In 2013, George Brown College’s Institute without Boundaries (IwB) celebrates its 10th anniversary. Read the education feature on this local Canadian programme making waves internationally. IwB runs a post-graduate certificate-programme, a consulting branch and events/special projects, providing students and professionals with an unparalleled experience.

Q: Can you tell our readers a little bit about Institute without Boundaries (IwB)? How did it come about in 2003? How does it fit into George Brown College?

The Institute without Boundaries (IwB) is a Toronto-based academic programme and studio that offers unique educational experience. The Institute focuses on collaborative design practice with the objectives of social, ecological and economic innovation through design research and strategy.

Central to the work of the IwB are real projects of public and global significance that are executed by students, faculty and industry experts either as part of the academic curriculum, research initiatives and/or creative projects.

The IwB was started in partnership with Bruce Mau Design. At the time, in 2003, there were no programmes in Toronto that taught students hands-on design thinking and strategy. Bruce Mau was already globally known for being a leader in design innovation and the School of Design at George Brown College had long been a thriving environment for arts and design education. We wanted to create a programme and design studio where students and experts could meet on an equal playing field and then tackle real world problems together.

With Bruce Mau, we launched the IwB’s first major project, Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, which examined the role of design in addressing social, environmental and economic progress. Commissioned by the Vancouver Art Gallery, we had a group of six students working in the Bruce Mau Design studio researching, writing and designing the Massive Change exhibition, website, radio show and book.

Massive Change premiered in 2004 at the Vancouver Art Gallery with a 20,000 square foot exhibition. The same year, Phaidon published the Massive Change book, and the student-designed Massive Change product line was launched by Umbra.

Everything moved fast and naturally, there was so much interest.

In 2005, graduates of the Institute collaborated with the School of Design at George Brown College to build the Massive Change in Action website for the Virtual Museum of Canada. The Massive Change exhibit also travelled to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.

Massive Change showed the need for new educational programming for the design sector that could create positive change for the future. It also made clear to us the need for a permanent interdisciplinary institute that could develop and leverage design methods and practice to address wicked problems affecting urban areas globally.

The project had been a great success and after a year we were able to move the programme to the School of Design, expanding and refining the curriculum and structuring a permanent studio.

In September 2006, we admitted a larger group of students and we launched our second major project World House that confronted the evolution of shelter for coming generations by developing housing systems based on principles of sustainability, accessibility, technological responsiveness and ecological balance.

2013 marks our 10th year anniversary of running this challenging, unique, and internationally recognised programme. We’ve worked on so many different projects and are now graduating our 10th cohort of designers who in Buckminster Fuller’s words are, “an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.”

Q: IwB is a post-graduate certificate-programme, but you also have a consulting branch and run events/special projects? How are the three different or overlap?

The multi-division structure of the IwB is extremely important to what we do. The Institute has three divisions: an academic postgraduate certificate programme called Interdisciplinary Design Strategy (IDS); a research division that supports special projects that further the IwB’s objectives, and a professional projects division that offers consulting services.

Interdisciplinary Design Strategy (IDS) is a nine-month intensive programme offered at the Institute through George Brown College. The programme teaches design strategy, research, and collaboration to students from diverse professional and academic backgrounds. In the IDS program, students and faculty collaborate with a partner organization to understand and tackle a real-world challenge. Guided by the demands of a major project partner, students learn skills, conduct research, create comprehensive proposals and present their work to stakeholders and the public.

The theme of the programme changes from year to year, paralleling the arc of the Institute’s major research concerns. Our curriculum is composed of core courses, modules, research trips, and hands-on work with our partners. The curriculum is tailored to the students’ learning needs, the major project research objectives, and the partner organization’s goals.

Our special projects division undertakes research that enhances the curriculum. These exploratory projects are conducted in parallel with the major project but can span outside the academic year. We work on special projects with partners who share the IwB’s mandate and mission – to foster collaboration between disciplines and create innovative, local and sustainable solutions to 21st century global challenges.

Lastly, the Institute has a professional projects division that offers consulting services to clients. Typically, clients seek the IwB’s professional services to develop the design brief for a project which allows them to access investment opportunities and/or to mobilize a community. The IwB is often called upon to address “wicked” problems that require multiple stakeholder engagement and pre-planning to reach project viability.

Our past professional projects have included feasibility studies, community engagement processes, recommendations and phasing of projects, and project management of coordination of professional teams to deliver client projects. Our professional projects division leverages the IwB’s team of student, alumni, staff, and faculty experts to provide unique resources to clients.

As part of our professional services, the IwB frequently hosts charrettes for residential, commercial and institutional projects. The Institute has completed over 50 charrettes. Past clients include Windsor Essex Community Housing, CMHC, Habitat for Humanity, Sony Centre, TAS Design Build, Dublin City Council, Peel Living, Magna Aftermarket, the government of Costa Rica, the City of Toronto, and many others.

Having the three separate areas of focus creates an interplay between the professional world, school, and society.

Our success is reflected in our continuing collaborations with our alumni and past partners. We have created a strong network of like-minded collaborators. Our network grows as does the breadth and diversity of our projects.

Q. Can you describe a typical student involved with IwB? Do they all come from design backgrounds? Are they mature students returning to school or right out of their undergraduate degree? Are they local, national or international?

Over the years, we’ve been surprised by the diversity of students that want to study at the IwB. We’re an interdisciplinary programme and we welcome students from various backgrounds, not only design. We receive a range of applications, from students who have just completed their undergraduate degrees, to young professionals seeking to upgrade their skill sets or to change and add to the focus of their careers, and equally mature students, who come to us looking to find new inspiration in their work. Students have sought us out both locally and internationally, coming from all walks of life.

We make it a point to accept a group of students from various disciplines, for instance urban planning, architecture, business management, graphic design, communication studies, geography, but also biology, women studies, etc. What’s important for us is to create a team dynamic that works by offering diverse skills that are compatible with our project focus.

The Interdisciplinary Design Strategy programme is very demanding and requires continuous group work, as you would find in any design office. Students take on and practice different roles, from designer to strategist, to author to project manager, etc. Our admission process considers the individual student’s skills set, learning aims, but also the role they can play for the IwB team and the year’s major project.

Like all the faculty at the IwB, I spend a lot of time in the classroom and studio working with the students. Each year, I’m taken back by the level of professionalism and the creative capacity of our students. As I travel the world, I realise how unique our team approach is. Combining the expertise of students, faculty, professionals and community always generates great results.

Q: You’re currently recruiting for curriculum partners for 2014-2015. What are you looking for in a partner? What is their role within the IwB for the next academic year?

In September 2013, the IwB launched the Regional Ecologies project, a five-year research plan to examine complex networks and interconnected systems of innovation that define our regions. Our goal is to study how to design intelligent and balanced solutions that will foster prosperous, livable and resilient regions.

For the 2013-2014 academic year, we’ve partnered with organisations in Toronto, New York City, and Chicago to explore the significance of Gateway Cities. The Gateway Cities project is the first year of the Regional Ecologies research project. It investigates the future development and competitiveness of the Toronto, New York City, and Chicago regions. We are examining the resilience of the three cities by delivering a model for a smart region.

Connecting Divided Places is the second year of the Regional Ecologies project that will take place in 2014-2015. It looks at social, economic, environmental, and cultural divisions in cities, and considers the relationships and significance of the links between urban centres and their surrounding regions.

Currently, we are recruiting city and regional agencies as well as industry partners who want to work with us during 2014-2015 as curriculum partners. We are calling out to municipalities, not-for-profit organisations, and companies interested in working with us to address the wicked problems dividing their cities and regions. We are looking for organisations interested in collaborating on design solutions that make for more balanced, healthier, and resilient city-regions of the future.

The curriculum partner is very important in our work. Each year the IwB works on a major project based on the needs of a curriculum partner and develops a research and design project around that partner’s needs. The partner works with the IwB and its network of government, industry and educational collaborators to support projects and student learning; the program features research trips, charrettes, publications, and exhibitions, all with project partner’s participation.

Our curriculum partners are involved in different ways including financial and in-kind contributions, participation in events like charrettes, expert guidance, and support for special project development. With the partner, we create the scope of the project and degree of organizational collaboration. The approach then is to tackle a real world problem together, produce a tangible outcome and to do it all in just nine-months.

Q: Can you provide an example of a partner you’ve worked with previously and what the outcomes were?

We’ve worked with so many organisations and the great part is we continue our relationship with them. Rarely, does the collaboration end after the curriculum project is done.

Last year, our curriculum partner was Dublin City Council (DCC), the municipal authority for the City of Dublin. It was a great partnership because DCC has a multidisciplinary unit within city government called The Studio. The Studio is a new and experimental phenomenon in city governance that works to cultivate innovation at the municipal level.

The relationship between the IwB and The Studio developed over a four to five year period during which the two entities worked together in different capacities on several projects. In 2010, The Studio approached the IwB to discuss a full partnership. DCC and The Studio were impressed by the high standard and the scope of our past projects, and the partnership with us offered The Studio an opportunity to grow its international network.

DCC came to us with a host of problems. Dublin led Ireland’s expansion during the Celtic Tiger economic boom, but it also felt the brunt of the economic crisis starting in 2009. Along with a host of other challenges, the recession meant the city has had to deal with derelict properties, rising crime rates, and a decreased budget to address these problems. However, the biggest challenge for Dublin has been the mistrust of the public in the municipal government and generally the lack of communication between the city and its citizens.

Throughout 2012-2013, the IwB students presented small case studies to the client suggesting cultural projects and agendas to encourage public engagement, urban regeneration projects to create better public spaces, and range of propositions to create transparency and clearer communication between the city and the public. Ultimately DCC, choose the latter as the focus of the major project. The IwB students proposed Our Dublin, a system of programmes intended to support and activate civic engagement and collaboration. Our Dublin responds to DCC’s aims to innovate and create more civic engagement and to improve trust between the citizens and the municipal government.

Currently, Our Dublin is being proposed to the DCC Managers’ bureau. Our Dublin may become the new face of DCC, or parts of it may be implemented.

We’ve built a lasting relationship with The Studio and DCC, we’ve already completed another project with them in the summer of 2013, called the Startup City, and we hope to do many more projects together.

I think that today’s municipal leaders are seeing the necessity of interdisciplinary design collaborations as a way to build and pilot solutions to city challenges. But it takes an open attitude. Partners have to be willing to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.

Design can act as a bridge that synergises the different stakeholders needed for lasting social innovation to happen in public service, but it doesn’t do so overnight. Navigating the constellation of factors that make up innovation, levering that process requires continuous public debate, idea circulation and interdisciplinary environments where change can be cultivated.

The IwB makes it its mission to be such a bridge.

Luigi Ferrara
George Brown College


About Luigi Ferrara
Luigi Ferrara is the Dean of the School of Design at George Brown College and the Director of the Institute without Boundaries. An Icsid Senator, a designer, educator and architect, he has over 30 years of experience in private and public sector urban development and innovation.

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