Toronto's Civic Design Camp - The Keynotes

Toronto, and Canada's, first Civic Design Camp was held on Friday, June 26 bringing together designers, public servants, and civic innovators to harness the power of design to create better citizen experiences and tackle public challenges. Autodesk Research participated to learn and help people imagine, design and create a better world.

Civic Design Camp

Toronto's Civic Design Camp was hosted at MaRS by Joeri van den Steenhoven of the MaRS Solution Lab (MSL). MSL is currently collaborating on four challenges with citizens, government, foundations, corporations, and NGOs:

  • Future of Health
  • Future of Food
  • Future of Work and Learning
  • Future of Government

Joeri kicked off the day and introduced three great speakers on design challenges, approaches and obligations towards improving citizen involvement for creating a better world:

Nigel explained that New Urban Mechanics is the R+D lab for the Mayor of Boston. They cast a wide net for ideas, try them out as quickly and cheaply as possible and embrace failure as success - if they're not failing, they're not trying enough new and different things - failure leads to innovation.

Nigel talked about a bunch of the projects they had worked on. One of the coolest being the mobile city hall; a truck that can drive around to different neighbourhoods offering many of the city services like access to marriage and pet licenses.


Katie Verigen summed up Nigel's three main points with respect to citizens and governement working together in her sketchnotes as:

  1. Good design makes people like you
  2. Good design encourages real conversations
  3. Good design is about learning

Cdc3Next up was Jess McMullin talking about Big Picture Design and the interconnectedness of systems, strategy, policy and delivery caught in a rising storm of complexity. His first example was of water pipes breaking in a hospital in Edmonton. Getting this fixed seems like an easy thing to do but factor in the oil-based economy and current low prices and it becomes more complicated. Things that seem easy, can result in problems if you don't keep the big picture in mind when designing - a couple other examples:

  • Florida's butterfly ballot that confused and disappointed voters
  • Presto transit cards and the complications for setting up payments


Going further, Jess talked about Healthcare.Gov placing one big bet on 80 contractors versus breaking the challenge down into chunks and making some smaller, less risky bets. Their focus on the interface lost out to cultural issues.

In looking at the big picture, spend time up front where the cost of changes is low.


As a positive example, he used the California State Tax Ready Return that does your taxes for you. It sends you the statement and if you agree, you just pay what it says. This is easy fir tax payers and easier for the government to collect - everybody's happy (at least relatively).

The third and final keynote speaker was Dana Chisnell, co-founder of the Center for Civic Design. Dana had a number of great points for civic designers to consider when engaging with government:

  • Government wants technology but needs design: this doesn't mean that designers should charge in thinking they will save the day. They should bring their skills in gently and help to train public servants in good design practice. They should be patient and solve one problem at a time 
  • Government is filled with designers but they don't have design in their job title or description: Like any designer, these people take charge, they solve problems with passion and ingenuity.

 And perhaps Dana's most important note on design: focus on problems!


In an upcoming post we'll talk about the Civic Design Camp Unconference, design challenges and solutions - see you soon! 

You can see more about the Civic Design Camp from Amanada Judd on Storify:

Renewing Old Apartment Buildings Together

Old apartment buildings waste a lot of resources and Imagine My City aims to fix that with their ALERT (Affordable & Low-income Environmental Renewal in Toronto) project. Ramtin Attar from the Environment and Ergonomics Research group is leading the charge along with support from others at Autodesk and around the city.

ALERT Imagine My City

What is Imagine My City?

Imagine My City is a not-for-profit organization focused on community-based collaboration in issues related to our built environment. The city is a creative laboratory where we all have a crucial role in shaping our collective environment.

The Challenge

The Toronto region has almost 2,000 residential towers that are 30 to 70 years old and house one million citizens. The equivalent of one coal-fired power plant is needed to heat and deliver energy to these buildings. The investments we make will define life in our communities for decades.

What is ALERT?

Project ALERT is a toolkit to support continuous life-cycle environmental improvement in Toronto’s residential high-rises by connecting tenants, landlords, building owners and utilities representatives. This will result in positive impact across a variety of areas including:

  • Economic – A participating building owner pursuing deep retrofits will see his or her energy bills drop by 62% -- an annual savings of almost $300,000. The region’s 1,925 buildings could unlock over half a billion dollars in savings per year. Imagine all the productive uses this money could go towards, simply by being smarter about how we use energy.
  • Environmental – Every building that participates would absorb the carbon of a forest twice the size of Toronto’s Centre Islands. 
  • Social – Tenants would experience better indoor air quality, especially those who suffer from asthma. And regionally, we would be protecting the long-term viability of our affordable housing stock.


 A recent ALERT workshop focused on tenant engagement for two reasons:

  1. Engaging tenants in energy conservation is an important part of the strategy
  2. Expenditures around tenant initiatives need to be justified; what are the benefits associated with the costs?

Participants of the workshop like Ravi Subramanian who manages 19 buildings and Anne Gloger from East Scarborough Storefront discussed challenges that the tenants face including poverty and a lack of coordinated effort (not attending tenant meetings and reporting building problems individually) and how they are currently working to overcome this by building a greater sense of community.

Other possibilities were evaluated to further enhance tenant engagement with the top two from this list getting the highest priority:

  • Share savings with tenant
  • Ensure program sustainability
  • Measure and benchmark
  • Involve kids
  • Provide tenant education
  • Create pilot projects to assess approaches
  • Create partnerships with other local organizations
  • Establish shared resident/management goals
  • Celebrate success and attract media
  • Share methods through a community of practice
  • Develop a business case
  • Create a funding model to support tenant engagement

If you have ideas to share, Imagine My City is happy to have your input. If you want to learn more about the workshop you can read the full notes.


Dreamcatcher for Home Design?

A while back Michael Bergin from the Autodesk Design Research group worked on something called the Housing Agency System (HAS) with the goal of making mass-produced housing more exciting and personal. This builds nicely on our previous Dreamcatcher post called the End of Design as We Know It? as it discusses the possibility of bringing design back to a process that would benefit homeowners and society at large.

Dreamcatcher for home design Autodesk Research

The design of houses has become a highly mechanized process with few houses having direct involvement with an architect or licensed design professional. A few home plans are created and then copied, mirrored and rotated to create standardized communities.

Autodesk Research Dreamcatcher Home Design

The Housing Agency System as outlined would take design criteria such as family needs and climate conditions as goals and create homes from components defined in a parametric Building Information Model (BIM). This would both increase the number of options available and increase the viability of mass customization, it may even help to avoid the standardized blandness that has enveloped our suburbs and exurbs.

With the HAS, the following criteria could be considered in the generation of home plans:

  • Site Model: Topography, obstructions and trees, market value of adjacent homes and location of utility inputs are examples of required information for the site model. 
  • Planning Strategies: Planning for one or more houses simultaneously and account for interaction between the various units, the frequency of pedestrian pathways, parks setbacks and density standards.
  • Construction Systems: Construction systems such as light frame, heavy timber and light gauge steel construction systems.
  • Building Components: Pre-fabricated or manufactured elements like windows, doors, stairs and mechanical equipment.

Once solutions are created, shareholders can review and decide if they are happy with the results. If they are happy, planning documents can be created.

Autodesk Research Dreamcatcher Home Design

In the simulation phase outlined above, there are a number of things that could be evaluated, including:

  • Structural Simulations: Determine if the solutions meet requirements for gravity, wind and seismic loading.
  • Cost and Schedule Simulations: Cost simulations evaluate the first and approximate lifecycle costs of a building. 
  • Flood, Fire and Code Simulations: Analyze the risk of flood and fire in addition to tests for code violations.

Stakeholders - including designers, contractors, and clients - could adjust design criteria to explore the space as shown below.

Autodesk Research Dreamcatcher Home Design

The HAS is not a simple system to create but it can be helped through simplified mobile computing, public interest in design, increased industry collaboration through BIM and elastic cloud computing. Such a system could help to inform the general public of the value that architects add to the design of homes and provides a venue for interaction and advertisement can help architects regain some of their involvement in this market.

Dreamcatcher: The End of Design As We Know It?

Noted designer Dan Saffer wrote a good piece about the future of design and what changes could be coming called The End of Design As We Know It. Dan says:

"These changes will be drastic and design will never be the same afterwards. The canary in the coal mine is Autodesk’s Project Dreamcatcher...To many people this is a bleak, grim, oh-shit-there-goes-my-job, future." 

Autodesk Dreamcatcher End Of Design As We Know It

It's nice to being working on a project that captures attention and generates strong discussion. If you haven't heard of Project Dreamcatcher before, the high-level pitch is that you can supply the computer with a bunch of design goals and have the computer develop a bunch of options that meet your criteria for further refinement.

Dan goes on to make some good points on how this could work to benefit the designer as well as things that the designer will still be good at. A while back Erin, Francesco and Mark from the Dreamcatcher team did some research on how designers might interact with such a system and documented it in a paper called Parameters Tell the Design Story: Ideation and Abstraction in Design Optimization. The main finding from this research is summed up as:

"We found that the computed optimum was often used as the starting point for design exploration, not the end product."

In other words, designers would use such a system to generate and explore solutions, possibly finding unexpected solutions. Some call this design optioneering. In this sense we can redefine the meaning of CAD. With typical workflows, most of the design is still happening in the designer's head and the computer is helping to document those ideas - CAD could mean Computer Aided Documentation. Now with the computer actually doing design work, we can truly realize Computer Aided Design.

Autodesk Research Project Dreamcatcher

In common workflows, every design that must be delivered to a client takes time, effort and money so clients usually only get a couple of options. 

How does Design Optioneering Work?

Let's look at building design. There are a number of constraints to be considered, including:

  • site utilization
  • structural design
  • building form
  • energy use

  • buildability

  • operating costs

This many requirements can be very complex to design for and creates a huge number of possible outcomes. So huge actually that we can't even imagine a small fraction of the possibilities due to cognitive limitations. Using high performance computing and big data analysis techniques, many more design alternatives can be explored for a problem space.

To show how this might work, we can look at an architectural project researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) did at the Autodesk IdeaStudio with similar constraints. They developed a model and automated the process of exploring the design space. In their work, the USC researchers analysed the options to show how the different results met the criteria with both visual and quantitative results.

Design Optioneering from University of Southern California Researchers at Autodesk IdeaStudio

We could see a place in the future where designers could easily modify the results for further exploration. Instead of choosing between options A, B and C, designers could further explore the design space between options A and C by changing some design parameters. Of course, designers could modify the resulting CAD file to further customize and finalize the design. 

What do designers think?

In looking at how designers would work with Project Dreamcatcher, what kind of feedback did the team get?

“instead of starting with nothing, you start with something…your optimum gives you a starting hunch.”

“slight variations to form, to a designer’s eye, are either elegant or fat.”

“Good design has inspiration to it...if you have that vision you can encode it and parameterize it and explore it further. Now we have a rich flora of options.”

This indicates that such tools are beneficial and could help to improve the design process. Sounds great but what are the challenges?

Dan pointed out that these kinds of workflows would require some different thinking:

"In order to provide the algorithm the right information to suggest solutions, you have to be certain you’re solving the right problem."

Working differently through Design Optimization

One of the ways the Dreamcatcher team thinks about this is with design optimization. Design optimization puts the emphasis on defining the design problem. Design optimization is important to sustainability. Users of design optimization are making buildings and products more structurally sound with less building materials.

In a typical CAD workflow, one follows these steps:

  • design
  • evaluate
  • select or redesign

With Design Optimization, the steps are:

  • define the problem
  • generate and explore
  • select or redefine 

One participant in the study compared these two processes:

“The typical design workflow is to design then throw to the analyst. Redesign. And then keep playing catch. It’s inefficient. [Design optimization] captures the criteria that are important to you then [you] have the cloud process all the permutations.”

Uses of Design Design Optimization Autodesk Research
Uses of Design Optimization

Thinking differently will not be without challenges. This could require new skills and language. One study participant said:

“1200 variations, you’re not being an architect any more. You are a computer programmer."

Another stressed that the controls need to be easy to understand, control and help you produce good results:

“parameters need to tell the design story.”

This is great feedback and guidance. This is one of the main reasons we do research. Autodesk Research and the Dreamcatcher team are up for the challenge. As Dan said in his blog post:

"Lastly, the way all progress moves forward is by someone thinking differently, trying something that no one else has tried, breaking the established traditions and rules. This is the same in design as in any other field."

Project Dreamcatcher could be the end of design as we know it and like when we transitioned from paper documentation to computer documentation of designs, we may wonder how we ever got anything done before.