Riverside Community Hub Tackles Intractable Problems with Design Thinking — A Q&A with Leslie Josling

Editor’s note: In this Q&A, Rishia Burke of Community Living Brant has a conversation with Leslie Josling, executive director of Willowbridge Community Services. They discuss how doing things differently can help us to conquer the intractable issues our nation faces with innovation, design thinking, and community collaboration.

*This transcript has been edited for readability.


Who are you and what is your role in the community?

I’m Leslie Josling and I’m the executive director of Willowbridge Community Services. I am also leading a collaborative of agencies to build a community hub called Riverside Community Hub.

What is different about this process from your regular work through Willowbridge?

I’m incredibly committed to design thinking and innovation. A number of years ago I did a graduate degree in social innovation. I spent a lot of time thinking about how we should design programs and services.

We often think about design thinking and how it applies to things like technology, phones, cars or appliances. We understand that our phones work for us, they meet our needs, they have been designed to be responsive and are appealing to us.

I’ve become a firm believer that in social and health services we need to use the same principles of design. We need to design our services to meet peoples’ deep unmet needs. To do that we need a process where we engage in a meaningful deep dive into peoples’ experiences. We need to fully understand what people think, what they feel, and what their unmet needs are.

Design is about understanding peoples’ experiences, and speaking to them. Creating, programs and services or, in the case of the hub, a space, that will meet an unmet need in a new way.

Our job in designing the Riverside Hub space is to ensure we have a finger on the pulse of peoples’ experience so that we create something that’s meaningful, useful, relevant, and helps people lead a better life. That’s what motivated me to start this journey toward a hub.

It’s a rich parallel process, we’re not just designing and building a space, we’re creating community that will find a home in the space.

How do you think the process could change or impact the community?

Design thinking is about relationship and connection. I’m a firm believer in the power of relationships. I believe they are corrective. They can heal peoples’ hurts and make life good. Co-design requires us to engage with people with curiousity, openness, responsiveness, and empathy. When we do this we build relationships and community. It’s a rich parallel process, we’re not just designing and building a space, we’re creating community that will find a home in the space.

How might this space help meet these complex needs in community?

As a multi-service hub, with so many agencies under one roof, we have the opportunity to tackle complex issues differently. We are in a national mental health, housing, and opioid crisis. We’re up against massively intractable problems locally, the nature of which we have never encountered before. There are complex, intractable, and interdependent problems that are going to be incredibly difficult to solve. The only way we have a hope of solving them is if we gang up on them together.

Innovation is about cracking those intractable nuts. Those things that just don’t budge, they’re hard to affect change in. There is no magic bullet solution to those challenges. But if we genuinely create true collaboration and foster community in the Riverside Hub space, I believe there will be opportunities, through relationship, to develop those “aha” solutions that can make a difference.

You have to act assuming that this outrageously beautiful thing is possible. It will happen if we have the audacity to say, “this will happen.”

What are you hearing or seeing that’s inspiring you along the way?

The opportunity to create change for marginalized communities inspires me. I’ve spoken with the Pride community for example. I get excited when I realize that we have an opportunity to show them they really matter to us. Building the Riverside Hub is a chance to celebrate the 2SLBTQ+ community and make sure they have a space where they are truly welcome. That keeps me going.

There was also a moment where someone from the Indigenous community said that working on the hub makes them hopeful that things can be different for their community. I spoke with our participants with developmental disabilities about the hub and I heard their incredible enthusiasm for how this space might welcome them and what it could look like. Those have been the most inspirational highlights for me.

It’s also inspiring to see a project of this size move along as much as it has. We just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and we are getting there. It’s inspiring and fun to tackle something so meaningful and see the progress as it happens.

What could we do to make this as wildly successful as possible?

Seeing lots of people invested in making this a reality, financially and with their talents and time. This is a big project. It’s going to need a lot of people to see it through to success.

We have to believe that outrageously good things can happen. There is a certain leap of faith that’s required. You have to act assuming that this outrageously beautiful thing is possible. It will happen if we have the audacity to say, “this will happen.”


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