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Zahra Ebrahim Headshot

It's a Brave New (Design) World

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Something is happening in Toronto's design community. The shift started a few years ago as independent design organizations, collectives, and studios began to offer alternatives to the traditional firms. Today, this community is changing the landscape of the city - presenting not only an alternative to the way that Toronto designers work, but also the way that Torontonians engage with design.

Before moving here in 2006, people told me that Toronto was Canada's innovation and creativity hub. Having already lived in the culturally vibrant cities of Montreal and Vancouver, and at age 23, I chose Toronto when I made the decision to launch a "design think tank". I realized that while the landscape for social innovation was ripe -- with the new hubs like the Center for Social Innovation popping up to support emergent entrepreneurs -- the design community hadn't quite caught up. I saw a connection between applied design thinking and cross-sectoral problem solving. The feedback I received showed that traditional decision-makers struggled to understand the application to their disciplines. They expressed a belief of value in the process, they just didn't know what to do with it. Any mention of applied design could only be contemplated as "IDEO North". Two things were clear to me: that I was definitely onto something, but at the same time, that there wasn't a clear place for me in the established design community -- yet.

That was seven years ago.

In January 2012, Toronto Design Offsite Festival (TO DO) invited me to serve as ambassador. As someone inclined to say yes as much as possible, I agreed with only surface knowledge of the event. This "little" festival was intended to run alongside the more established Interior Design Show, geared specifically towards Toronto's "independent" design community. TO DO consisted of a series of installation and prototype based exhibitions, lectures, tours, workshops, and public engagement projects to introduce the public to the emergent creative community within the city.

In one week, I engaged with the festival's activities as much as possible. I visited a social-housing project furnished entirely through collaborations between industrial designers and community members. Come Up To My Room, an exhibition celebrating 10 years in 2013, took over the historic Gladstone hotel with established and emergent designers who created unique and boundary-pushing installations in the studio rooms. To celebrate design practice, TO DO hosted a rapid-fire talk where designers -- with five minutes each to speak -- talked about the process of creating designs rather than only their outputs. All of this was facilitated by an app that helped me navigate the city and the various activities that happened throughout the week. The festival's attendance grew by two hundred percent in its second year, welcoming 15,000 visitors to its various events.

But why is the story of this "little" festival so interesting? After the festival, all of the designers working independently in their own small corners of the city began to consider each other as collaborators for big ideas, transformative projects, and a collective goal to invest their energy in the rapidly growing independent design community. A local industrial design studio, Fugitive Glue -- less than a few years old -- burst onto the scene as a participant in TO DO 2012, and their resulting popularity has them hosting their own feature exhibition for TO DO 2013. The Design Salon emerged, a recurring monthly space for people to come together and ask questions, find collaborators, or experiment with prototypes and ideas in a safe space. Informal and formal partnerships are now emerging, pushing forward the discourse about the impact of design in cities, neighborhoods, and communities. The emergence of these independent producers is forming a "new guard", challenging the structures of traditional design practice in Toronto. While the "under-40" crowd are leading many of these emerging organizations, the "new guard" is not defined by age, but rather a determination to better showcase the brilliant innovation in design culture that is happening in this city.

This network of independent, community-minded organizations have been springing to life all of this time, but were lacking a shared space to come together. The Toronto Design Offsite Festival has created this space to introduce the city to what is happening beyond the walls of the city's larger studios and firms.

I suspect that while this may have happened already in other cities around the world, what is happening in Toronto feels unique. It is a special combination of grassroots community building and provocative future-thinking that is enabling our city to establish itself as a hub for discourse on the broad applications and far-reaching impacts of design. There's a remarkable design community in Toronto, and we have found a voice that has the ear of the city. If TO DO has been the catalyst to create this space in the past two years, I cannot wait to see what year three holds.