Elton is quiet. "I spend a lot of time thinking," he says. "I don't talk a lot, but my mind is working overtime." The tunnel that Elton built, a 10-minute walk from home in the ravine below Driftwood Court, was his portal into a world of quiet.
The story of Elton McDonald, the Toronto Tunnel builder, fascinates me.
Here's a guy that dedicated a massive amount of time learning skills, iterating, experimenting and constantly working to create something unique. These are all the talents employers theoretically want in employees; it's also the sort of experience a millenials wants in employment - the ability to learn new skills, grow as individuals/professionals and be an active part of building something.
I've been near the centre of a growing number of related conversations over the past couple years on youth employment, youth engagement, civic engagement, open government/data, open data, digital tools and back to youth employment. The common theme from all these conversations is building something new, building something collaboratively, building something that people feel they have a stake in, but that can benefit others as well.
The CODE Hackathon is a great example of this - so is Ontario's Budget Talks or TGIF Tuesday, a policy hack I did with Toronto Youth Cabinet. I believe (and I'm not alone in this) that the trend line is this: all these separate acts of engagement, creation, community-building and digital connectivity/tools is laying the groundwork for our next big social revolution, like the Industrial Revolution or the Green Revolution before it. Change is clearly in the air, as is disruption - the question is #howmightwe move more quickly and productively, plus less painfully, from where we are to where we're going?
At the same time, of course, there are many who are uncomfortable with change and want it to stop. We have politicians who are determined to resurrect the manufacturing economy, employers who insist that traditional top-down hierarchical leadership is the way things should be, parents who reject their kids learning new things and all kinds of people rejecting social changes from empowered women to diversified socio-cultural norms.
It goes without saying that society is simply busier, too - we're crowded by people, words, images, even when we're in our own homes. There's real value in having spaces that we have at least co-designed as refuges, places to think, to iterate, to unplug, or process, or discuss.
Every year there's enough snow, I build a quinzee - essentially, an igloo made from piling and digging. The building of this relaxes me, gives me an outlet for my energy, something to do with my snow, an opportunity to play with my kids outdoors, but it also gives me a quiet space I can hole up in and feel 100% comfortable in, because I made it with that purpose in mind.
I've similarly built a "me zone" for my wife; it's got a comfy couch, a fireplace, a big-screen TV, a bar and a couple other amenities. It's out of Lego, so not a physical space she can really retreat into (I don't have enough blocks for that!) but I know the concept will make her happy, feel a swell of gratitude for the effort and that feeling alone will help ease some of her daily stress, even if just for a bit. Plus, I got to create, and better than that I got to create something that will make someone happy.
Elton McDonald has decided to turn his 15 minutes into an opportunity to empower others - essentially, to create opportunity for his peers. Rexdale Lab, The Workshop and countless other community-generated initiatives are trying to do the same thing. Citizens Academy focuses on capacity-building for civic engagement, Techsdale for digital/tech skills to help youth develop the skills they need to succeed in the modern economy, but they're all variations on the same theme - motivated individuals creating spaces that empower people to learn, grow, experiment and develop the tools they need to build themselves.
Kinda like schools.
It's not a coincidence that the TDSB is in conversations about the future of education (what do we want schools to provide for youth, what kinds of abilities do we want youth to have when they emerge?), that John Tory is all about empowering the disenfranchised/harnessing creativity, learning from models like the South by South West festival in Austin, Texas. It's simply fortuitous that we also have increasing calls for youth-oriented spaces while our student populations are dwindling to the point that schools need to find new purposes.
So, here's a challenge for you - #howmightwe tie these threads all together, starting small and working big? Could we have spaceathons that teach youth about the design thinking process, then facilitate discussions on what the perfect youth incubation/thinking space could look like? How would you mix shared and quiet space? How would it work time-wise? What would be security measures, accessibility measures, how would it be accessed, who would it be targeted to?
Then, those spaces could become hubs for the next tier of discussion - how do we design public spaces and services to be more conducive to social business - and what does that business look like? From there, we can expand to the sorts of conversations happening at global Open Data events or the Americas Forum - what should governance look like? What should the economy look like?
Co-designed space, tools to build with and mentorship/opportunities to learn how to build with them, breathing room for contemplation and creativity, things to aim for, then ways to connect; that's all it takes.
Perhaps designing the perfect get-away space is where it starts.