what we learned

Taking a new approach to urban wellness pushed our teams out of their comfort zones. We all had to learn the language of social innovation, accept different forms of knowledge and learning, and above all else, trust the process and each other.


Go Deep

Quite often, we automatically jump to solutions when we are faced with challenges or problems. RECOVER has taught us that we need to dig down to the underlying root causes by listening to the human stories and how people are experiencing life. Having stories and numbers together provides a much more fulsome and clearer picture of our neighbourhoods and the people who are the pulse of these communities. This understanding opens doors to solutions that could be extraordinary.

We often think of a person’s needs as a hierarchy – basic needs first, followed by the need to belong and a sense of achievement, and finally self-actualization (reaching one’s potential). In “going deep”, we learned that the higher order needs are sometimes just as, if not more important than food, shelter, and safety. These needs are all important, but it is critical to understand what drives human behaviour, such as beauty, belonging, and sense of purpose. It’s not an either or scenario, but rather, we should see them as concurrent motivations. The question becomes, “How can we harness people’s motivations for positive change?”

In order to “go deep” effectively, we needed to nurture curiosity, and we weren’t afraid of diversity or conflict. It was important to draw on different ways of knowing. We learned that co-creation of solutions is the most innovative aspect of this work.  It was simple and low risk but yielded promising change.


The Power of People

Throughout RECOVER, our people-centred approach has constantly reminded us to go where people are at, listen deeply, and design with not for people.

Starting with people and their experiences meant we could work backwards from the things that matter to them - this was central to our process. We started by trying to understand what people needed - those who live, work, and play in the core neighbourhoods. Then we worked backwards to find solutions. However, this process only works if we involve them in a meaningful way, making decisions together based on their needs, desires, and hopes. The success of the prototypes is as much defined by the participatory approach, as it is by the result itself. For in the end, we all take ownership and can share in the achievements.

With a people first approach, we learned that it can be more useful to create solutions based on people’s motivations and readiness for change, and not based on what our society deems as a vulnerability or need. It also surfaced a surprising amount of “positive deviance” in our communities - those silent heroes helping people survive on the streets and those who succeed even though they face many challenges. Research conducted in our core neighbourhoods in 2018 revealed a striking abundance of unseen individual and community assets in Edmonton. This network of assets contributes to wellness in these neighbourhoods and is one we need to be proud of and build on.

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Don't Be Linear. Be Circular.

We learned that tackling a complex issue like urban wellness is not likely to happen if we keep approaching it in linear ways. The innovative approach makes us look at the problems and solutions from a whole new angle. We may start at point A, but we might need to go to number 5 next. This offers the greatest opportunity for learning. We can then come back to point A, go on to number 6, or move on to orange. The idea is to constantly learn, test out ideas, strengthen the best ones and abandon the ones that don’t work. In fact, we learned that failing fast is a good thing if ideas test poorly. Failing on a small scale is a learning opportunity and one to celebrate.

There is no one path to wellness. We need many paths to achieve it and they are all connected to one another. Instead of looking for a “silver bullet”, we need to have a “silver buckshot” mentality. What’s more, we must find ways to test the smaller ideas quickly and cheaply to gain rich learnings and insights that can lead to bigger solutions. These are the “circles” that guided our cycle of learning.

We learned that it is important to not be afraid to change direction - to be always ready to rethink, respond and redo; that no solution is perfect, and we need to be flexible to change as more information becomes available. Our world is constantly changing and so too must our solutions to problems.


Back to the Beginning … But Farther Ahead

We started in July 2017 with a proposal for a wellness centre – a centre with integrated services for vulnerable people.  While RECOVER is not recommending a wellness centre in the core, that does not mean that facilities with services from multiple agencies are not effective. It’s just that our research shows that other activities can significantly contribute to urban wellness as well.

A year later, the landscape of the five communities have already changed – more services, advancing developments, and new people in the community.


But even before all these things happened, we were already further ahead.

Because we learned from ethnographic research that the current agencies were working quite well together as clients move from one agency to the next.

Because we learned about local businesses that welcomed all community members, including the marginalized, into their businesses ensuring a space of dignity.

Because we have people who took a risk with us and jumped into doing things in a new way.

Because we found that bringing a diverse mix of players and unusual suspects together creates a remarkable cauldron for idea exchange and action!

While the intent of improving the lives of people experiencing homelessness, complex mental health needs and addictions is a worthy goal for improving urban wellness, we have learned that we also need to consider the wellness of everyone who lives, works and plays in the five core neighbourhoods.

The more we dig into how we can improve urban wellness and test solutions, the more we will learn about the complexity of the problems. With a better understanding of this complexity, we can co-create and test solutions that will get us closer to urban wellness for everybody.