Digital technology as one pathway to social inclusion in placemaking

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As part of the Placemaking Leadership Forum in Vancouver, we had the opportunity to attend several breakout sessions on approaches to placemaking. One session that has stood out so far centred on Digital Placemaking - defined in the program as learning how to build in and wisely use technology in authentic ways that reinforce the place-based and community-centered approaches inherent to placemaking.

Moderator: Daniel Latorre, PPS, Digital Placemaking Institute (New York, NY)

Panelists: Cath Carver, Colour Your City (London, UK); Glenn Harding, UrbanScreens (Melbourne, Australia); Karen Quinn Fung, Vancouver Public Space Network (Vancouver, BC); Teeko Yang, Northern Spark (Minneapolis, MN); Yuri Aritbase, Strong Towns (Vancouver, BC)

While integrating digital technologies into our practices of placemaking was the focus of the discussion, themes like bridging online and place-based communities; thinking holistically about the environmental impacts of digital technologies; and the issue of who gets to tell and receive stories through digital technologies, brought up questions about how we can thoughtfully refine our concept of placemaking as new tools and technologies inform our practice.

In this blogpost, we summarize and reflect on three of the five excellent speakers whose work was thematically linked through explorations of the tension/synergy between the physical and digital communities that comprise placemaking.


It was wonderful to hear from a Vancouverite, Karen Quinn Fung, who has experience working deeply in Vancouver's neighbourhoods through the Vancouver Public Space Network (VPSN) and other groups. The VPSN is a citizen-led grassroots organization working in many facets of urban life in Vancouver, from open space design to ownership of and access to place - hugely important issues especially in cities with income inequality and the accompanying social and economic exclusion from place. They also work to bring to light the social use of public spaces - in fact, they were one of the organizers of this week's Placemaking Leadership Forum, putting together a fantastic #POPCrawl (Power of Place Crawl) to encourage participants to discover some of downtown Vancouver's underappreciated public spaces.

Karen raised thought-provoking questions around the ways in which we use digital tools and technologies to augment public participation, and the need to be conscious of different populations' comfort and trust of these technologies, especially with concerns about ownership of data. This was timely given all the praise and critiques of Pokemon Go, the location-based augmented reality game designed for mobile phones, and how it enhances or detracts from our experiences in public space. Karen also addressed an important question about the environmental impact of the manufacturing, use, and disposal of digital technologies. As a placemaker, she aligns with a "fixer" (rather than strictly "maker") state of mind, which involves a cultural shift towards understanding how things work and fixing/adapting/improving them; in other words, a shift away from planned obsolescence (something that moderator Dan Latorre also honed in on).


Image from the Vancouver Public Space Network

Cath Carver presented a unique approach to expressing values and personal connections to place through colour. Why colour as a means of participating in placemaking? According to Colour Your City, "Colour impacts everything we do. It is a very powerful tool of language, expression, communication and connection. Everyone 'gets' colour, making it an accessible and potent tool." The idea that colour is something everyone can relate to and thus can use to ascribe meanings, values, and aspirations onto public spaces resonated with us, especially in light of concerns about "non-places" - places that are difficult to connect with due to their absence of rootedness in a particular community.

Cath's presentation brought about a few questions for us: How can we, as placemakers, use colour as an entry point to engage individuals to shape public space, particularly those whom 'traditional' public engagement does not reach? Who communicates the stories that inform public space design? How can we broaden the methods by which those stories are communicated so that more can be heard and thus included in the design and programming of spaces?


Image from Colour Your City

Teeko Yang's work on the Minneapolis-St Paul based Northern Lights, a  a nonprofit arts organization working to transform our sense of what’s possible in public space, touched upon these questions as well. One of their main initiatives is Northern Spark, a "free, annual, dusk-to-dawn, multidisciplinary arts festival that takes place on the second Saturday of June in the Twin Cities and draws tens of thousands of Minnesotans each year". Like colour, light projections have a wonderful capacity to reach everyone who passes through or stops to dwell in a public space. Teeko explained that one of their core principles is not leaving anyone behind, which is a serious concern, especially in communities comprised of diverse migrant populations. Hearing Teeko's emphasis on not taking places away from people to make them more appealing to others was an important reminder as we increasingly work creatively to fuse the digital with the physical in the dynamic process of placemaking.


Image from Twin Cities / Northern Lights

From all these thoughts, ideas, and questions, we can conclude that digital placemaking must begin from listening to how people understand and use a particular place, then humanizing technology to enable these multiple feelings, stories, and connections to be surfaced and communicated. This begins with acknowledging basic human instincts and desires, like curiosity, status, and search for meaning. Often for people to feel belonging in a spaces, those spaces must provoke an interest in newness in tandem with satisfying our intrinsic need for rootedness/connection/comfort. Our understanding from this rich session is that digital placemaking is a process that can either increase inclusion in placemaking, or push people away from places to which they no longer feel connection. We hope these open-ended conversations around the evolution of placemaking will continue.

Building Excitement for Energy Efficiency

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Hackers generate new ideas to conserve energy in Toronto’s apartment buildings

By: Jessie Ma and Ramtin Attar

 On an early July weekend, ALERT (Affordable and Low-income Environmental Renewal in Toronto) hosted a hackathon at the Centre for Social Innovation. A hackathon is a community event where computer programmers, engineers, web designers, interaction designers, business people, user groups and other experts come together to create prototypes that address a specific challenge.  Teams strive to develop new solutions to address these problems and present work to a panel of judges.

The ALERT Hackathon encouraged competitors to develop prototypes geared at tackling one of Toronto’s greatest challenges: encouraging energy efficiency in Toronto’s residential towers.


Toronto’s residential buildings are responsible for one fifth of the region’s greenhouse gas emissions. Apartment towers use the highest amount of energy than any housing type. Towers built between 1950 and 1970 pose a particular risk. During this period, construction advanced using poor insulation materials. As a result, today, these buildings waste huge amounts of energy to heat and cool units. Building owners who invest in energy efficiency retrofits can lower their greenhouse gas emissions by 74% -- and reduce operating costs in the process. Participants in the Hackathonwere asked to create an innovative solution to encourage more building owners to take advantage of energy saving opportunities.

The winning team, PowerOf5, created an app called Energy Alert that immediately notifies building owners of their energy usage and opportunities to conserve. ALERT will further refine this idea through collaborations with building owners to create a toolkit to enable energy efficiency investments.

Second place went to Powerdown, an energy data visualization tool that integrates weather forecasts into predicting future consumption. Building Rewards captured the third place prize with their idea that gives tenants incentives to conserve energy while empowering them to determine rewards designed for their community. Other ideas included a box of small energy efficient appliances for tenants, data visualizations, and interactive checklists to guide landlords.

“The ALERT PowerOf50 Hackathon leverages our collective creative assets, aspires engagement, and empowers a community that manages Toronto’s largest affordable housing stocks,” said ALERT founders and CivicAction’s DiverseCity Fellows Ramtin Attar, Autodesk, and Jessie Ma, Hydro One. “The response so far to ALERT has been amazingly positive. Many people sense the great need to address this complex economic, environmental and social dilemma, and we hope to harness this enthusiasm and make a positive difference.”

ALERT differs from existing efforts by taking a community-based approach to development. The Hackathon draws together experts from a broad spectrum of expertise, and building owners and managers are involved to ensure that the ALERT toolkit will meet their multi-faceted needs. In March, ALERT won CivicAction’s dragons’ den event, where the panel of civic leaders recognized ALERT’s potential impact, plan development and momentum.


Hackers were inspired by experienced leaders throughout the weekend. At the opening reception on Thursday evening, former Mayor David Miller encouraged competitors by saying that “working with people in buildings and creating jobs for locals are key for tower renewal.” Adam Krehm, Principal at O’Shanter Development Company and hackathon judge, told the hackers, “If an owner saves $1 on its energy operating costs, he or she would add $20 to the value of the building.”A panel of experts in technology, buildings and the environment judged the prototypes on innovation, potential for impact and feasibility for implementation. Lorraine Gauthier, Principal, Work Worth Doing – Now House, chaired the judges’ panel. The judges were:

  • Rob DettaColli, Manager of Energy and Sustainability, Brookfield Condominium Services
  • Adam Krehm, Principal, O'Shanter Development Company
  • GordKurtenbach, Sr. Director of Research, Autodesk
  • Mary Pickering, VP - Programs and Partnerships, Toronto Atmospheric Fund
  • Thea Silver, Program Manager (Province-wide) and Strategy Lead, Environment Sector at Ontario Trillium Foundation

The City of Toronto is presently studying a new energy reporting requirement for residential highrises, among other types of buildings. If passed at city council, Toronto would follow the lead of other international jurisdictions, including New York City, for mandatory disclosure of energy use. Prototypes from the ALERT Hackathon could help building owners and governments use the power of the data to make more informed decisions.


ALERT (Affordable & Low-income Environmental Renewal in Toronto) is a proposed framework for a web-based toolkit to encourage energy efficiency investments in Toronto’s residential high- rises through cycles of continuous improvement. ALERT is founded by Ramtin Attar and Jessie Ma, and it is a project incubated through CivicAction’s Emerging Leaders Network. Attar and Ma connected as CivicAction’s DiverseCity Fellows, an intensive leadership development program for city builders. ALERT is a project under Imagine My City, a non-profit that enables and increases productive and meaningful community-based collaboration in issues related to our built environment.