Designing “sticky” cities: business students partner with communities

Danica Straith stands in front of a natural background with greenery and a path. She's wearing a brown sweater and a black leather jacket.

A collaboration between Royal Roads University and two municipal governments aims to enhance the education of business students while benefitting communities in its region.

CityStudio Global announced earlier this month that the newest member of its international network would be CityStudio South Island, led by RRU and partnering with the cities of Colwood and Langford, BC.

“Together, students and staff will co-design experimental projects that contribute to key strategic goals and priorities in the city in an effort to advance sustainability, increase engagement and make the city more liveable,” according to the CityStudio news release.

“The CityStudio model is highly relational,” explains Danica Straith, RRU’s director of community learning partnerships, which includes the role of CityStudio South Island director. “We don’t want to take on any projects at CityStudio for our students that feel like our partners are giving something to us, we want them to feel like they’re getting value. And we want students to work on projects that they’re super keen on and passionate about.”

The students are part of the Bachelor of Business in Innovation and Sustainability program, and Straith says projects in the works include focusing on how to make Colwood a “sticky” community — one where people live, work and play, rather than a bedroom community where residents go elsewhere for employment and entertainment. As well, in the spring, students will work with Colwood on a storm surge program for low-lying shoreline areas.

For Langford, students explored how the city might build a vibrant arts and culture community for residents and visitors, using a design thinking process to generate ideas. Their work culminated in a number of rounds of prototyping and testing with residents before presenting refined ideas to the City this past spring.

“For them (the cities), it’s just that extra people power to help them on their strategic priorities. But also, that creative power is really interesting,” she says. “This is all stuff they would have to hire contractors to do, meanwhile, next door, Royal Roads students are talking about these topics every day.”

The partnership with the cities — as well as with businesses, non-profits and First Nations — is ideal for RRU, she notes, as the undergraduate business program is 100 per cent project-based, and many other programs in the school are heavily grounded in applied and experiential learning. It’s also ideal for the university’s partners because they get access to cohorts of students with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.

Robert Mittelman, interim dean of RRU’s Faculty of Management and associate professor of social entrepreneurship, says traditional business school education tends to focus case studies and materials on corporations while “CityStudio South Island connects the students with opportunities to work with the municipalities, with for-profit, non-profit, social enterprises, on these real challenges. And it gives students the chance to present their solutions not just to their instructors but to municipal leaders, business owners and executive directors.”

He likens it to students doing 12 to 15 internships that, with a focus on community engagement, expose them to alternative types of organizations where their education and skills could be valuable.

“It’s exciting for us to be the first business school to host a CityStudio. It’s a win for everyone involved — for our students, for the university, for our community, for the cities,” Mittelman says, adding, “I’m really excited about the partnerships that it’s creating locally and the skills and experiences that our graduates will leave with.”

Straith notes that students are always looking to expand their networks and their involvement with CityStudio South Island will help.

“They’re not showing a transcript to get a job,” she says, “they’re showing a project portfolio of what they worked on for the last year.”

More about CityStudio

According to the CityStudio website, the initiative — “an adaptable partnership model that allows municipalities and post-secondaries to work together on urban challenges” — started in Vancouver in 2011 with founding partners Simon Fraser University and the City of Vancouver. Since then, it has grown into a collaboration between the City of Vancouver, SFU, UBC, Langara College, BCIT and Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

CityStudio South Island is the 11th CityStudio to launch in Canada and fifth in British Columbia. There are CityStudio chapters in 15 cities, including Abbotsford, Chilliwack and North Vancouver, BC; Oslo, Norway; London, U.K.; and Bendigo, Australia.

Straith says RRU is the first to run its CityStudio program out of a business school and notes that CityStudio South Island involves all of the students in the BBA program.


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