012 academic year. To see all the posts related to the project go here. To see a summary of the project go here.
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The Institute without Boundaries is a Toronto-based studio that works towards collaborative design action and seeks to achieve social, ecological and economic innovation. To learn more click here.

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