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CKX challenge: 75 minutes to address a large-scale, complex social issue

By Gillian Kranias, HC Link

I recently participated in a hands-on learning experience that was totally unrealistic—and hugely valuable. Staff from the MaRS Solutions Lab led me and other curious participants through a series of collaborative dialogue and deliberation activities. This was all happening within the context of the Community Knowledge Exchange (CKX) Summit held in Toronto last month. I wanted to learn about the MaRS approach to partnerships for complex community change, since this is a common focus of my work at Health Nexus work and HC Link.

MaRS #CKX Solutions Lab: Systems Mapping on Youth Employment

Food, housing or youth employment—take your pick!

Each 75-minute session was built on the work of participants from the previous session. The activities were:

  1. Understanding Complexity (systems mapping)
  2. Designing and Prototyping for Change*
  3. Scaling for Change
  4. Scaling Deep - on Youth Employment
  5. Building Partnerships - for Youth Employment

*Note: Although I participated in both sessions #2 and #4, this blog describes my experience in #2— Designing and Prototyping for Change.

The Journey Map

mars2What drew me to the MaRS approach was the mapping – starting with large empty "journey map" diagrams and then mapping our thoughts and ideas onto them with stickies. This process generated dynamic conversations and the maps became a common visual reference for collaborative decisions. However, given this was a mock session our decision-making was rushed and perhaps artificially smooth since people did not press their viewpoints.

MaRS staff kept reminding us that the activities we were attempting to complete really take anywhere from several days to several months. That mantra of partnerships for complex change emerged over and over again: effective efforts take time.

Our chosen challenge: design and prototype for changes in food security systems

I sat down at one of the Food Security tables. Ryan, the warm-mannered MaRS staff facilitating our table, explained the systems maps on the walls around us that had been created by the previous session tables (see example above). After we had introduced ourselves, we rapidly set to task.


  • On blank stickies, we were asked to individually brainstorm ideas for interventions to address the key challenges highlighted on our Food Security system map.

  • Using a Fast Idea Generator worksheet, we then expanded on our favorite idea. First we were invited to elaborate: Who is the actor? Who is the subject? What is being done? How is it being done (quality)?... Next we went on to stretch our idea following a list of prompts that encouraged us to explore, play and invent through: inversion, exaggeration, extension, replacement, addition, differentiation, and integration. Finally we had to rewrite our idea in a maximum of 150 words.

  • The DFVI Analysis tool helped us each evaluate our intervention to address:
    • Desirability: what problem is being solved for the individual user?
    • Feasibility: what do you need to make the idea happen?
    • Viability: what opportunities can it make use of? Or what barriers will it face?
    • Impact: what potential impact will the intervention have over time?
  • The pitch process helped us share our ideas to our table members. After which we were instructed to collectively pick one idea that would move forward (i.e. for further evolution in the following session).

  • The choice came next. I am not sure we succeeded in selecting one. We joked about our unwillingness to "choose one". And I wondered about a proposal none of us had put forth: why not first fund a network coordination position to support diverse initiatives, each tackling the complexity of food security from their own interdependent vantage point? It was probably better we didn't make any decision, since our mock partnership did not include people representing a lived-experience perspective (i.e. someone living with food insecurity).

What I learned

Overall, this session was highly engaging, and I took home those stimulating questions for a future opportunity (a real one, with more time). It was noted by a colleague that the process relied heavily on individual writing, and that this could pose some inclusion problems. A real-time application of this approach could include the use of visuals and pair/small group discussions in the development of ideas to support effective collaboration among partners with different styles and approaches.

For further reading, here are the six "design principles" of the MaRS Solutions Lab approach:

  1. Start with the citizen, look at the system
  2. Create solutions with users and stakeholders, not just for them
  3. Look for the smallest possible intervention with the largest possible impact
  4. Always work towards scale, but start small and learn
  5. No action without reflection, no reflection without action
  6. Work to diagnose problems, galvanize change and deliver real improvements

Photos are from


CKX got me thinking out of the data box
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