*I wrote this post in January, 2020 for the Serendipity Society to accompany the below poster presented at the Serendipity Society 2019 Conference in London, UK*
My name is Geoff Evamy Hill and I am a current Master of Design student at the Strategic Foresight and Innovation Program at OCAD University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My formal interest in serendipity emerged through a major project I had embarked on in 2014, called Canoe Joint-Canadian Undergraduate Programs. Canoe was an effort to create a system of joint-undergraduate programs across Canada that will create opportunities for more youth to have a panCanadian education and to connect the country in new ways. In this blog post, I will discuss my background as well as the rationale for “designing systems to harness serendipity” with regards to the Canoe project.
First of all, my current educational program at OCAD is the Strategic Foresight and Innovation masters. This unique program combines futures, strategic planning and design thinking to develop complex problem solvers. Entering this program in fall 2019 was a culmination of many years of thinking and formal training for me, and is an accelerator to professionalize my skills. Serendipity is reflected in many aspects of the program: from designing innovation systems that connect the right people and ideas at the right time, to anticipating the future by futures research – finding signals of change through accidental information discovery.
The Canoe project is ultimately the portfolio piece which helped me to gain entry to such a remarkable program (the only one of its type in Canada). Canoe came to me as an idea firstly because of my own difficulties in transferring between universities in Canada, as well as the acknowledgment of the immense luck I had to be able to be to study in a different part of the country for my undergrad (University of Waterloo). This is an experience only 10% of Canadian Students are lucky enough to experience, whereas around 30% of US students leave their home state. These facts, in combination with a realization that a lot of the tension between regions and cultures in Canadian society (east vs west, French vs English, and Indigenous vs non-Indigenous) is, in my belief, a result of misunderstandings of each other by not being exposed to each other.
Thus came the Canoe project. Initially, the vision was to start a prototypically ideal undergraduate program wherein students would spend each year of their studies at a different Canadian university across different regions. Their summers might be spent working or volunteering in northern communities or other such places. However, it was through my serendipitous discovery of the Erasmus Mundus Joint-Masters Programs, and the larger Erasmus program of the European Union, that myself and a team of a total of 50 volunteers were able to model an entire system. The Canoe system would generate and support a large variety of programs as well as scholarships and bursaries for its students.
While I didn’t then know the language and concepts formally that the Serendipity Society has now introduced me too, Canoe was designed from the start to be a generator of serendipity. The rationale is that Canoe programs would be mixing chambers for diverse young Canadians of all backgrounds. The mechanism was the mobility aspect, alongside a cohort model. Firstly, students from across the country and even around the world would be admitted in these exceptional cohorts. This creates a sort of requisite variety for serendipity. Secondly, the cohorts would travel across the country over the course of the program and be exposed to the people of different institutions and locales.
For example, imagine a transdisciplinary entrepreneurship and innovation program that takes place between Calgary, Alberta; Montreal, Quebec; and Victoria British Columbia. Three separate cohorts would start each in one city, and they would cascade over their four years across the other cities in the consortium, with their final capstone year at their starting point (see diagram below). I haven’t done the mathematical modelling to show the possible collision points of this set up, but you might be able to imagine. Students essentially would have a “safe” home cohort, but would be exposed to the different ideas of students, professors and general people across cohorts above and below them, the universities they attend, and the larger communities they are part of.
Different affordances were designed into maximize meaningful exposure. For instance, automatic enrollment in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award program would create an incentive and gamification to engage in activities outside of the Academy. Orientation programs at iconic Canadian locations across wildly different program types would increase exposure to new ideas and partners that are diverse, but with enough commonality to potentially lead to serendipitous outcomes.
Reflecting as a whole on Canoe with regard to serendipity: I truly believe that fulfills my personal motto of “designing systems to harness serendipity”. I am interested in creating the conditions for meaningful connections – between people and ideas. An empathetically designed mobility program that supports a variety of diverse backgrounds, I truly believe, can produce the unimaginable. Canoe is a vision that came about for Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation (2017), in order to build a future of brighter leadership across all aspects of Canadian society in anticipation of Canada 200 in 2067.
While we have not succeeded in launching Canoe as of yet, I believe it is inevitable that such a system will eventually arise in this country. My dream is to have tens of thousands of Canoe alumni by Canada 200. We cannot anticipate their impacts – they will be serendipitous. But we know that by connecting the edges of the networks of the Canadian fabric, we may work towards “a smart and caring nation”.
Please feel free to connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn (Geoff Evamy Hill)