Urban Matters recently welcomed Delyse Sylvester to its team as a leader in Strategy and Culture.
Delyse has three decades of social-innovation expertise, and has connected thousands of social entrepreneurs with corporate leaders, thought leaders and new-media partners. While working with Ashoka Changemakers, she led more than 60 co-branded global campaigns with partners such as National Geographic, GE, G20, Google, and the Rockefeller and Gates foundations. She has trained with social marketing leaders from Nike and eBay. She is principal of a social and environmental communications company and held the position of Executive in Residence at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business

As part of the Urban Matters team, Delyse will work with partners across the country to help organizations and citizens re-imagine and rebuild the systems in which they operate. She will work with communities and organizations to develop programs that encourage a more peer-driven, local, engaged and empathetic world. She gives those closest to societal challenges the tools, insights and context to lead change effectively.  

We connected with Delyse to talk about her background, her approach, her new role at Urban Matters — and how the COVID-19 global pandemic brings all these things into a much sharper focus. 

When we scheduled this interview, the WHO hadn’t yet declared a pandemic. And now, as we speak, the country and the world are going into isolation. By the time this interview is published, the world will have changed radically again. Can you talk about what it means to be joining Urban Matters at this particular moment in history?

What a complicated, disorienting and uncertain time we’re in.

What I see and hear are people are worried: about how we’ll provide for our families, about how we’ll be able to keep ourselves and our communities healthy and resilient, about the impact of this virus on our work and the communities we serve. And we need to acknowledge and make space for all of these emotions.

At the same time, I would argue that the world has always been complicated, disorienting and uncertain — COVID-19 has simply thrown this into much sharper relief.

What organizations like Urban Matters and Urban Systems do best — both now and pre-pandemic, and, crucially, post-pandemic — is to reckon with complication, with unusual circumstances and uncertainty, and address those things with solutions that are creative, resilient, flexible and robust.

The work of both organizations is absolutely relevant at this moment. They orient us. We need the skills, education, training and resources of Urban Systems to ensure that we maintain and build the infrastructure that keeps our municipalities, cities and organizations running to serve our citizens. And we need the vision, creativity and bridge-building capacities of Urban Matters to ensure that those solutions are informed by and relevant to the people who will be most affected by them: the marginalized and socially vulnerable. Because our futures are inextricably intertwined.

We are at a critical point in history, and how we respond to it is crucial. I think that the combined commitment of Urban Matters and Urban Systems uniquely positions us with the power to influence that response for the better.

I joined UM to work with the best social innovators in Canada, and I really can’t think of a more fitting time to become part of this organization.

Can you talk more about Urban Matters as a bridge builder?

My entry point into Urban Matters is my understanding of their starting point: the tenet that people with lived experience of social issues are central to designing and implementing their communities’ responses to those issues.

For example, UM developed the PEOPLE Project, which directly involved people with lived experience (PLE) of the opioid crisis into the city of Kelowna’s response to it. By listening to people — street involved, using drugs or in recovery, their family members — and connecting them with government, employers, businesses and community organizations, PEOPLE was able to uncover and implement creative and effective solutions to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the city.

So, on the one hand we have PLE. These are — sometimes literally — the people on the street, who have had to develop creative solutions to crises, because they have no other choice. They have few resources or connections to power or decision-makers. Their potential solutions and the wisdom they glean from direct involvement are often invisible. And they are used to having both their problem and their solutions designed by those outside their direct community.

And then, on the other hand, we have organizations like Urban Systems, made up of highly trained, highly intelligent people who have the education, resources, skills and rigour to build and implement solutions. I would argue that, as an engineering firm, US is built upon a culture whose members are driven by a personal and professional ethos to do good in the world, who are personally and professionally compelled to solve problems.

And the partnership between US and UM seems to me to be asking THE core question: Are we solving the right problems?

Urban Matters, to me, is a bridge between the people of lived experience and the entities with power, skills and resources. Urban Matters makes visible the invisible, creates spaces for their voices to be heard and their solutions considered so that they can be built and implemented. And a good part of my role will be to continue to find innovative ways to help connect all these players.

I look forward to learning about other incredible UM projects in the weeks ahead, including their work on social housing and their efforts to scale projects to municipalities across Canada.

Why did you join Urban Matters?
Here’s the very short answer: I’ve worked alongside UM CEO Ken Gauthier. Whenever Ken was part of a joint venture, I wanted in, because I knew the resulting program would be committed to inclusive innovation and driven to results.

Then I met Erin Welk in the Engineering Change Lab and saw her vision and the incredibly successful implementation of PEOPLE, and was further inspired.

From there I was asked to facilitate an UM team Learning Jam — and I was really hooked.

I am thrilled that Urban Systems’ leadership had the vision and foresight to invest and commit to Urban Matters. That’s a rare action for a corporation. I believe that this investment and partnership is what will ultimately differentiate Urban Systems from other players in the field — especially at this time.

What are your thoughts on our collective future direction?
I think that the question needs to shift from “What’s going to happen?” Because we can’t know the answer to that.

Instead, we need to be asking, “What values do we want to see persist during and after the pandemic? What massive political, cultural and individual behavioural changes are we experiencing now that we want to see endure? How can we be part of upholding and enacting those changes?”

This is a leadership moment. Now, during and beyond this pandemic, more will be asked of Urban Matters and Urban Systems. We will be called upon to amplify our impact, to build stronger bridges between communities and to engineer relevant, sustainable, effective solutions.

We don’t know what will happen, but we do know that we have the leadership, resources and skills to help us respond rather than react. We are well positioned for this moment: to help lead through change rather than succumb to fear, to creatively interpret the information we have and the circumstances we are faced with to re-imagine a better, safer, more humane response to this virus and to the social challenges it has made so very visible.

Any final words?
I spoke with five Urban Systems and Urabn Matters colleagues yesterday, all of whom spoke of the company’s immense resilience, persistence, empathy and skill. Those were their words. Pretty inspiring. I look forward to getting to know all of you (virtually for now) and to learning more about how these values are applied in your work.