Podcast: Collaborative Decision Making for Government and Communities

Swerhun inc quayside waterfront toronto

February 10, 2020

Listen to Nicole discuss how she and her team have spent years designing and delivering consultation and engagement processes for decision-makers to make large, complex multi-stakeholder projects constructive and manageable.

On this episode I’m speaking with Nicole Swerhun, Principal at Swerhun Inc. Nicole specializes in public engagement for public projects by way of running processes that connect public feedback to the decisions made.

Swerhun carnegie library pittsburgh

She created her own firm 15 years ago and has delivered hundreds of projects, all focused on finding common ground among many voices to support decisions related to things that we share - things that are public.

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Swerhun public engagement

She creates engagement processes that influence decisions on public policy, public assets, and public programs. She’s known for this work in the Toronto area, across Ontario and Canada, in several cities in the US, and in Guyana and Bosnia. She has also applied these same skills for the United Nations.

Nicole teaches in the City Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough, has an undergrad degree in Ecology and Evolution, as well as an MBA.

Images: Quayside, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

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Podcast Transcript

Chris Arnold:
A few quick notes before today's episode. If you enjoy the podcast, please rate it on iTunes or other platforms where you listen. This is a huge part of helping us grow and it's much appreciated. This podcast is produced by Authentic Form & Function. We're a design and technology studio working in the real estate space. We help developers and architects innovative work with unique brands, websites, and digital tools. Last year, we launched Amplify, a digital real estate marketing platform that combines high touch custom design with out of the box real estate marketing technology. Find out more@authenticff.com/amplify. Finally, we want to hear from you email your feedback and ideas, as well as who else you should speak with, to podcast@authenticff.com.

Nicole Swerhun:
What we've tried to do is make sure that the future discussion are focusing on not only how the proposals bear, but also what Waterfront Toronto can do to make sure that the terms it negotiates should the project go forward are really strong so that the public can see that their interests are being represented.

Chris Arnold:
On this episode. I'm speaking with Nicole Swerhun, principal at Swerhun Inc. Nicole specializes in public engagement for public projects by way of running processes that connect public feedback to the decisions made. She created her own firm 15 years ago, and has since delivered hundreds of projects, all focused on finding common ground among many voices to support decisions related to things that we share, things that are public. She creates engagement processes that influence decisions on public policy, public assets, and public programs.

Chris Arnold:
She's known for this work in the Toronto area, across Ontario and Canada, in several cities in the US, and in Guyana and Bosnia. She's also applied these same skills for the United Nations. Nicole teaches in the City Studies at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, has an undergraduate degree in ecology and evolution, as well as an MBA. I'm your host, Chris Arnold. Let's jump right in.

Chris Arnold:
Nicole, thanks for joining me.

Nicole Swerhun:
Happy to be here.

Chris Arnold:
You grew up as a Scarborough baby in Ontario, but I want to be sure that we paint the right picture here. There's actually a fascinating story that ties back to your parents' journeys. Why don't you tell us about that?

Nicole Swerhun:
Sure. My parents, neither of their first languages are English. My mom's an immigrant from East Germany and my dad was born here. His first language is Ukrainian because his parents, his dad immigrated from the Ukraine and his mother was also from the Ukraine. I take a lot of my approach to life and the way I think about things from some of the things they sort of instilled in me when I was young.

Chris Arnold:
What do you feel like you kind of came out of that upbringing like? Did you have any kind of unique worldview or a sense of place or people having grown up with parents that have such diverse backgrounds?

Nicole Swerhun:
I think so, and also, the street I was on helped a lot, too. At that time, Scarborough was just sort of growing and we were on a suburban street with many other immigrants. Across the street was a Russian family. Next door, there's an Armenian family. And up and down the street, you could go country by country and sort of run into other people that were on a path to starting a new life. The ethos around there was sort of be honest, work hard.

Nicole Swerhun:
Because my mom was born into the second world war in Germany, in our house in particular, hate was a very bad word. It was worse than a swear word. To this day, we can strongly dislike people, but not hate people. I think overall, I learned that you don't really try to impose anything on somebody else's way of life. We appreciated the things we share. The things that are public were always very prominent in our lives, like schools, and doctors, and libraries, and parks, and we spent a lot of time by the lake and using transit. Things that we knew we were contributing to. We were also sort of trained, myself and I have a sister. We were trained to be useful.

Chris Arnold:
I love that. Yeah. It resonates with some of our first conversations because I remember speaking about the way that you spoke about your life experiences, experience on the street, just life experience in general, and kind of what you learned through your parents. It's almost as if you had these various lenses that you developed from a very young age because of those experiences. Do you actually think about those lenses in any kind of different lanes, even from a young age?

Nicole Swerhun:
I think yes. I think valuing everybody, all humans, was absolutely a given. That's for sure. Our school was sandwiched and our community was sort of a real mix of middle class middle income families, but we also had a lot of subsidized housing communities around us, and my friends came from everywhere. And so, valuing and understanding that everybody contributes, everybody has a role here, was huge. Where people lived or how much money they had was irrelevant when it came to friendships, so we were mixed all the time. I think, as I said before, honesty, transparency, were big.

Nicole Swerhun:
My dad didn't have any sons, so the other thing was about learning to be independent and taking the initiative to be able to solve problems in your own life. We didn't spend a lot of time ruminating on things that were lousy. We spent a lot of time figuring out what to do about it. I would call my upbringing relentlessly constructive, and so it's always a bit of a shock to me to take a pause and think about things being super shitty, even though I know that's an important part of the human experience, because a lot the contexts in which I was raised and the lens that was brought to it was let's figure out how we can do something constructive from this situation. Let's figure out how we can fix it rather than dwelling on something that's a lousy,

Chris Arnold:
Would you say that's why you became what you would consider a science kid out of those experiences and up through, I think you even mentioned high school and in college, you kind of ended up using that science and that rigor and that structure from your parents as you moved through your early education years.

Nicole Swerhun:
Yeah. Our focus for sure on how to understand the world around us started with the natural world and sort of physical problem solving. I was always interested in how to build things, how to fix things, and how to understand things that were happening. Our books were all sort of National Geographic, and Chickadee, and Owl, all those we were raised on understanding the world around us, primarily through a physical lens. Also of course, we were reading all the time, but science was really a big focus.

Chris Arnold:
Where did you end up going to university and what did you study there?

Nicole Swerhun:
I went to the University of Western Ontario and studied population biology.

Chris Arnold:
Why did you get into that? What drew you to that field of study as you got going in school?

Nicole Swerhun:
Well, it was a little bit of an accident because I was playing a lot of sports and I was in the science stream. I ended up spending a lot more time playing field hockey than I did studying. In the end, the biology route was chosen for me. Then from there, it turned out to be sort of the best unplanned thing I wanted that could have happened, because in the end, really studying how the natural world works, how it evolves over time, how interdependent different ecosystems are on each other, thinking about the impact that human activity has on the world. All of those things ended up opening a door to a world that has really shaped how I've gone from there. I think it was a nice accident that I ended up there, but it's turned out to be incredibly useful for me in my life and interesting for me in my life.

Chris Arnold:
Then from there, if I understand correctly, you actually went back to school and received a master's in business. Is that right?

Nicole Swerhun:
Yeah, because when I finished my undergraduate degree, I helped start a nonprofit with a couple of women. That was called the London Environmental and Economic Development Initiative. We had been part of an application to the province with other nonprofits that was seeking funding as part of a province-wide program to support green communities. My little science degree and a couple of women with business degrees, we made an application as part of a group of others in the community. We were super successful and happy. We received the funding and then found out actually that our part of the proposal, we would not be funded to do it, that the government would pay people to be employed by the province to do that job. We had sort of submitted a proposal to do a task and they were going to then do the task instead of us, and that was a big wake up call for us.

Chris Arnold:
Yeah, I was going to say. Is that big wake up call, turning point in your early career, how did you and your colleagues take that?

Nicole Swerhun:
It was really tough. We thought we had a great thing that we were going to start to build. We thought we had received funding support. When it turned out that actually we were not receiving that support but that the province was going to create a duplicate service, the executive director of our organization moved to British Columbia, the second in charge applied for that same job, left our organization to do the same job for the local green community office, which left me as the only employee. That wasn't going to be sustainable, and so it motivated me to, because I was less familiar with the administration and bureaucracy, I was just coming out of university. I hadn't really been in this world of negotiating place for a nonprofit or negotiating with the government.

Nicole Swerhun:
My logic was I would go do a master's in business, which I thought we'd better prepare me to have conversations where I would be able to better understand the forces at work on me and be better able to negotiate them and have more power in those discussions. That's what I did and it turned out to be extremely, extremely helpful.

Chris Arnold:
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I'm curious then, after you received your MBA, where did you work post MBA and was it different? Do you feel like you were honing skills that you felt like do you wish you had and that previous experience? What was that first professional push like for you?

Nicole Swerhun:
It was incredible. I had a friend that I met when we were doing our business degrees who said, "Look, Nicole, you think about things so comprehensively. You sound a bit like a tree hugger to me," which is absolutely not how I identify. But because we would in business school be told to come up with a plan about how to take Kentucky Fried Chicken to China or something, and I would respond as part of the exam on, shouldn't we reflect on whether to take Kentucky Fried Chicken to China or any kind of project or business we were thinking about. I was always thinking about it more holistically.

Nicole Swerhun:
Because of that, I had a friend who said, "You know." He had summered with a firm called Lura Consulting and that I might be really interested in learning more about them. We did a project on the company when we were in school. It turned out that Lura and the woman that founded Lura, Sally Leppard, was really a pioneer in doing public engagement and public consultation processes in Southern Ontario in the province. When I saw this mix of taking a business training but applying it through a public policy lens and how do we engage communities in decision making, I discovered a whole nother sector that I didn't previously know existed. That was super fascinating and has kind of held me ever since.

Chris Arnold:
What types of projects were you working on? I think you told me you were there seven or eight years. What sticks out to you as a skill sets that you were owning or projects they were working on that really sort of solidified the direction that you would take in the next stage of your career?

Nicole Swerhun:
One of my first projects, we have an elevated highway in Toronto called the Gardener Expressway. One section of it, the furthest east section, the Toronto City Council had a choice to make about whether to repair it or demolish it. It turned out that the repair route would cost several million dollars more than demolishing it. And so, one of my first jobs was to work and consults on behalf of the city with the communities around this elevated highway about whether to demolish, and then if so, how to demolish. This was definitely a career-shaping project. We were talking movie studios were right next door. There were streets with families that had disabled children on truck detour routes. There were retired engineers who knew more about the width of the lanes of traffic than some of the people on the project team. I really saw a community have a pretty dramatic influence on how that project unfolded.

Nicole Swerhun:
Ultimately, the highway did come down. The public art idea came from the community. The number of lanes on the ramps came from the community. The truck detour routes, as I said, came from the community. It was really a nice place to start. From there, I spent a lot of time working on waterfront projects and thinking through and helping facilitate consultations on the future of the waterfront. One of those was really turned for the first time in Toronto's history and found some common ground on introducing residential uses in the Portlands. We have 880 acres on the water that forever had been industrial uses. We ran a community consultation that took the city's plans for the Portlands and dramatically changed them. The city was supportive of those changes. I guess those are two that immediately jump to mind, but there are plenty more.

Chris Arnold:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, clearly you cut your teeth there, right? That was a very important time in your career. That takes us into the early 2000s when you've actually decided to change direction and you were considering more schooling, you were trying to figure out what was next. But actually, something happened around this time, which I thought was really cool, a great story, and that is that your phone started ringing, right? You were thinking about what's next, considering schooling, and then something was already starting to come together sort of organically. What was that about?

Nicole Swerhun:
When I left Lura Consulting, or we decided to part ways, and we have a great relationship. They're still one of firms that I recommend all the time and the people that work there are fantastic. I really did think I would be sort of digging a little more deeply into public policy administration or politics. As I was at home figuring out what I wanted to do next and people were still 411ing, that's what we call it here, when you sort of look up a phone number. They certainly weren't emailing me left, right, and center. They were calling my home line and saying, "Hey, I heard you left Lura, but could you just help me with this little thing?" I wasn't sure. I thought, well okay, it's just a little thing while I try and figure it out. Then there was the next little thing and a next little thing. The next thing I knew, I was basically doing my own same. It turned out that it worked out very well.

Chris Arnold:
That's great. And so, you were working out of your house like any new business owner would. Then how long did it take for you to transition out of the house into an office or a desk somewhere?

Nicole Swerhun:
About three years. Three or four, four years, I'd say. When I was at Lura, I had been working on a few projects with the Canadian Urban Institute, a nonprofit here. We had actually gone to Bosnia together. My good colleague from there, Jeff Evanson, and I, along with others, designed and delivered the first public consultation in Tuzla, Bosnia after the signing of the date and peace accord. This was a real life-changing experience. Because I had had such a good experience with the Canadian Urban Institute, I talked to Jeff and I talked about renting a desk there and we might create a little public engagement practice out of the Urban Institute. We did work together on a number of projects for two or three years, and we still do.

Nicole Swerhun:
But because my contribution, my service, is really as a third-party facilitator, I don't advocate for outcomes on things. I advocate and steward defensible processes, engagement processes, that attempt to give everybody a meaningful opportunity to influence outcomes. I mean, that's in an ideal world, it's never ideal, but that's my job. And because I don't advocate for an outcome, it's very difficult to be affiliated with any organization. It turned out that there were some projects that I could not do because I was working out of the Canadian Urban Institute, and so I decided too open my own little office. In 2011, I officially started my firm. I rented an office here at the Center for Social Innovation and I've been here ever since.

Chris Arnold:
Let's dive into that, because clearly that is the meat of what you do. It's what you've been doing for a long time now. I want to rip the bandaid off a little bit here and ask just a really big question, if you're up for it. And that is, what do you see as the biggest challenge with public consultation at large?

Nicole Swerhun:
I think there's a huge polarization of ideas, and opinions, and a lot of cynicism in the capacity of the other. Governments are cynical about public contribution and role in policymaking. Communities are cynical about governments interest and ability to listen to communities. I think it's a huge challenge, because in our democratic system, voting once every four years is not enough in terms of making you feel connected to and understanding the many things we share. We need to be able to have systems where masses of people can talk with good information about what kind of society they want to have, what kind of policies they want to have, what kind of programs they want to have. I think that while there are people doing great work, much too often, there are people who are fueling cynicism, and increasing a divide. I think the biggest challenge in consultation is bridging those divides.

Chris Arnold:
Hey, listeners. Just a quick reminder that today's episode is brought to you by our firm, Authentic Form & Function. I wanted to let you know about an internal research project we recently completed where we analyzed the digital strategy of over 75 commercial real estate projects across multiple asset and project classes. We distilled this research into an ebook called The Real Estate Website Blueprint, which you can download for free on our website authenticff.com/blueprint. In it, we provide several strategies and tactics you can use on your next project to better position in the market, increase project awareness, and accelerate leasing. To download the ebook, be sure to visit authenticff.com/blueprint

Chris Arnold:
you gave me a really great example when we first spoke, and that had to do with an example around a high and low quality opinion, which I think referenced someone's work. That was a really great reference for me as someone who it wasn't as intimate with the work that you do. Can you reiterate what that was again and explain to the listeners that example and how that goes into this challenge of public consultation?

Nicole Swerhun:
Yeah, sure. There's a guy that really, I've learned a lot from, although I've never met him. His name is Daniel Yankelovich. He's actually American. He coined this term called what he calls public judgment. But really, what he talks about is high and low quality public opinion. He says that somebody has high-quality opinion when they understand the consequences of that opinion and they still keep that opinion. What's important about that is, for example, often people weigh in with their opinions about things and they aren't aware of the consequences. The quality of the conversation then ends up being quite low. When people learn about those consequences, they may change their mind about something. Well, then you've got consultation process that's really special.

Nicole Swerhun:
The example that I always use is if there's a street where there are a number of beautiful trees, and everybody for whatever reason has a couple of cars or cars, and there's not any parking, and everybody's been complaining for years about needing more street parking. You do a survey and you call them all and you say, "Well, would you like more street parking?" It turns out 99 out of 100 said yes. Then if you call them all back and you say, "Would you like more street parking but it means that I'm going to have to cut down all the trees and in your front boulevard?" Then many people will change their mind and say, "Oh, well I didn't know that. Well, then I don't want it anymore."

Nicole Swerhun:
A lot of public consultation is getting governments and communities to understand the consequences of what each other is thinking on the other. And when they learn those consequences, which most people, I mean, you think about consequences through your own worldview. When you learn about how it impacts somebody else, you often change your mind. That relates directly to, I'm just going to go on here for a second, because there's sort of two assumptions on which public consultation is based.

Nicole Swerhun:
One is that people have the capacity to understand the condition of their own lives. You don't have to tell them. The other is that people have the capacity to work together to improve those conditions. What we have to do with public consultation, and another way to frame it as a big challenge, is to create ways that people get the information they need, understand the consequences of different courses of action, and then collectively negotiate what they're willing to live with so that we keep some type of social peace. That's the intention of this anyway. We don't take guns and shoot each other because we disagree. We don't go to court every other day because we disagree. What are the systems that we can use on a day to day basis to discuss and negotiate how we can all live together? It doesn't mean that we have to love every solution, but it does mean we have to know how to live with it.

Nicole Swerhun:
And so just to go full circle, Daniel Yankelovich, his 1991 book is fantastic, because he talks about high and low quality opinion and a number of other sort of nice organizing principles that explain very clearly some of the things that we can do to strengthen our ability to all live together reasonably peacefully.

Chris Arnold:
Walk us through an example or two of how these challenges and viewpoints present themselves in the work that you're doing. Clearly, as you just referred to the tension between government and communities or government and the public, well, I would love to hear an example that is applicable for all of these themes that you're talking about. Can you think of a couple?

Nicole Swerhun:
The one I really liked to talk about is at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. They were facing a budget crunch a few years back. The decision at the time was they would solve this budget crunch by closing some of their branches. The entire rust belt has been hurting, and at that time there had been so many closures in Pittsburgh. The schools were closing, the malls were closing, businesses were closing, even churches and places of worship were closing. Communities were really upset that their one last public asset, this public library, was going to be closed. There were lots of protests. The library in their wisdom said, "Okay, maybe we won't close them immediately. We're going to have a conversation about what's going on here."

Nicole Swerhun:
The deputy director at the time, Mary Frances Cooper, gave me a call and said that she had heard we had done similar work on a crisis around keeping pools open in Toronto. She said, "I've heard that you might be able to help us out." What the library, and Mary Frances, and their board had the courage to do was have a conversation with the community, a public consultation, that revealed, with full transparency, the financial situation of the library, and different ways in which the library could bridge this gap, this funding gap, in terms of the money they needed in order to continue to provide their service.

Nicole Swerhun:
Through that consultation, it happened sort of three different conversations every other month. The community really came to understand that the library really was in a tight financial spot. Really, we were digging into, quite honestly, what the different ways were that the money could be allocated. In the end, the community recommended to the library that rather than closing those branches, that everybody across the system agreed it would be better to reduce the opening hours of the library across the board so that those four could stay open. Basically spread the resources a little less everywhere, but don't close anything.

Chris Arnold:
Okay, so they had to actually open up the books essentially and say, "Hey community, here's what we're facing. You need to understand this." It sounds like the community responded?

Nicole Swerhun:
Totally. It was so inspiring, because when you ask people, "Well, how would you bridge the gap?" Some people did say, "Well, maybe close branches." The big challenge with many consultations is that it appears that there's only one way to solve a problem. What we spend a lot of time doing is working to encourage governments and public agencies to be transparent about the different options and then have confidence in the capacity to evaluate those options, and the things that make sense will prevail. But many times, people are a little nervous about revealing an option that they don't like because they think somehow that will prevail. But as long as you have meaningful criteria to evaluate it and you're transparent about it, then I think you need to be confident that good reason will prevail. In my experience, it does in every case.

Nicole Swerhun:
Anyway, I want to end the Pittsburgh story because what happened then was because through the community consultation process, so many communities got organized around libraries, the next year, the library was included on a vote that was seeking additional funding and they won that ballot by about 70%, with 70% support, and it turned out that the entire system got stronger. It's a really nice good news story.

Chris Arnold:
That's an incredible story. I'm sitting here thinking, are there other stories that you can share? I don't want to just have you turn this into story hour, but that's really interesting to hear the principles come into play, understand that dialogue between governments and community. I just have to ask if there's anything else that you want to mention, another story that you could share and how this plays out.

Nicole Swerhun:
Yeah, I was thinking I would talk a little bit. We're in the middle of one that's been really interesting. We have a developing waterfront here in Toronto and a public agency responsible for it called Waterfront Toronto. They have a proposal from Sidewalk Labs, which is a sister company to Google and a sort of a subsidiary of Alphabet, so big powerful people who have given us a proposal, the Waterfront Toronto and in Toronto, a proposal on how to develop a part of the waterfront. Here, there have been some challenges that I think are very common in consultation processes and I think that Waterfront Toronto was working very hard to find solutions. Again, you can see the direct connection between what the public feedback was and what Waterfront Toronto is doing.

Nicole Swerhun:
The first thing was when the conversations about this proposal from Sidewalk Labs got started, there was a lot of confusion about the role of private actor versus a public actor. Waterfront Toronto did a bold move to try and address that confusion. Waterfront Toronto decided to run a public consultation process independently from Sidewalk Labs in order to demonstrate that they were really the leader in making decisions, there was a public actor that was the leader in making decisions. This was a very useful solution that has been broadly supported by the participants in the process, because they really wanted to know that somebody that was representing them whose mandate was to serve the public interest was in charge.

Nicole Swerhun:
The other thing is that there have been just really polarized perspectives on the project. In our first consultation, we heard some people who love the idea of Sidewalk doing work here. It's innovation and innovation is good always. Others who are almost the total opposite that are very concerned. They see difficult stories in the media about big tech on a regular basis and they are fearful of what partnering with a big actor does.

Nicole Swerhun:
But most of the people, were kind of in the middle, and sort of had a cautious, maybe not most, but many. It's not a quantitative exercise. But many, many people were a cautious maybe. They said, "Look, there's some good things here. There's some tough things. Let's say that if we're going to do it, it has to be on terms that work for us." They're looking for strong public leadership again, because maybe this is in part how Canadians think about their institutions, but they really see an important role for the public actor.

Nicole Swerhun:
And so, what we've tried to do is make sure that the future discussions are focusing on not only how the proposal's fair, but also what Waterfront Toronto can do to make sure that the terms that negotiates should the project go forward are really strong so that the public can see that their interests are being represented.

Nicole Swerhun:
The board chair, Stephen Diamond, has been super vocal about the responsibility of the organization to act in the public interest and he's really inspired confidence. Many of the concerns that the community raised in our first consultation last year were echoed directly by the Waterfront Toronto board, and the scope of the project has dramatically reduced in response to those concerns. And so, again, we can trace a direct line from what the public said to some of the decisions that are being made. We don't yet know how it's going to unfold. We still have some time on the project left. Soon, waterfront Toronto will share the results of their evaluation and we'll be seeking public feedback on it. But there have been a couple of really important moves that Waterfront Toronto has made in direct response to public concern. I think that that's been a real strength.

Chris Arnold:
Yeah, that's really interesting. I want to quickly backtrack, because you made a comment there about how some of the public is essentially supportive no matter what and others are against it no matter what. But then there are many others that are somewhere in between, the cautious maybes. Is that a theme that you've seen a lot of the work you do? Like, there's very vocal on either end, but then there's a majority or many that are in the middle? Or does it break down differently with each project?

Nicole Swerhun:
I would say it's a very common theme. This one is a bit more polarized than most. I think some of the confusion over who's in charge for the first couple of years before Waterfront Toronto took a leadership role, made it a little difficult. For this project, I think there's a few more but that are sort of polarized. But in general, I would say yes. It's a good question, and the answer is yes, it is a trend. Regardless of the work that we're doing, I think there are always some people who say no, and no matter, what I always say, "Is there any information at all that you would be interested in listening to or anything like that you could learn that would make you change your mind?" If they say no, then a public consultation process is not really going to be very fulfilling for them. It's important to have descent, but there is no condition under which they would change their mind. Then for people who are very supportive in the other direction, again, public consultation isn't that much for them, because they've already concluded.

Nicole Swerhun:
But for everybody who believes that there are multiple ways to look at things and who is open to dedicating some time to learning something and shaping something, I think the vast majority of people are usually somewhere in the middle. They're not usually the loudest, but they are very thoughtful and very capable of discerning all of the different forces at play and things that influence decisions. In my experience, it's that the middle group of people, the cautious maybe people, that often prevail.

Nicole Swerhun:
There are some issues that are more polarizing than others, but I would say yes. It's a trend that the absolutely for, absolutely against, and then it depends in the middle is usually the biggest group. That gives me confidence in the capacity of communities to be reasonable, to learn to sort of plan together.

Chris Arnold:
Nicole, as we begin to wrap up, I want to get your take on something, and that's the question of what is next. I'm curious what you're seeing in your work. What are you anticipating changing in upcoming years? I guess, my brain truthfully goes to this idea of pessimistic versus optimistic since we see so much negativity as headlines in our news today. But what do you feel like is coming? What are you seeing?

Nicole Swerhun:
I see more discontent with systems that don't serve people and a lack of connection between systems and the people they serve. There's definitely a growing discontent that I see. There's an impatience that's growing in some of the inequities. I think that technology has been and will continue to be very interestingly helpful, that people are experiencing something in one part of the city are connected on social media and are able to find out, "Oh, that's happening in some other part of the city." Or even just things like using the internet to do research on what other people are experiencing and other groups are doing. I think that there is definitely a growing discontent. I think that there are more tools in place for people to organize. And I think that governments and other proponents of big projects that influence the public are becoming more aware that this is not something you can just look off and sort of optically and to do something about.

Nicole Swerhun:
You really need to dig in and appreciate that working with people does not introduce uncertainty, it actually introduces more certainty, because you now are part of a process that will find a solution, rather than sort of ignoring the process and crossing your fingers and hoping that you'll be able to bully your way through. I still see that happening, but I think the tides are turning. I'm optimistic. I'm optimistic.

Nicole Swerhun:
I don't think our systems are necessarily malevolent. I think they're more ignorant. I don't know how else to put it. It's not that people who work in governments or people that work in big institutions are out there to deliberately hurt people. I don't meet people like that. I meet people who are stuck in systems that create patterns, and behaviors, and decisions that systemically create solutions that don't serve people well. People are beginning to get fed up and I think things are changing.

Chris Arnold:
Nicole, final question here is one of my favorite questions I get to ask the guests, and that is who else should we be paying to that you feel like is really doing groundbreaking or inspiring work out there?

Nicole Swerhun:
I think I'll just give a nod immediately to the place where I started. Lura Consulting, Sally Leppard isn't leading it anymore, but Liz McHardy's there, and Dave Dilks is still there. These are folks that I believe that really do good work. I think there's some people in the local municipality here that I work with quite a bit that are also very inspiring. Daniel Fusco works at the city of Toronto. He's in parks, forestry, and recreation, trying to bring a whole new level of rigor and transparency to how decisions are made there. I think I'd want to also mention a few of the community organizations that I have worked with that are extremely thoughtful, very constructive, and determined to hold institutions accountable. I think they do it in a great way.

Nicole Swerhun:
The Region Park Neighborhood Association to here is really interesting. The Scarborough Transit Action is thoughtful and has tons of connections. We've got a Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations that is very active and thoughtful about all things Toronto, not only in North Toronto. Downtown, right on the waterfront, I do a lot of work with Cindy Wilkie in the West Don lands Committee, and John Wilson and Suzanne Kavanagh. They've been very active there. Then on the indigenous front, we have an organization called the Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council that acts as an umbrella that brings a number of indigenous serving organizations together that I've had really a great experience with. We're really lucky in Toronto that we have a great infrastructure. It could always be 100 times better, but we do have a good starting place as an infrastructure of organizations in communities and serving communities that really pay attention to public process. It just takes one or two people to give a care and it really makes a good difference.

Chris Arnold:
Nicole, thank you so much for joining me today. We've made it to the end, and there's only one more thing to do, and that is to roll out the red carpet for you. Tell the listeners what you're up to and where they can find you online.

Nicole Swerhun:
We are at www.swerhun.com. We will be changing our name this year. A little preview, you'll know us as Third Party Public. A couple of people will be joining as partners this year. We're really excited to roll out that new identity. But if you use the old website, you'll get forwarded to the new one as soon as it's live. We are very happy to talk anytime. We also have sort of a running list of people who help us and we call them the consultation crew, so people who have full-time jobs but enjoy doing this kind of work or students who want to give it a try. When we do projects, we often reach out to that group and get them to help us out. If anybody's interested who's listening who would want to be doing, you can send us an email. It's just nicole@swerhun.com. I will definitely be back at you.

Chris Arnold:
Fantastic. We will link your website as well as the other groups that you mentioned on the podcast in the show notes as well. Nicole, once again, thank you so much for joining me today.

Nicole Swerhun:
Thanks a lot for giving me a reason to have the conversation.

Chris Arnold:
Transforming Cities is brought to you by Authentic Form & Function, the digital design and development team that just might be a perfect fit for your next urban project. If you're a new listener, you can follow along at authenticff.com/transformingcities, or you can simply subscribe through your favorite apps, including iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. Thanks for joining us.

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