Ever tried to learn a foreign language? Immersing yourself in the place and in the culture is often the best way. We think the same is true for learning new approaches to sticky social challenges: you’ve got to immerse yourself in fresh ways of doing. That’s why we like to invite civil servants, managers, and frontline staff to come spend several days or a week with us. Get in touch if you’d like to organize a visit.

Austin comes to Toronto

“Have the Texans arrived?” Christine asked from her usual spot, panhandling in front of the health food store.

They had. For five days, eight leaders from the homelessness sector in Austin, Texas embedded themselves in our little team. These were leaders facing a challenge: too many people were hanging around outside of their downtown drop-in centre (Austin Resource Centre for the Homeless) and prompting security concerns.

Could the same Grounded Change approach we’ve been using with street-involved adults in the Toronto drop-in centre be used in Texas with folks congregating outside the drop-in centre? Could such an approach help to reframe what’s been labeled a security issue into a more nuanced, human issue?

We are big believers in learning by jumping into the deep end – as long as you have a learning preserver. So we invited the Austin team to do ethnographic and prototyping work alongside us – meaning, they too would spend time with people using the drop-in centre and they too would try out a few fresh ways to prompt change. Along the way, we would try and scaffold the ‘doing’ with values, theory, and case studies.

It was a lot of content. Luckily, the Texans gave everything a go.


1. Why did we come to Toronto?

2. What we did – meet John

3. What we did – meet Andy and Dustin

4. What we did – meet Matt

5. What are our take aways?

 Why did we come to Toronto?

By Anne Howard, Executive Director, ECHO

It all started with the question: could behavior change theories paired with design principles lead to productive engagement with people around the Austin Resource Centre for the Homeless?

That’s how we found ourselves working over 60 hours in 5 days with 10-12 people in 1 room with 1,000 different colored sticky notes. And coffee. And potato chips. And laughter.  And apples. And 27 Theories of Change.  And 7 Mechanisms for building interactions.  And viewing Maslow’s Hierarchy upside down. And 1 amazing teacher. And her team. And our team.  Together, “turning safety nets into trampolines!”

Could we have been more prepared for this? Yes, but when? And how? Perhaps we could have read more about Theories of Change to shorten our learning curve upon arrival.  But we listened, and asked questions and tried and tested and shared and wondered “what if?” And perhaps we could have shared a little more before we came about our own experiences, our own “pain points” with this challenge.  We could have left that behind and started here fresh, but hey, we got there, and are going home a stronger team than when we arrived.

Could InWithForward have been more prepared for us?  We brought 8 people and 6 of us are used to word documents with executive summaries, not creative posters, colorful stickies, and interacting with clients in a foreign land.  Did we need a different introduction?  Or a more comfortable setting to work thru the weekend? A better balance of lecture and experience? Fewer concepts to learn? There were so many… positivist vs constructionist, bonding vs bridging, segmentation, spread, story editing, mechanisms, social theories and more.  Did we wait too late to start the morning?  Did we eat too much at lunch? Was all the paper necessary?  Would we have benefitted from more “wayfinding?”

What we did – Ethnography with John 

By Mitchell Gibbs, Executive Director, Front Steps

To assist the In/Out Team’s Grounded prototype with observations of how systems work (or don’t) and how ‘who a person is’ affects their interaction with a system – I went with John to the ID Clinic in Toronto to get a copy of a birth certificate and medical card.

I didn’t know much about John before our hour-long wait for a Street ID worker at the walk-in ID Clinic.  With a registration form behind him, we settled in for a chat, both of us passing on the ubiquitous cup of coffee waiting areas offer.  Jon filled our time together with stories of stormy relationships, family hardships and his travels across the US and Canada.

I wasn’t digging.  I was there to observe:  the folding table registration area, the friendly greeting, the quiet waiting room where three other ID applicants sat silently completing their forms.  John talked.  I listened.  At times he seemed like he needed to talk.  He didn’t want or need a response from me.  And now and again he’d ask, “…you know?”

I didn’t.

That’s why I’m here.  Because I don’t know.  I don’t know John’s life, what has shaped him, what motivates im, where his interests lie.  And because I know none of those things, I know I can’t help him.  I can only observe.

And so his time comes to meet with a worker. I’m his ‘friend’ (of one hour) who he invites to sit down, much to the annoyance of the worker.  The interview begins.  It’s gruelling – asking family histories and relationships to verify against previous birth record information.

John is irritated.

The words ‘bureaucratic bullshit’ emerge (his words, my thoughts).  We change rooms and new worker faces emerge.  John is more frustrated with each step.

But people are trying to help.  He senses it, and on some level, maybe he’s appreciative of their efforts.  But they are still responsible for the red tape and the hour-long work-around we experience.

Two and a half hours later, John will get a birth certificate because of his efforts – in 3-4 weeks.  But not until he has opened old wounds and difficult memories.  It is not the first time forms and bureaucracy have intruded.  It wasn’t the worst of intrusions.  But it is clear the repeated trauma of each program intake, each registration form, each new system interaction has taken its toll.

Back with our Grounded team, it is difficult not to ask, ‘What if the birth certificate system were online at ID clinics?”  “What if we could have eliminated two and a half hours of trauma and frustration from John’s day, what could he have accomplished?”

So, how do we build a system that recognizes the personal experiences, trauma and strengths of an individual?  Maybe once we know more about the Johns, Davids and Marys in our community, we can better design and build systems that promote healing and change rather than creating frustration and trauma.

Grounded will help set that stage, and today, John and I were a part of creating system change.

 What we did – Ethnography and Prototyping with Andy 

By Kerry O’Connor, Chief Innovation Officer, City of Austin Department of Innovation

In Austin, I have a letterpress poster with the words “In Process We Trust – United Designers of America.” Before coming to Toronto, I was a shoo-in for understanding design processes, the importance of ethnography, how to frame problems, structure idea generation sessions and prototype. But it wasn’t until the In WithForward immersion residency that I came to understand Sarah Schulman’s words that the process is part of the solution.

Take Andy, for example. Pat and I had Andy show us around. He walked us to the shelter at St. Felix. Along the way, we asked Andy his story. He just got out of jail a little over a week ago. He was in jail for check fraud, and was now looking for a job. With a criminal background, he couldn’t be bonded, so jobs involving money were out of the question. We asked him what it was like going to the job center. We listened as he told us “I can’t live like this much longer,” and told us how “the police took away everything – his car, his belongings” and how he was starting over from scratch. On the way to the shelter, Andy knew everyone. Someone stopped and asked him for a phone number of someone else. He greeted the staff at the shelter with enthusiasm, “Hey, man, I am here to show my friends from Texas around.” The shelter smelled like cheap antiseptic cleaner, pot, and who knows what else. Mats lined the second floor of the old church building – the room usually reserved for wedding receptions, with a stage for the band. Apparently, I learn later, the stage is one of the most sought after places for your mat location.

Andy tells us more of his story: that he had gotten out of jail on parole, and that someone from the job center directed him to a job that didn’t require a criminal background check. But when co-workers invited him to have beers after work, (and the details are fuzzy here), he went back to the shelter, blew into the breathalyzer, and ended back up in jail for breaking parole. “Why can’t I drink a beer like everybody else, you know? I didn’t assault anyone, I don’t drive. I just want to be normal like everybody else.”

That story, just wanting to be normal like everybody else, is common. And part of the design process is having non-judgemental conversations, making conversations, noticing, observing. Part of the process is the solution.

We learnt about a mechanism for change called story editing. By playing back our own stories, we better understand our perspectives, our choices, and in time, we can increase our sense of self worth and control.

When we see Dustin, who now in his mid-forties, has been on the streets since age 8, he’s not looking so good. But he, like others at the Meeting Place, are intrigued to meet the Texans. So we talk. And later, as we walk around, I see Dustin sitting on the sidewalk, pan-handling. I say, “Hey, that’s Dustin!” And it dawns on me that never in my life have I known the name of someone pan-handling, much less known something of their story. So I sit down with him, and have a new experience: sitting on the sidewalk with a pan-handler, watching people watch us and noticing their reactions. As we talk, Dustin notices people getting ready to walk into Tim Hortons, the Canadian Dunkin Donuts. He hits the automatic door opener switch just in time, every time, for every customer. Andrew has a role – concierge. And he’s quick on the draw.

The next day, Dustin finds me at The Meeting Place.  I notice he’s smiling, and I say “Hey Dustin, you’re looking good!” He grins his toothy grin. He wears a pride of being noticed, of having a good day.

Later, we prototype a paper version of a tool to help follow people’s journey through services, I ask Andy to tell me his journey going to the job center. One of the prompts is did he leave feeling like he got his issue resolved, or if he’s in motion. He circles “in motion.”  The prompt asks if he feels more or less motivated or confident after his experience. He says he doesn’t feel confident – look at his clothes! He didn’t get a good night’s sleep at the shelter. But he pauses, as if no one has asked him lately whether he felt confident.

The process is part of the solution.

As for me, I thought one really not engage with the homeless population unless you were trained to do so. Their lives are complicated and entangled in stories of criminal backgrounds, abuse, mental illness, and addictions. But what I realized is that it doesn’t take a special skill to listen to a story non-judgmentally, and ask open questions.

While there is a special sauce to the ethnography that ties into grounded change, I found myself changed through the process as well.

What we did – Ethnography with Matt 

By Maura Newell, Project Manager, City of Austin Department of Innovation

Wrapped up in warm clothing like a Tex-Mex burrito in foil, we head down the stairs of the Meeting Place in pairs to look for someone who will show us around Toronto. Our InWithForward facilitators suggest that we include a “value proposition” to incentivize people to agree to our request. My project partner Bill and I hope that the novelty of talking to Texans will spark someone’s interest, and we are prepared to offer coffee or a meal to seal the deal. Once downstairs, we engage a table of people, and a man agrees to show us around in exchange for a pack of cigarettes. We agree, and off we go with our tour guide Matt.

As we embark on our walk, Matt tells us that he has lived in various places, mostly in Canada, and previously lived in Toronto for 7 years before he returned to the city a month ago. He tells us he came back to attend his sister’s services after she passed away. After Matt mentioned his sister, Bill inquiries about Matt’s family and he responds, “They all scattered after my mother passed away when I was 13. They all went and attached themselves to other families. I’m the only one who didn’t do that. I didn’t want that.”

He tells us he’s staying in Toronto because he can get services here that he can’t get elsewhere. When Matt first returned to Toronto, he had a difficult time with the large concentrations of people and noise, but he has learned ways to adapt. He often walks in alleyways instead of main roads to avoid crowds or travels with headphones in his ears to reduce the roaring buzz of the city. Matt says that the exposure to the city stimuli and chaos makes him anxious because it exhausts his introverted nature and triggers his past trauma. This trauma also gets triggered when Matt is around yelling or altercations. Matt recounts his first experience of abuse at six years old, and he says that the abuse was inflicted by his stepmother, his foster parents, and a few others in his childhood community throughout his adolescence.

Without a nurturing family or a community, Matt had no one and no place to call home, and he left for a life of travel. He has spent the majority of his 58 years journeying across the world in search of himself. He expresses his doubt that he will find his true self in this lifetime, yet he has learned to let his inner voice guide him from one place to the next place. Matt began to cultivate his spirituality through an immersive Buddhist meditation week at a temple in Vancouver. During this week of meditation and reflection, Matt was flooded by many of his repressed memories of abuse. After the immersion week ended, he says that the memories were still so intense that he began to deal with his pain by injecting intravenous drugs and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Matt discloses that it was during this time of binging that he contracted HIV and Hepatitis C. In order to change the path he was on, Matt left Vancouver and continued to cultivate his spirituality in a new location.

During Matt’s travels and stays, he has made friends but has no remaining close, meaningful relationships. I ask him about his connections in Toronto, and he says that he is trying to get to know people by hanging out at The Meeting Place.

Matt also goes to the Meeting Place because the staff help him with his housing paperwork. Matt wants housing, but rent in Toronto is unaffordable, especially on the income of his monthly disability check. Once Matt gets housing, he wants to volunteer in order to give back to the community. He hopes that upon being sheltered, he will be able to focus on his passion of art and develop himself as an artist. He tells us his photo won third place in a local art competition, and he even performs a poem for us that he wrote called “Matt the Knight.” Matt mentions some of the local art museums in Toronto that he wants to tour but hasn’t visited yet. I ask him what has prevented him from going to see the art exhibitions, and he scrunches his shoulders as he responds, “Well, I don’t have anyone to go with.”

Matt has aspirations for the future, but there one thing that Matt desires above all.

“I want what everyone wants­— Love,” he states. “But I can’t give what I don’t have…so I’m going to have to work on that.”

What are our take-aways?

by  Ann Howard, Executive Director, ECHO

  • Exposure and eventually understanding the value of combining social science research based on theories of change WITH principles of design thinking (roles, props, scripts & settings) when addressing a community challenge like safety at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. 
  • Us beginning to see every interaction with people as a possible interaction for change, if we could be intentional about designing that interaction for change.
  • Experiencing ethnographic research… the opportunity to create tools that create interactions that bring about change…WITH the people we hope to experience the change… and to constantly iterate (aka revise) the tools to more effectively bring about the desired interaction and ultimately the desired change.
  • System issues experienced in Austin are also seen and felt in Toronto.
    • Drug & alcohol dependency
    • Struggles with obtaining government issued forms of Identification that is required for healthcare and housing
    • Shelter issues of crowding, separation by gender, safety, poor sleep
    • Community ties to the homeless lifestyle
    • Programs/services in silos
  • Our Coordinated Assessment framework could be an asset in the development of a plan for ethnographic research in Austin
  •  HMIS (our backend database) could be a place to store the client’s story gathered in the research so the client can have access to it later