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Our search for the right topic

The clarity and openness of a topic can impact how participants discuss and develop ideas.

For each of our co-design events, we had to explore different topics that were relevant to our participating communities. Throughout this process, we noticed that abstract topics were more difficult for participants to understand and required more scaffolding. For example, our first co-design session with Sidewalk Labs focused on inclusive feedback mechanisms that could be implemented within smart cities. This topic was too abstract and tied to new technologies that were hard to envision for most participants. As a result, participants developed their own interpretation of the topic, asked more fundamental questions about smart cities, what they are, and what they may look like with existing technologies. Thus, most of their ideas included solutions to real life urban issues, such as the transit or health care system in Toronto rather than on mechanisms or tools that enabled an inclusive feedback process for citizens.

As we progressed and worked more closely with our collaborators, we learned that we cannot explore every aspect of a complex topic within a single activity since groups showed different levels of comfort with brainstorming/discussion of broad and less structured topics. First, we needed to unpack a topic and only select a few pieces to be explored in a co-design activity based on our collaborators’ needs and interests. And for those selected areas, we had to ensure that the topics were not too specific or constraining, that we used simple and relatable language, and that the activities were supported by sufficient and clear instructions.