A design ethnography tour of Malvern?

I was writing up a funding proposal to take ChangeCamp hyper-local in Toronto in 2010, when I realized I know very little about how people outside my hyper-connected core use social technology and web connected devices. I thought about Malvern, a …

I was writing up a funding proposal to take ChangeCamp hyper-local in Toronto in 2010, when I realized I know very little about how people outside my hyper-connected core use social technology and web connected devices. I thought about Malvern, a neighbourhood in northeast Scarborough. Malvern has a lot of young people, a high numbers of visible minorities and newcomers and lots of tall apartment towers separated by vast stretches of suburban sprawl and is also close to some beautiful green spaces.


Malvern feels pretty far away from the Twittering, iPhone waving, Macbook swaddled, Dark Horse sipping, social media hive I occupy at Queen and Spadina. I know almost nothing about life in Malvern, nor do most of my downtown peers. If I were trying to engage young people and newcomers in this neighbourhood, what would be the channels I would choose? What are their social technology habits? What devices do they have? How much time do they spend online? How do they talk? What are their public spaces?

The vision for the ChangeCampTO 2010 project I have proposed is to enable ChangeCamp style events in all 44 of Toronto’s wards with a particular focus on engaging residents in Toronto’s disconnected periphery, the inner suburbs and so-called “priority neighbourhoods” that are of such concern related to issues from community economic development, education, social inclusion, gun violence and systemic poverty. This project will not be successful by simply taking a downtown, white privileged, Twitterati dominated model and exporting it. It needs to be a model that people can make their own, adapt as they need to and that reflects local flavour.

So I am proposing a small group design ethnography tour one weekend day in December. Six design-thinker types armed with digital recording devices, their eyes, curiosity and a sense of adventure pile into a van. What happens next?

14 thoughts on “A design ethnography tour of Malvern?”

  1. Interesting idea, as someone who has spent a lot of time up there I would say that the two biggest geographic locations are the town center and the basketball courts across the street at the rec center – the topic of conversation in and between the two is Music! I would suspect Twitter and even Facebook would be of less interest than music on iPods ripped from CD’s. It would be worth going to Lester Pearson High – a very diverse school indeed and a hockey game on a Sunday at the Rec Center where teams from across TO use the rink. Keep me posted on your progress, I’d love to accompany you too if I am available!

  2. @a_milan and I mowed the grass and picked up garbage (contracted to the city) in Malvern and environs for a summer back in the late 1990’s while we were in school. I think I still remember most of the watercourses and median boulevards from memory!

  3. Sounds like a great project. I went to school for 12 years in this neighbourhood.Make sure to go to the Malvern Rec Centre – it hosts a ton of community events. Also check out Neilson Park. During the summer, there are huge community picnics almost every weekend, especially now that it’s surrounded by new subdivisions. Empringham Park is another good place to put on your list.

  4. Arriving as a team of ethnographers armed with ‘digital recording devices’ may actually increase the chasm, the ‘otherness.’ I’m sure this is entirely unintentional, but the way you suggest to go about it sounds a little, well… ‘colonial’ :)Instead, it strikes me that you might want to reach out and connect with existing community groups, churches, etc. I’m not suggesting that these are the vehicles to deliver anything (camp is camp and church is church), but they might help you gain an understanding of the lay of the land, as it were, and create some meaningful connections for you.I’m assuming you’ve seen and thought about ‘A Small Group,’ Peter Block’s community facilitation group in Cincinnati (http://www.asmallgroup.net). Even though it doesn’t appear to have any sort of social networking angle (and I was surprised at his dismissal of social networking technologies in general – notes on my blog at http://changebowl.net/2009/10/21/peter-block-about-community/), the core idea of offering a ‘community facilitation’ approach is spot-on.I wonder if one of the core differences between your/our downtown group of MacBook-wielding folks and Malvernites is the level of self-organization through technology. I suspect you might be entering not merely northeast Scarborough now, but also more traditional types of community activism. 44 wards sounds like a hard slog. Hopefully it’s a rewarding slog, though.

  5. I’d have to agree with Carsten: the intent is good but I think the approach may be a bit "off." Let’s consider this a classic ethnography. A good ethnographer wouldn’t just walk into a community — open community or not — with a group of other ethnographers with cameras and recording devices. A good ethnographer would work with a key informant or gatekeeper to get access to a group. This group would be the first access point, say, hanging out with a bunch of kids playing basketball, with the invitation and introduction of their coach or mentor.From there, a good *design* ethnographer would enrol these kids in the process. Say, make them the designers. Teach them ethnography. Teach them to see the design elements of their own community. "Arm" them with digital recording devices. Encourage them. Hang on their coat-tails. And enable them to change their own environment.I love the spirit of this Mark, but as a sociologist, I’d have to advise a slightly different approach.

  6. @sladner @carsten point taken on my "astronauts land on the moon" opening scene. It’s my tongue in cheek way of saying I don’t know what I’m doing. I do have the ability to get connections, however. I’ll make some inquiries with some youth groups around CSI and see what I find.

  7. I know the area very well (currently live 10 minutes away) and have many friends that I went to high school with from the area that I still keep in touch. To Sam’s point, if you need someone to "connect you" to people, I might be able to help.

  8. I agree with Sam’s recommended approach…gatekeeper is key if you want to get authentic data. Also, to Carsten’s point, you want to reduce the amount of "otherness." If you can get access to gatekeepers and other individuals who are willing, you can give them journals for a determined period of time in which they can record their thoughts/experiences in the city/area of focus. Or, even disposable cameras to shoot footage while they’re going about their day-to-day. This method allows them to express on their own terms and has the added benefit of capturing things that you wouldn’t otherwise.Sounds very interesting!

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments, ideas and for stepping up to help. It’s really appreciated. Sam and I are going to sit down soon so I can figure out the right way to do this and I can get something organized. I might not be until the new year, but we’ll do this.

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