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Could a design challenge spark new ways to do business?

Opportunity for students to work on real-life challenges surfaces potential to break traditional mold

A typical day at the Edmonton Urban Systems office recently sparked an atypical challenge. During what seemed like a casual conversation between “the two Matts” — Matt Sloan and Matt Brassard — the two wondered what creative ways they could use to break open the traditional methods of recruitment and better understand issues clients face day-to-day.

Enter the Vibrant Communities Design Challenge: A competition for post-secondary students to tackle real-world challenges identified by clients — in this case, the cities of Spruce Grove and St. Albert.

A team of Urban Systems staff quickly congregated around the idea, including Sydnie Schneider, Carla Berrie, Emily Anderson and Kirstin Pacheco, who continues to be involved with the University of Alberta as an alumnus.

“When I was in school, this was the kind of thing that we would get excited about,” Kirstin says. “From the perspective of students, offering real world experience they can put on their resume will help them get a foot in the door later.”

Organizers modeled the competition with the typical process used by municipalities in mind. They intend to provide students with a realistic experience of competing for consultation projects through their participation.

Student teams can submit an expression of interest (EOI) for one or both challenges until Feb. 7. In the days following, the design challenge team will meet with teams from Spruce Grove and St. Albert to form a shortlist, which will be announced on Feb. 12.

In the next stage, shortlisted teams will be connected with experienced mentors for added guidance through the project work phase. Urban Systems staff will also facilitate meetings with the student teams and clients until the final project deadline on Mar. 21.

The biggest challenge, according to Kirstin, was sorting out the logistical details to launch a competition that was unlike anything the team had done before. “It’s always fun to work with people in the office who have an energy to do things that are a bit different. We haven’t done this before, so it’s difficult, but it’s also fun to blaze a bit of a trail and do something new.”

A surprising development that grew out of the process leading up to the launch was the interest expressed from the cities of Spruce Grove and St. Albert in having the other community weigh-in on each other’s project through the jurying process. Since the municipalities don’t border one another, they don’t have many opportunities to interact.

This development inspired Kirstin’s thinking for future ways to potentially deepen client relationships and community collaborations. “Maybe there’s more opportunity in the future to facilitate collaboration between municipalities who don’t talk, but who have things in common and who can learn from each other,” Kirstin says.

“I hope that we can strengthen our relationships with St. Albert and Spruce Grove,” adds Matt Sloan. “This is a genuine expression of how we want to do business with them — through a trusted relationship rather than jumping at proposals and banking on a wish a and a prayer.”

The City of St. Albert’s proposed challenge entails a downtown municipal building site feasibility study for an innovative mixed-use community space. For students interested in policy issues, the City of Spruce Grove is seeking creative solutions to address increasing demands on its municipal reserve lands to accommodate park and playground sites, protect natural areas and accommodate future school sites.

Participating teams will present their ideas to a judging panel at a public event in Edmonton on Apr. 3. Public attendees will also be invited to vote for the people’s choice awards at the event.

“I’m terribly excited to see the submissions,” adds Matt Sloan. “It’s like Christmas.”

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