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Get involved: 4Days Better City Lab

Can an ambitious four-day “unconference” make Halifax a better place to live?


Rachel Derrah learned to ride a bike this summer.

"It's kind of embarrassing," says the 24-year-old, between bouts of laughter.

She grew up in Glassville, New Brunswick, about an hour north of Fredericton. "You either drive or you go play in the woods," says Derrah, who studied community design at Dalhousie University. "You would just bike to nowhere."

But, she adds, "Everything was kind of made locally. Our family had the general store for generations." It was, she says, the community's cultural and economic hub.

So, why learn to ride a bike now? Bicycling topped her list of "social experiments to do things to embarrass myself because it's more fun [to learn] that way," says Derrah.

She found six other people around her age who either couldn't ride a bike or were afraid to. Now they form a club, like spokes in a wheel connecting to the hub. They share a single purpose and experience: enjoying the ride, its personal and social benefits.

As director of 4 Days, Derrah wants to replicate the experience, only on a bigger scale: this city, across its communities.

"I am very optimistic and idealistic, and that's part of my value," she says. "I haven't hit these barriers yet that make me feel like things aren't possible."

Derrah sits in the meeting room at Breakhouse, the Halifax design firm that contracted her to define and drive the event. The first 4 Days happened last year. Its goal is to change Halifax, improve diverse aspects of its design, in five years. Mobility is one of four focal points this year. The other three are enterprise, government and public space.

This year's event is billed as an "unconference." This differs from a conference, Derrah explains, in how it unfolds. Rather than a panel of experts talking at an assembly, members of the assembled talk with each other, sharing their experiences and expertise equally. This is how it often happens when two conference-goers strike up a conversation in the corridor between sessions, Derrah suggests.

"We're providing a container for these conversations to happen," she says. A container, but not a think tank.

On Wednesday, October 20, from 6-9pm, a "knowledge black market" will be contained in the exhibition room of Dalhousie's Faculty of Architecture and Planning building.

"We get 40 people that we call knowledge dealers, a pretty diverse group of people [and] they'll each sit at a table," explains Derrah, pointing out that a dealer may have expertise, but may also simply be a person with a related experience to share.

"People sign up to talk with them for 15 minutes each and then move on to another table," Derrah continues.

Of course, this is like speed dating, an approach that's been adopted beyond the romantic realm. And, there's a certain underground romance, intrigue or mischief implied by the term "black market."

Some people do their best thinking and problem-solving while walking. On October 23 (noon to 3pm, beginning at the AGNS), public space will be considered through art activities for children, "idea mapping" and a walking tour, led by artists and NSCAD faculty David Clark and Kim Morgan.

An image of the soon-to-be-locked-up Public Gardens comes to mind as a potential walking subject. Why is the public space closed for a portion of the year? Could it remain open longer?

"What's the barrier to making it happen?" Derrah asks, making a mental note.

Good question. Those gates may open yet.

• • •

Sunlight fills the meeting room at Breakhouse, thanks to a tall bank of windows facing the Immigration Annex building, Pier 21, NSCAD's Port Campus and a couple cruise ships, like mobile cities. After Derrah, Peter Wünsch, Breakhouse creative director and partner, comes in for a discussion.

He takes a seat at the dominant piece of furniture: a rimless glass-topped table that sits on a heavy, marine-grey steel stand. Look down, and there's a large turnbuckle, holding the table together and expressing strength and tension. Wünsch designed and built the piece some 20 years ago. He found the turnbuckle at a marine equipment shop nearby his studio which was, at the time, in what is now Pier 21 Museum.

After studying visual art, including sculpture, Wünsch moved into furniture design and then expanded into other areas. According to its website, Breakhouse designs for its clients everything from "brand identities" to websites to "millwork," furniture and interiors.

Immediately Wünsch asks if he can give a slide presentation, an unexpected request given the focus of the conversation, this "unconference" called 4 Days. Once he agrees to answering questions during the presentation Wünsch plugs in a projector to his thin, silver laptop (bearing that oh-so-recognizable fruit and looking as though it always belonged on that table).

He talks about how designers are doing it: the Dutch industrial designer who turns to the challenge of getting kids to eat their vegetables and comes up with a game, called Veggie BlingBling, requiring nothing but a mouth full o' chompers---teeth being some of the greatest tools we have. Wünsch also offers examples of how other design-minded people (be it a former mayor of Bogota or a group of artists in Windsor, Ontario) use "design thinking."

Wünsch finishes his presentation, his enthusiastic, if ironic, gesture to show how common problems are being identified, and transferable solutions are being found, on a global scale.

Maybe it's not just skeptical, but cynical, to focus on terminology, the likes of "unconference," but the word sends a certain signal---of elitism perhaps, the "get-it/don't get it" divide---no matter how interesting and constructive the work may be. Wünsch nods.

"The buzzwords are always problematic," he says.

But again, Wünsch believes using a word, and the approach it represents, that has currency around the world at a given time, is part of a process of exploration and experimentation Halifax should adopt. The curious will see this as an open door, he says. "Once they're in the door, the hope is some lights will go on."

• • •

Maybe the proverbial bulb will appear over someone's head Friday, October 22 (7-10pm, venue TBA) during 4 Days. That's when a PechaKucha night will be held to broadly explore ideas for government.

Originating in 2003 in Tokyo, PechaKucha requires the presenter to use 20 images for a maximum time of 20 seconds per image, which sets each speaker's timeframe.

Breakhouse brought the international trend to Halifax. It also holds the Poodle Club, described as a "relaxed forum for design discussion." Last year, Derrah attended one of the evenings and, after meeting Wünsch, quickly set about realizing 4 Days. As lead sponsor, Breakhouse spends money on 4 Days (including Derrah's salary). The firm makes no money from the event, which Wünsch calls "a business unto itself."

Breakhouse only stands to gain in public exposure, he says. Besides being a good resource for the community, it's good marketing for the firm. Both ends can be satisfied at once, no harm done, he says. Wünsch refrains from revealing Breakhouse's budget for 4 Days. But, he points out, "It's a completely sponsor-driven event."

Among the list of local sponsors is The Hub Halifax. Joanne Macrae, co-owner of the work and meeting space on Barrington, says 4 Days doesn't generate revenue for her business. She covers small costs and doesn't charge for her own time, labour and space. She does this because she believes The Hub and 4 Days, as social enterprises, are aligned.

"[This is] a space for conversations and different viewpoints coming together so if we can replicate that on a scale of a community coming together to talk about issues that matter to everybody it's a good use of our time," says Macrae, sitting in a nook at The Hub.

On Thursday during 4 Days, aspiring social entrepreneurs will pitch their business ideas to a crowd in The Hub (October 21, 6-9pm). The atmosphere will be friendly, buoyant and drinks will be served: After all, it's called "bar philanthropy."

Patrons pay $30 for a ticket for admission, but that ticket is turned into chips at different values to invest in a chosen proposal. There will also be a method---still in the works---for donating, for example, skills, advice or equipment.

A big night, it's the culmination of a six-week "peer-to-peer idea incubator" Macrae has been conducting. So, like Dragon's Den, the CBC TV show? No, says Macrae, because the people, instead of a panel, will decide on what and how much the proposals deserve.

Macrae is excited by any growth in this sector to which The Hub belongs. "Our primary motivation isn't profit. It's profit alongside social impact," she says. Derrah puts it a bit more bluntly: "It's OK to do something that's good and also make money from it."

• • •

Incubator, unconference, bar philanthropy, social enterprise: again, language comes up.

"Language can be exclusive and limiting," Macrae agrees, especially when it's assumed others will understand the meaning. "It requires looking a bit deeper. There really is opportunity to experiment, to try things."

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