Students Collaborate with Hamilton Public Health to Design a More Active City

Innovation by Design students

Innovation by Design students used design thinking to present a possible solution to inactive transportation in Hamilton. Team members from left to right: Nicole Crimi, Daniel Park, Mostafa Mohammed, and Brian Zheng. Photo courtesy of CityLAB Hamilton

Last year, half of the car trips taken within the City of Hamilton were less than one kilometre in distance.

Don Curry spends his days thinking about the health implications of this fact. As Health Promotion Specialist with the City of Hamilton, he also knows that it’s going to take a lot more than awareness to increase active transportation.

“We ran campaigns for a couple decades, encouraging residents to get in their 60-minutes of recommended physical activity each day,” Curry says. “But this is still a challenge for us.”

Hamilton is not alone in this challenge. In fact, a recent Statistics Canada study indicated that adults aged 18 to 39 were sedentary for approximately nine-and-a-half hours per day.

Many known and unknown factors contribute to the rise of inactivity, making it what design thinkers call a ‘wicked’ problem. And it’s the complex nature of inactive transportation that led innovation hub CityLAB Hamilton to connect Curry with budding design thinkers at McMaster’s Innovation by Design (IBD) course.

Offered through McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Health Leadership Academy (HLA), IBD is a course that introduces students to a method of problem-solving called ‘design thinking’. Rather than basing solutions on assumptions, design thinking involves consulting those who are connected to the problem and understanding how they view and experience it in daily life.

Once students have a foundation in design thinking, they have the opportunity to apply the methodology to a real-world problem. Curry teamed up with four IBD students – Nicole Crimi, Mostafa Mohammed, Daniel Park, and Brian Zheng – to look at how Hamilton might get its student population to value active transportation.
Crimi says that it was a long process that tested her assumptions about what students want.

“A lot of students didn’t care about active transportation,” Crimi explains. “Through interviewing them, we found that they prioritized lifestyle activities.”

Students testing out SoBi

Crimi and Park test out Social Bicycles (SoBi) on McMaster’s main campus. Photo courtesy of CityLAB Hamilton

For Curry, this was a breakthrough. The City had been intently promoting the Social Bicycles (SoBi) bike-share program to students for the past couple of years, with hopes it could be an active option to complement public transit and driving.

“A couple of years ago, McMaster students voted down a discounted SoBi bike membership,” Curry says. “The design thinking process showed us that there might be another way to generate student interest in the membership.”

The IBD team found that students were looking for a low-cost way to enjoy Hamilton’s culture and events. This was the beginning of a prototype: bike share as a social experience.

In the spring of 2018, Crimi, Mohammed, Park and Zheng prototyped a website as a potential solution to the inactivity problem in Hamilton. The site encourages cycling by connecting the user to cultural happenings in the city and provides a preferred cycling route. The user is also offered incentives, such as a free drink at a restaurant or hiking trail tips.

The prototype provides students with the social experience they want, while getting them used to choosing active transportation. CityLAB Project Manager Patrick Byrne says the prototype has already piqued the interest of regional stakeholders.

“A representative from the Hamilton Halton Brant Regional Tourism Association attended the students’ presentation,” says Byrne. “[They offered] ideas for how this could potentially fit into larger strategies that go beyond just SoBi.”

Curry agrees that there is potential for ‘cycling as social experience’ to catch on in other regions. But, perhaps most importantly, Curry says that this project is a great example of how good design can influence many positive outcomes.

“It’s not just about getting people up and moving,” Curry explains. “[Social experience biking] can also help to improve air quality, traffic congestion, and it can also reduce social isolation.”

McMaster’s IBD courses attracts students from all disciplines, meaning many considerations are infused into the design thinking process, as Curry suggests.

Even though the course wrapped a few months ago, Crimi says she still uses design thinking in her professional and personal life to this day.

“I learned so much more than I could have from a textbook or just a lecture,” Crimi says. “The real value came from the skills and experiences I can use no matter where my career takes me.”

Note to the reader: For students entering the 2018-2019 academic year, the introductory Innovation by Design course will be offered as a 3-unit course. Enrolment is now open!